Recommending and sourcing wine for friends’ weddings is part of being in the wine trade. The transaction is the same as working on the floor: a chat to ascertain stylistic preference and then a dance around the subject of price.
So I found myself sitting with an old friend’s father last week. The brief: find some traditional wines cheaply. We discussed a tasting and a Bordeaux to look at. The only problem: I had no bottles for the tasting – we’d be trying from a three-litre bag-in-box. Cue a look of horror that reminded me of a similar reaction I got early in my career when suggesting a number of Stelvin-sealed wines for a dinner hosted by one of the Tate’s corporate supporters.
With bag-in-box (BIB), we are at the beginning of the same journey that Stelvin went through. Except that BIB (the most common bottle substitute) has a greater image issue. Screw cap was just cheap; BIB is also associated with excessive drinking.
Yet there is a growing movement towards not just BIB, but other systems of dispensing wine that don’t involve bottles.
The arguments are strong. First the environmental one. On average a bottle weighs 500 grams, with many guilty parties (I am looking at you South America) regularly exceeding this.
We are in the process at Tate of changing our house white, red and rosé to an alternative means of dispense. Just removing these three wines with glass will do away with the need to ship and then recycle around 15 tons of glass annually.
There’s a compelling financial reason to do away with glass
That won’t effect a mass movement though; money will. As many have discovered, there is a compelling financial reason to do away with glass. Bottle, label and closure costs vary, but 50p is a good average (the cost of the goods, plus some margin). Deduct that from the cost price of a high-volume bin and you can dramatically increase margin, quality or both.
I recently met with wine merchants Roberson who have one of the largest ranges of dispensed wine. They run a kegging system, similar to that used for beer. It is ingenious, effective and by using nitrogen once a keg has been broached, allows to keep wine fresher, longer than an open BIB, thus taking the pressure off to sell 10 or 20 litres in a short timeframe.
More startlingly, they told of a recent blind tasting where kegged wine, filled at the same time as bottles, was preferred and felt fresher by the group.
The widespread use of bottles is, after all, still quite recent. For centuries most wine was decanted straight from barrel or tank into something from which it was designed to be drunk immediately.
The likes of Vinoteca have quietly been serving high-quality wines from tap for some time, as have a number of small groups. It is a movement that can only grow. And we will know that it has become truly mainstream when it passes the wedding test