Some years ago, when wine packaging first began to innovate past the confinements of glass bottles, experiments with box wines and canned wines were met with almost universal scorn. But these days they are very much in vogue. Environmental concerns are on the minds of consumers. Alt-packaging options have both improved and proliferated, and their practical advantages for taking wine on hikes, picnics, boating and camping trips are indisputable.
Take a stroll down your favorite supermarket’s wine aisle and you’ll see a variety of options in boxes, tetra paks and cans. Many are cheap and cheerful brands from big California and Washington wine companies. Among them the five-liter boxes of bulk wines are generally the lowest quality and the least interesting overall. The three-liter boxes (equal to four regular bottles) offer more choices and better quality, including true varietal wines (pinot noir rather than faux ‘burgundy’ for example).
Bota Box and Black Box are two reliable box brands, with a wide range of wines including chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, dry rosé, old vine zinfandel, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. You can find them discounted down to $18, which pencils out to less than $5 a bottle.
Boxes are disposable, unbreakable, easy to stack, store and carry, and they require no corkscrew to open. Once chilled, they hold their temperature longer than bottles, and offer extra protection from the damaging rays of the sun.
Many are stamped with a “packaged on” or “drink by” date, a useful guarantee of freshness. They have explicit instructions (on the bottom of the box) for opening, and there is nothing cheap or cheesy about the functionality of the airtight bag or the dripless spout. Because the bag collapses as it is emptied, the wine is never exposed to air. Freshness is guaranteed for a month or more. You can enjoy a small glass with dinner and it will be as fresh on day 30 as it was on day one.
Because they may be recycled, boxes are easy on the environment. The wineries also make a convincing claim that less fuel is consumed during shipping, because box wines are significantly lighter than comparable quantities of glass bottles.
If a three-liter box is too big for backpacking, consider the option of tossing the box and just packing the bag. Most are pretty sturdy, though there is a bit of a risk for leakage.
Another smaller option is wine in tetra paks. These are shaped like a juice carton and come with a resealable screwcap. Unlike the boxes they do not have a self-collapsing inner pouch; however, if you want just a glass of wine, you can (very carefully!) squeeze the air out of your tetra pak and it will keep the wine reasonably well for several days. A one-liter size gives you an extra third of a bottle, while the 500ml size holds two thirds of a regular bottle. When you’re done, toss the empty in the campfire and leave no footprint.
Cans are becoming quite popular, perhaps because soda and beer drinkers are already familiar with them. The early problems with metallic flavors seem to have been corrected. They are sturdy, unbreakable, hold a chill well and can be stomped on for packing out when empty.
Most cans come as 250ml (one third of a bottle) or 375ml servings (about the same size as a 12-ounce beer). Canned House Wine and Waterbrook are widely available local options; Underwood is a reliable Oregon brand. Along with the usual varietal wines, you can find sparkling wines, rosés, spritzers and sangrias in cans.
Watermill has raised the quality bar significantly with the introduction of a Walla Walla valley canned wine brand called Icone. The initial offerings include vineyard-designated syrah, cabernet sauvignon and viognier; a rosé is on the way also. Some Icone wines are aged in a percentage of new French oak barrels. As you might expect for premium Walla Walla wines the price is higher than more generic canned wines, but still competitive with bottle prices. A 4-pack of 250ml Icone cans (a full liter) lists at $30.
One final local option is the Cascadian Outfitters brand from Goose Ridge. These are sold in six packs ($30) and currently offer a red blend, a rosé and a chardonnay.
A final thought. There are re-usable eco-pouches on the market from companies such as Platypus and Astrapouch. They come in several sizes and may be filled with any wine or other beverage you choose.