Green Wine Boxes Make Europeans See Red

Winemakers, many consumers scoff at paper packaging, especially in Europe.

ByBenjamin Barnier and Malaika Bova

LONDON, Aug. 22, 2008— -- Imagine for a second that you are in Italy, let's say in the magnificent region of Tuscany.

There, you have your little villa, with wonderful pine trees around, ancient stones, the scorching sun, crickets buzzing in the garden. And on the table, slices of mozzarella, Roman plum tomatoes covered in olive oil and basil and, of course, some wonderful white wine ... served in a paper box.

Why would you want to drink quality-labeled Italian wine from a box? Ask the Italian ministry of agriculture.

The agriculture ministry has decided to allow the producers of the country's top-notch wines to sell their vino in cardboard boxes and in more refined versions of the wine box with a plastic pocket inside that protects the wine better.

The reasons are a mix of concerns about the environment and flattening sales abroad because of tough competition.

Italy's ministry of agriculture decided that allowing winemakers to sell their products in boxes could potentially open new market opportunities.

"We took act of the market's instances," read an agriculture ministry statement, "especially in northern Europe, where bags-in-box could be a useful way to promote Italian wines."

Besides, Roberto Bazzano, sales manager of a packaging company called Bag-in-box Italy, argues that modern packaging systems are as good as bottles at keeping the wine's original taste intact.

"The bag-in-box protects it from the oxidation and the damaging effects of light on the flavor," he told ABC News.

Making and transporting boxes rather than bottles is also environment-friendly.

The packaging allows wine companies to cut down their carbon footprint by 55 percent, according to the California-based Wine Group, which is known for its Franzia wine in a box.

It takes much less energy to produce and transport cardboard and plastic boxes, partly because they are much lighter than glass bottles.

If all the wines sold in the United States were packed in boxes, the country would cut its yearly carbon dioxide emissions by 1.5 million tons, or the equivalent of taking a quarter-million cars off the road, according to the Wine Group.

In the land of Chianti, Montelpuciano and Prosecco, however, no matter how green they are, wine boxes are a hard sell among winemakers.

"My wine in a bag-in-box?" said Augusto Zadra, owner of Zeremia winery. "Never."

Winemaker Gabriella Foradori told ABC News that "We fought to defend our quality label by focusing our production on quality wines only. If you fill in a Tetra Pak with good wine, the prestige of our products will sink."

In neighboring France, disdain for wine boxes is just as strong.

Christophe Anney's family has been making prestigious the St. Estephe red wine since 1760, so don't ask him to put the fruit of centuries of hard labor and tradition into a cardboard box.

"In the St. Estephe domain, we don't fool around with paper boxes," Anney told ABC News. "Our wine must age in the best possible conditions. Some of our wines must be kept in cellars for 15 years before consumption."

Anney concedes that wine boxes may have environmental benefits. But he doesn't believe that's enough to convince customers to buy wine in Tetra Paks, which allow liquids to be packaged and stored under room temperature conditions for up to a year.

"That would be like making cars out of cardboard," he said. "Of course, that would be more environment friendly, but who would want to buy such cars?"

Major French wine seller company Nicolas made an attempt to sell high-quality wine in boxes in France, but it soon gave up.

"That was a total flop," Michelle Asselineau, of Nicolas' marketing division, told ABC News. "We did not even try to sell it in England when we saw how catastrophic sales were in France.

"It does not go well with the French poetic conception of wine," she said. "We tried to put forward the environmental argument, but it did not work with the French."

But on the other side of the Atlantic, where wine consumption has increased by a third in the past 10 years, and where people may not be as fussy, wine boxes may fare better in the years to come.

It all boils down to finding the right package for the right wine, according to Gladys Horiuchi, who works with Wines of California, an export managing company.

"If you go to a dinner party," Horiuchi told ABC News, "would you bring boxed wine? Maybe not. But if you want to drink some wine with a burger, boxed wine works well."

In France, wine cardboard boxes have existed for decades but only for the low-end market.

In some parts of the country, wine boxes are commonly used for popular celebrations.

Even winemaker Anney concedes that for some wines, and for some wines only, boxes are an acceptable option.

"Packaging cheap Bordeaux or wines that must be consumed rapidly in boxes is not a problem," he said.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events