When Wine Really Goes Outside the Box {presenting Octavin, the new eight-point star of wine packaging}

OK, when I first read the press release for the debut of the Octavin Home Wine Bar, I just had to laugh. Out loud. Since when, I asked myself, righteously and rhetorically, does a bag-in-box wine qualify as a wine bar? But my curiosity was sparked. As I have long been a fan of the 3L bladder-based wine delivery concept, and with my interest was additionally piqued by the promise of “artisanal” wine, I requested a sample.

Before dipping into what the wine tastes like (which I do understand is important), let’s step back for a look at the bigger picture here: this wine is about the package. It is a box, but not a box (the b-word never appears in any of the press materials, nor on packaging itself). Taller than most 3Ls, and figuratively sharp with its ocho-sided design, the Octavin stands above shorter, squarer examples of the genre. Other box wines look like boxes; Octavin does not. It’s statuesque. Sexy even.

But there is still more going on here. The “Home Wine Bar” is not just jargon. Notice I didn’t even say what kind of wine was inside the Octavin. That’s because there are ten different offerings in the line. Yes, ten. This is a whole international portfolio—launched by California-based Underdog Wine Merchants, a division of The Wine Group—a stylistic crescendo from clean and simple white to robust and structured red. The line contains crowdpleaser wines {Big House is in da house}, iconic wines {Pinot Grigio, NZ SB, Old Vine Zin}, even edgy wines {Hungarian Pinot Noir(!), Osborne’s seven-grape red “Seven”}. Toss in a couple Cali staples (Merlot, Chard, Cabernet) and you basically have a wine bar waiting to happen. {Just add duct tape?}

Yes, yes, I am still planning to get to the wine proper, but not before taking one more sidestep here to re-establish where bag-in-box technology fits, vis à vis bottles. In short, this bulk vessel has three significant advantages:

  1. < $ {less dough} 3L b-in-b’s deliver four bottles worth of wine for way less than it would cost in 750mls (Octavins retail from $20 and $24)
  2. + eco-friendly {more green} Bulk packaging and lighter materials mean a lower carbon footprint
  3. !!! {freshness!} The interior bag gradually collapses without letting air in, thus preventing spoilage; wine stays fresh for six weeks after opening.

The biggest strike against bag-in-box wines has been image. Like screwtops before them, these Large Marges of the wine world are a turnoff for drinkers who like the comfort (for some the cachet) of classic 750ml cork-finished bottles. Until now. Octavin transcends the box category. This convergence of form and function takes a product people already like—wine—and delivers it with greater cost savings, enhanced convenience and extended use. It’s good taste meets common sense… a proverbial potable “better mousetrap.”

The Test Drive

I took the Monthaven 2008 Central Coast Chardonnay (one of the ten Octavin wines) to the “Trendiest Wines” class I taught at Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) on April 17th. After we had finished tasting through Prosecco, Torrontes, Finger Lakes Riesling, Gruner Veltliner and Provence rosé, I pulled out the Octavin, explained it was a Chardonnay, and invited anyone to try the wine during our mid-class break. As expected, the people who already liked California Chardonnay were very pleased. The Monthaven is solid, well-made, balanced—metaphorically, it’s a line-drive single up the middle: medium-bodied (13.5% alcohol), plenty fruity (apple, peach), just tangy enough to be juicy, and modestly oaked. In short, this is true Chardonnay—easily on par with bottles priced in the teens. People found the package itself pretty attractive as well; the price, even more so.

The ICE experience reminded me that most consumers have simply not paid much mind at all to the bag-in-box category. Despite booming (up 24% in 2009, according to Nielsen, vs. 2% for all table wine), box wines have been low-profile in terms of shelf visibility. This is perfectly understandable given how much other, flashier things are happening in the fast-evolving wine scene. And it amounts to a bit of an advantage for the 3L bulk-convenience category.

Which brings me to perhaps the most critical factor that promises to separate Octavin from its bulk-ish peers. Brand power. No, not the brand “Octavin” (which still sounds enough like a cartoon character to make the corners of my mouth curl upward). The line is anchored by none other than Big House Red and Big House White, a venerable Impact “Hot Brand” that started life in the 1990s as the brainchild of Randall Grahm (a pioneering anti-cork guy) and has been expanded dramatically (from 30,000 cases in 2006 to 150,000 now) by The Wine Group. This wine has sold (and still sells) iabout n bottle like hotcakes at the $10-$12 price point. Why has it been a winner? Simply put: the wine is tasty juice with a neat image and a good price. The Red is a full-flavored but smooth-textured fruity beauty, with a spicy Mediterranean spirit and fruity New World heart. Big House White is a crowd-pleasing, aromatic no-brainer of a blanc.

And now Big House comes in a hot new package that makes it both cheaper and longer-lasting? Wow, might as well stick a “HUG ME” sign on it. With $22 Big House as the lead dog, priced, I see the whole Octavin line becoming a huge hit.

