Boxed wine is one of Australia’s most extraordinary contributions to the wine industry, also known as cardboardeaux, bag-in-box (BiB) or more commonly, goon (from flagon).
Australian winemaker Thomas Angove patented the design for a one-gallon polyethylene bladder in a cardboard box in 1965, inspired by the ancient method of storing wine in goat skins. The first model required drinkers to cut a corner of the plastic bag and reseal it with a special category peg (used to transport battery acid).
History of goon
Once a tap was designed in the 1970s goon climbed quickly to make up about 50% of wine sales in Australia. In the days when restaurants sold “house wine”, goon was known for being economical above anything else, and convenient, associated more with families on a budget and people on low incomes.
Wine in the ‘70s was still perceived as for special occasions and casks may have helped change that. Thirty years later, between 2004-2014, there was a 30% drop in cask sales but a 40% increase in bottled wine during the same decade. As domestic sales had been dropping, the cask concept (and its contents) were also being exported.
Goon has come a long way from its origins and reputation. The visual appeal of the box and the bag has evolved, along with the narrative the wine label communicates about history, geography, identity.
As the environmental benefits of wine in a box have become more important to new consumers, the quality of its contents has also improved. Jilly Wine Company’s Chateau Cardboard Red at $71 for 3 litres, is a long way from the one gallon packs of table white, table red, port, sweet sherry and muscat launched in 1965.
There are good reasons why Australians love goon, and there are strong reasons for the love to grow.
Why Australia still loves cask wine
Whether going on a picnic or camping, goon is infinitely easier to transport than glass. It suits a lifestyle.
Lighter packaging also reduces carbon dioxide emissions since most of this during the wine production process is in transportation.
A life cycle analysis of bag-in-box packaging shows it is also more sustainable than glass bottles.
While the plastic – the bag and spigot – can present issues with disposal, the ratio of raw material to the volume of content, manufacturing process, light weight package and transport make it a better choice on environmental grounds, which is why goon is becoming a more popular and global choice.
Market research showed cask wine sales jumped by 21% in the four weeks to April 2020, explained by a combination of people being housebound and concerned about money.
Once purchased, if you are drinking in moderation, you can avoid going out for wine for longer, which during COVID restrictions was safe and convenient.
Contrary to popular opinion, goon is not only the choice of people who might want to drink a lot. The vacuum-sealed bag keeps the wine fresh for up to six weeks after it’s opened.
Cheaper wine is taxed less. Wine is taxed on its wholesale value, not its alcohol content, through the Wine Equalisation Tax (WET). This supports a health argument against goon, for serving no interest except the liquor industry when there is much evidence for the damage caused by alcohol. Increased taxes have been found to reduce consumption and alcohol-related harms.
Goon doesn’t necessarily equate to cheap wine or a three day growth. The raw material used to produce it also costs less than glass packaging. Apart from Iceland and Norway, Australia has the highest alcohol tax rates among OECD countries. There is a range of implications for wine pricing.
Snobbery and the wine in a bag
Quality is often associated with price, generating stigma around goon (evident in the label). There is a fair amount of snobbery in the wine industry.
Wine is both associated with wealth and status (an expensive bottle) and with being poor (goon); age corresponds the same way. What does a teenager know about how fruity lexia or moselle should taste besides sweet? But there is a gap in that argument that spins on a combination of factors – quality, environment, nostalgia, cost, lifestyle. “It took a monumental shift in perceptions of wine to make screwcaps popular and mainstream”, according to professor of wine marketing at the University of South Australia Larry Lockshin.
The average wine consumer associates boxed wine with cheap wine, a stereotype worth dismissing. It’s time our secret love was not so secret anymore.
Like macadamias, settlers in Australia may be more honest about their love of goon now that it is growing in popularity elsewhere. Boxed wine accounts for about 50% of the wine consumed in Australia, and Norway and Sweden. The French have been boxing Bordeaux since 1997, and 44% of the wine sold in French supermarkets comes in a box.
Youth and nostalgia
Goon hymns, goon-of-fortune and goon bag pillows are still in reach but the quality of wine has matured with us. Brisbane author Edwina Shaw drew on her personal experience in the novel Thrill Seekers (2019)
Our crusade. We wanted to be the coolest, and that meant being able to drink everyone else under the table. So we made a pact to drink a four-litre cask of wine a day, each, until we won. Moselle… We weren’t just any old drinkers – we were the “Goon Babies”.
When I arrived in Brisbane in 1984, the Goon Babies were legends; funny, intelligent, creative thrill-seekers. Shaw’s book also traces self-destruction and loss. I understand the irony of writing in such a cavalier way about the goon we could afford as students. But it would be snobby and ageist to suggest packaging alone maketh the wine or the issues that might drive us to drink, or that alcohol problems are the preserve of the poor and young.
Gen X goon drinkers are now in their 40s and 50s, and many of us won’t be able to stomach Moselle. We have to come to terms with the fact wine in a bag also can’t be aged.
But, as Colin Alevras, sommelier at New York restaurant DBGB’s put it, “The wine bottle is late-18th century technology. It’s time to move on”.