Thinking Inside the Box Winemakers Tackle Their Carbon Footprint

The winemakers of Casarsa della Delizia have the pedigree you’d expect from Italians who have been making the libation since Roman times. The modern growers’ cooperative that bears the town’s name started exporting its Chardonnays, Cabernets, Merlots and sparkling whites to the U.S. decades ago. But this year Casarsa has embarked on a new and controversial tradition: It is pouring some of its better wine into boxes instead of bottles.

Winemakers have long flirted with organic growing methods to woo the “green” market. In this latest development, far-flung producers are doing something about the industry’s biggest environmental liability: the amount of climate-changing fossil fuel involved in shipping bottles half a world away. Upscale vintners are increasingly embracing the box, Tetra Pak aseptic cartons, lighter-weight bottles, mini-barrels and other alternative packaging.

Wine box sales have been particularly robust recently. But it’s still a tiny market, made up of less than 1% of U.S. households that purchase wine, according to The Nielsen Company, a market research firm that tracks the industry. Nonetheless, there are signs that consumer preferences are changing. Sales of three-liter premium boxed wines grew at a rate of 32% in the last 13 weeks of 2008, Nielsen reported. The category, which technically consists of a bag inside a box, posted the gains amid last year’s dismal economic news even as sales of bottled table wine slowed. The company found the boxed wine most popular in households with an annual income of $70,000 or more.

“We believe there is room for strong growth because 38% of U.S. households buy wine but only 1% buy casks,” says Patricia Schneider, a spokeswoman for The Wine Group, using the expression “premium wine casks’ that marketers have adopted as part of their quest to attract a more upscale market for the boxes. The group distributes Casarsa and several other boxed-wine brands.

Casarsa wine box. © Vini La Delizia

The Wine Group, the world’s third-largest distributor, and its chief competitors—Constellation Brands and E. & J. Gallo Winery—have rolled out new packaging designed to woo the affluent eco-consumer and dissolve the image of boxed wine as poor quality and cheap. The Italian Agricultural Ministry bolstered that cause last year, when it authorized the use of alternative packaging for about 300 of the country’s better wines, produced under the country’s appellation system, Denominazione di Origine Controllata, or DOC. The Casarsa cooperative is one of the first in the country taking advantage of the new rules. Producers and distributors from every other major winemaking region of the world have embarked on carbon-cutting initiatives, as well.

“We have to change people’s traditions and show them it’s more convenient” to drink boxed wine, says Pietro Biscontin, director of Vini La Delizia”s, which makes the Casarsa brand. “The quality is the same.” But it is no easy task in Italy, where cherished wine-drinking traditions make it difficult to grow the market.

“Italians make a lot of poetry to the wine bottle,” Biscontin says with a shrug during an interview in his office at the Casarsa winery in Northern Italy’s Friuli Grave growing region.

At nearby Cantina San Martino, a small, high-quality winery owned by the Pittaro family, locals are more likely to show up to refill their own glass demijohns. While this old-school form of recycling is commonplace, purchasing a box of wine is still considered a sacrilege.

Yellow+Blue Tetra Pak cartons. © Yellow+Blue

“In the coming years,” says Nicola Pittaro, “it will still be linked to down-markets.”

Matthew Cain, who launched his Tetra Pak-cartoned label, Yellow+Blue, in January 2008, has set out to change similar attitudes in the U.S. Cain says his number-one priority is not selling customers on the environmental benefits but convincing skeptics that “what we offer is not a gimmick but real wine made by real winemakers.”

Cain has met the toughest resistance from wine retailers, but customers, particularly younger drinkers concerned about global warming and still forming their wine preferences, have led the way. Less than two years after his label debuted, the wines are available in stores in 40 states and may soon enter foreign markets. “It’s almost as if the consumers are more ready for it than the wine retailers,” Cain says.

He notes that when you buy an ordinary case of wine, nearly half of the weight comes from the bottles. For every case of his one-liter cartons, he says, 95% is wine and 5% is packaging. The cartons take up far less space in the landfill once the wine is gone. (According to the Tetra Pak website, recycling for theirs and other food cartons is currently available to only 20% of residents across 26 states).

Bota Box. © DFV Wines

Boxed wine is also less expensive to package and transport, which means producers can pass on big savings. Nielsen found that three-liter boxed wine—which holds the equivalent of four bottles—is about 40% cheaper than comparable bottled brands. And the bag inside the box keeps air out and the wine from spoiling for several weeks. The glass alternatives are also lighter, aren’t likely to break and don’t require a corkscrew.

California’s DFV Wines introduced Bota Box in 2003 as the perfect wine to take to the beach or camping—anywhere you wouldn’t want to lug a bottle. When sales started to level off in 2007, the company revamped the brand, moving to an unbleached cardboard box made from 100% post-consumer fiber. Sales exploded, growing from 212,000 cases in 2007 to 370,000 in 2008.

“We’re expecting sales to double again this year,” says John Garaventa, Bota Box brand manager. “We’ve heard back from consumers that they are really happy that we’ve gone to green packaging.”

Calculating all environmental savings, however, is not as straightforward. Distributors brandish scientific studies showing their boxed wines have a much lower carbon footprint than their bottled cousins. But it all depends on the details.

Traditional demijohns. © Christine MacDonald

Tyler Colman, who writes the popular Dr. Vino wine blog, teamed up with greenhouse-gas expert Pablo Pãster two years ago to publish a paper that calculated the carbon lifecycle of wine. When it came out, it caused consternation among winemakers worldwide. Among their findings, they reported that transportation is by far the largest part of wine’s carbon liability. They also came to the counterintuitive conclusion that if you live east of Columbus, Ohio, a bottle of imported French Bordeaux had a lower carbon footprint than one from California’s Napa Valley. The reason: Cargo ships burn much less fossil fuels than tractor-trailers driving cross country.

Colman has calculated Yellow+Blue’s footprint at about half that of bottled wine. The Wine Group, which distributes the Casarsa wines, claims that switching from the glass to the box comes with a 55% smaller footprint.

Pãster, a vice president at the consulting firm ClimateCHECK and author of the “Ask Pablo” column on Treehugger.com, agreed to do his own calculations on a Casarsa Merlot bought at a wine shop near Washington, D.C.

He found the Casarsa box was indeed lower in carbon, though it was not as dramatic a difference as the company maintains. After being sent bulk in a “flexi-ship” from Italy to California, where it was bagged and boxed, the wine was loaded onto a train headed to the East Coast.In all, Pãster found the Casarsa wine box chocked up about 1.2 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per liter, compared to 1.7 kilograms for a liter of bottled Italian wine shipped directly to the East Coast—a 29% savings.