Behind the Brand

I had the good fortune to meet Georgetta Dane, the winemaker of the Big House wines, in New York on a trade/press visit. After a short commiseration over the discontinuation of Big House Pink, here are some things I learned about Octavin and Big House….

While there is a group identity in the packaging, the wines represent distinct projects, each carefully planned from vineyard on up (as opposed to purchased bulk wine), and each designed to be representative of a focused wine type. Silver Birch Sauvignon Blanc is from Marlborough, aka HQ for NZ SB; it is remarkably un-aggressive by NZ grapefruit-squeezed standards (which I find very refreshing). The Monthaven Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay represent straightforward Central Coast quality. The Boho Vineyards Old Vine Zin hails appropriately from Lodi, delivering intense, brambly flavor (with merciful 13.7% alcohol). Seven, by Bodegas Osborne, was spawned in a high-tech vineyard in Spain’s heartland, with native grapes given a chance to party with Cab, Merlot and Shiraz, resulting in wine that walks an earthy-yet-fruity line. (I can’t vouch for the two Hungarian entries in the Octavin line—Pinot Evil Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio; interestingly, these are produced at the source, then transported in HUGE bladders to get packaged in the States.)

The positioning of the Octavin wines as artisanal is not hyperbole; forget the packaging–this wine is the result of thoroughly modern and extensive network of grape sources in California’s best regions. Working in what they call California’s “largest small-lot winery” allows Monthaven’s Jeff Yamamato and Georgetta Dane keep dozens of lots separate. In Georgetta’s case, the diversity of lots is almost mind-boggling. Working with vineyards that represent dozens of red and white varieties, she calls herself “a kid in a candy store.” She says that she is given no limits or directives on how much of anything to use, but her aim undoubtedly is to maintain the style that has made Big House a perennial favorite.

Twenty varieties in all make it into Big House Red. Georgetta likens her approach to building the Red to how a perfume is structured. Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot form the base; Italian varieties (which she calls “insanely fruity”) and a little Zin take up the middle; judicious use of generous Grenache, Viognier and Malvasia provide top notes. Big House White is her idea of a “fun summer wine.” It’s comprised of almost half Malvasia (“like a bowl of flowers”), plus Muscat (for orange blossom and spice) and Viognier; Gruner Veltliner and Pinot Grigio are added “to temper the florals.” The result is juicy yet refreshing, hardly overpowering and gently aromatic. Both Big Houses check in at 13.5% alcohol.

Big House is not the first brand to be dually packaged in both “bag” and bottle, but it is without doubt the most high-profile. If nothing else, the popular brand’s vault into 3L terroir-tory is proof that the barrier between bag and glass is one step closer to moot. Meeting Georgetta (who speaks in a velvety Romanian accent) reminded me of an under-repeated truism about winemaking: it’s easy to make a couple hundred cases of great wine from one vineyard; but making 100,000 cases of really good wine from a lot of vineyards and for not much money… now that’s hard. No wonder she is giving a talk about large-scale artisanal winemaking at the Society of Wine Educators conference this summer.

Second Thoughts?

It’s been more than a week now since I got my first taste of the Octavin series. There’s still plenty of Chard in my Octavin tank, and I remain convinced that the entire line is going to score big with wine lovers. In particular, I see the Octavin appealing to:

  • restaurants {duh, premium wine by the glass at <$1 per serving, with no spoilage}
  • caterers {no messing with corkscrews plus repeat use = priceless!}
  • performing arts venues {what better wine to pour into plastic cups?}
  • party hosts {whether it’s a picnic, a reception, tailgating, office party…}
  • smart folk {for frugal people who view wine as a part of everyday life, this thoroughly modern way of delivering joy by the glass will be a welcome addition to countertop and/or fridge}

Remember: as with all wines—boxed, bottled and beyond—the wine doesn’t know what package it’s in. But in the case of the Octavin, if it did, I think the wine would be downright psyched to know it’s hanging out inside the coolest package around. For more about the wine and the line, visit Octavin Home Wine Bar.

NOTE: In in the interest of keeping both readers and the FTC fully informed, wines sampled for this post were provided free of charge. Additionally, I was treated to a very tasty lamb burger over lunch with the winemaker and a PR representative at The Breslin. We did not have wine at lunch, but I’d bet my corkscrew that it would have gone swimmingly with the Big House Red, the Boho Zin or the Osborne Seven.

2 Comments

  1. Mark
    Posted May 1, 2010 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    Nice article. Good to see a wider audience for the Big House wines. You may want to change the link to Octivan, as it’s spelt Ovtavin.

  2. Posted May 3, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Very well explained the strategy on the brand, and how they take advantage of very well known brands.
    After reading the article I felt like going to buy one of this boxes for myself!!!
    They are only missing a Malbec from Argentina, but I do not think that will be much time before they add it.

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