New Bird in Town

A Seattleite and Costco team up to deliver quality wine in a box.

Three years ago, ex-Seattleite Jill Bauer left her marketing job at New York's Food & Wine magazine for more hands-on involvement in the wine business. After working the 2001 harvest in Napa, she departed for Australia, with a view to studying winemaking at the University of Adelaide's crackerjack viticulture and enology program. But her leisurely career plan accelerated sharply when, on her second day Down Under, Bauer met Andrew Beaven, scion of a farming family on South Australia's Limestone Coast. Last week, Jill Bauer Beaven was back in Seattle, staying with family and busily promoting her new Australian wine brand, Tindindi, a "box wine" currently available at 10 Northwest Costco outlets priced at about $18 per 3-liter container. Box wines are no novelty in the U.S.; eight of the top-10-selling wines in Washington State liquor stores are box wines manufactured by Fred Franzia's budget-wine behemoth Bronco Wine Co. But American-made box wine has never recovered from the bad rap it earned when it was introduced here: pallid flavor, tinny aftertastes, spoilage (both the latter resulting from the flimsy Mylar-coated plastic bags the wine was packaged in). A few respectable producers—X Box and Black Box from California, Tefft Cellars here in Washington—market good-quality wines in the box format, but they account for a vanishingly small part of the total market. In Australia, by contrast, "cask wine" accounts for over half the country's domestic consumption, and highly respected brands like Lindeman's and Yalumba think nothing of selling it alongside their pricier bottled products. It's that model Bauer and Beaven aspire to with their Tindindi: a wine competitive in quality with bottled products in the $8-to-$12 price category, selling for a half to a third of that price. At first, Bauer had no luck interesting the North American market in such an unconventional product, but she finally found support and sympathy at Costco, a company notoriously always on the lookout for superior products at low prices: products, in the company mantra, "whose quality exceeds the consumer's expectations." After eight months of collaborative experiments in packaging, Costco wine buyer Jeff Hooker ordered two containers—the equivalent of 4,000 cases of wine—and put it on sale at selected Northwest warehouses on Nov. 1. The item was an immediate hit; two more container loads were ordered—essentially all the wine Bauer and Beaven were able to produce, though the brand will soon be appearing in specialty wine shops in this area. It's not surprising that Tindindi was a mover. Eighteen dollars is a substantial price to pay for an unknown, unadvertised product, but when translated to the bottle-equivalent price of $4.50, it attracted the curious and bargain hungry; the wine's sheer quality and word of mouth did the rest. Though they cost 50 percent more than Trader Joe's Franzia-made Charles Shaw brand, they're so much better in every way that they blow poor "Three- Buck Chuck" out of the water. Tindindi chardonnay (from the spring 2004 harvest) is fresh, juicy, round, dry and acidic enough to be voluptuously food-friendly while genteel enough for drinking on its own. The 2001 cabernet sauvignon is a marvel; true in flavor, refreshingly "structured" with acid and tannins, yet as agreeable and easy-sipping as any "fun wine" on the shelf. Few serious wine drinkers would buy box wine primarily for its convenience, but when convenience and quality are as closely allied as they are with Tindindi, the synergy is potent. Contained in a heavy-duty, nonmetalized, completely recyclable plastic bag, the wine is billed to keep its freshness, unrefrigerated, for up to two months after opening. Given its flavor, no box of Tindindi is likely to remain on your kitchen counter anything like that long. A lot is riding on the Tindindi experiment, and not just for the winemakers. Other producers, large and small, domestic and foreign, are watching closely to see if the "box wine" curse can be transcended in America as it has been in Australia. If that happens, we're on the verge of a revolution in the wine business that will make the great cork vs. screw-top controversy seem trivial. Glass bottles are one of winemaking's most significant expenses, and eliminating them allows vintners to pass on significant savings to consumers without hollowing their own bottom line unduly. If that happens, how soon are we likely to see a box on every drainboard? Costco's Hooker thinks he knows: "In 18 months, I don't think we're going to recognize this business."

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