For many New Zealanders, bag in box wine brings to mind teenage excursions into the world of binge drinking; moribund corporate gatherings with ‘refreshments’; or at best, a decent bolognaise sauce. It certainly does not conjure thoughts of high-quality wines grown and made with honesty and care in the unforgiving high country of Central Otago.
In term of pedigree there aren’t many winemakers in New Zealand who can match Matt and James Dicey. Their father was brought over from South Africa by Corban’s as a grower and eventually became an early pioneer of wine making in Bannockburn and one of the five founding partners in Mt Difficulty.
Matt, after graduating with a master’s degree in chemistry from Lincoln, became Mt Difficulty’s first employee. James joined the family business a little later after a brief dalliance into the world of law and chartered accountancy. Following the sale of Mt Difficulty in 2019 and having accumulated over forty years of experience making wine in Bannockburn between them, the brothers struck out on their own and Dicey was born.
They quickly established clearly delineated responsibilities with James overseeing the vineyards and Matt in charge of the wineries. Where they came together was a shared vision of making wine with clarity and honesty that reflected both the environment and the season they found themselves in. That meant doing as much work as possible in the vineyards and as little as possible in the winery. It also meant farming organically and in harmony with the land. In terrain as fierce and unforgiving as Central Otago, that was not the easy option.
When the Diceys realised the environmental cost of bottling their wine, the negligible benefits of doing so, and the availability of a practical solution, they did what they always do: the right thing rather than the easy thing.
Wine bottles account for around 27% of all carbon emitted by the wine trade. They are impractical and expensive to transport. Once open, they expose wine to oxygen which means it quickly deteriorates. Only 61% of glass bottles in New Zealand are recycled to make new bottles and jars. And even if this number were higher, it would still be a massive energy sink compared to the alternatives. As Matt points out over the phone from the Dicey winery, glass is a great material for storing wine that is going to age. For the vast majority of wines that are intended to be drunk a day or two after purchase, it just doesn’t make sense.
Bag in box technology has been around for around half a century. Although invented in Australia, the technology was refined in New Zealand. Despite the bladder that holds the wine being made of plastic, it still uses far less energy to produce than glass. As of the 2022 vintage, Dicey bag in box packaging will be 100% recyclable.
According to The New York Times, moving the 97% of all wine that is consumed within 24 hours of purchase from glass to bag in box, would be equivalent to removing 400,000 cars from the road every year.
But bag in box isn’t just good for the environment. According to Matt it also has benefits for consumers: “Oxygen is the great enemy of wine and as soon as you open a bottle, oxygen gets in and it starts to degrade”. With bag in box technology, the wine you pour into your glass isn’t replaced by oxygen so the wine will stay in the condition the winemaker intended it for up to four weeks. “No need to smash a whole bottle in a night. You can take your time.”
‘Making believers out of everybody’
James remembers telling people in the retail trade that Dicey were going to put their Bannockburn pinot noir into a bag in a box: “The first response was: ‘you’ve got to be joking’ and ‘that’s for supermarket wine.’”
Not exactly positive feedback. But the brothers are used to the baking heat and icy cold of Central Otago. They grow grapes on land so rocky they need gelignite to plant fenceposts. A little uninformed scepticism wasn’t going to phase them.
The key was to get the wine into a glass and let people taste it. “We made believers out of everyone,” says James, “the only remark we’ve had since is that they want a rose and white as well.”
The uptake from the on-premises sector has been particularly enthusiastic, unsurprising when you consider the savings to be made in storage space, packaging disposal, and wastage.
The Bannockburn Hotel in Cromwell is even selling Dicey pinot noir by the gram. The staff will weigh the box in front of you, leave it on the table, then weigh it again at the end of the night.
“It’s great for table talk,” says the Bannockburn restaurant manager Jules Stephenson. “People get to pour their own wine, and it gets them talking about sustainability. And, most importantly, it’s very good wine.”
The glass (bottle) ceiling
That assurance of quality is key to changing opinions about bag in box wine. The brothers have found that where younger consumers have no issue with the format, older drinkers are more sceptical and need some convincing. But where the Dicey brothers– with their impeccable credentials and their pure and vital pinot noir– go, others are sure to follow.
“We know people who have been thinking about this for years” says Matt “but they haven’t had the balls to get out there and do it. But now we’re actively helping people to make the transition from bottle to bag in box.”
With the Diceys leading the way, it won’t be long before we’re seeing more quality wines in bag in box and reaping the myriad benefits for the environment, for the on-trade, and for consumers.
Photos by Morven McAuley