On Wine: Thinking inside the box

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This month, my mission was to find “portable potables”: wines that you can throw into a cooler or backpack for glass-free outings.
     I was amazed to discover that a 3-liter box of wine—the equivalent of four bottles—weighs so little. You can cram it in with the rest of your gear without fear of broken glass or leaks.
     But in addition to portable, it had to be palatable. And from what I had tasted of plonky box wines in the past, I wasn’t looking forward to the job.
     The packaging is a marvel: Inside a cardboard carrying case is a plastic bag (actually, a five-layer co-extrusion of ethylene vinyl alcohol sandwiched between two layers of polypropylene, if you must know). A spigot, fused to the bag, sticks out through the side of the box. Turn the knob and wine squirts into your glass. As the bag empties, it collapses. Wine comes out, but air can’t get in, so the wine stays fresh for weeks.
     This magical package, originally designed to hold battery acid, is a natural for wine. Except for one problem: We wine geeks—especially American wine geeks—fear change. We have a love affair with wine that transcends the wine itself. We lap up history, culture, celebrity, image, status and self-worth with every bottle—every heavy, punted, smoke-tinted, cork-stoppered, linen-paper-labeled glass bottle.
     Australians, on the other hand, have quickly adopted box wines. Perhaps it’s because the boxes are so easy to tote to the beach and the barbie. Box wines account for about 50 percent of all wines sold in the land of Oz, while they make up only 6 percent of wine retail sales in the United States.
     Here, box wines typically have been marketed to casual wine drinkers, who don’t care about the difference between a 2007 Grand Cru Chablis from select Chardonnay vineyards of Burgundy and nonvintage Livingston “Chablis Blanc,” made from various white grapes grown for quantity across the Central Valley. The juice used for box wines comes from bulk wine traded as a commodity. In short, box wine historically has been for suckas who don’t mind leftovers.
     But glass-addicted wine lovers are suckas, too. Classic example: Fred Franzia, longtime boxer of generic wines, turned our attachment to the bottle into the Two Buck Chuck phenomenon. He sticks bulk wine into a premium package and sells millions of cases at Trader Joe’s.
     A few visionary wine companies have taken the box to a new level. These wines are tasty! Multidimensional! Balanced! Food-friendly! And wow, they’re really inexpensive. Honestly, what’s in these boxes is just as good as what the average Sacramentan is drinking any day of the week.
     So many people talk about how they want wine to be more accessible. They want it simple, unpretentious and easy to pronounce, open and transport. So are these plain-talkin’ folks secure enough to bring a box wine to their next party?

TASTE TEST
Here are a half-dozen box wines that opened my eyes (and my mouth):
   
Pinot Evil’s Pinot Grigio Pinot Blanc blend
Appellation: della Venezie IGT (Italy)
Vintage: None
Price
: $12.99
Impressions: Juicy honeydew aroma, appealing on the palate. Clean, long finish. In general, the white wines I tried from a box were significantly behind the reds in quality. This white blend was the best of the lot.

Hardy’s Shiraz
Appellation: South Eastern Australia
Vintage: 2007
Price: $14.99
Impressions: Huge aromas, pure Australian, ripe, jammy berries with plenty of oaky vanilla, cedar, caramel.

Bota Box’s Shiraz

Appellation: California, from Delta-Lodi and Monterey grapes
Vintage: 2005 (Wow, old. Is this from bulk juice that’s been waiting for a buyer?)
Price: $16.99
Impressions: Smells like Lodi Syrah; jammy blackberry, toasty, even-raisined. Soft, comfy mouthfeel, juicy on the palate. Finishes with a swig of prune juice and molasses.

Black Box Wines’ Shiraz
Appellation: California’s Central Coast
Vintage: 2007
Price: $18.99
Impressions: Cooler-climate California Syrah. Less velvety and ripe than the Bota Box, this Shiraz shows cranberry, cherry and herbal aromas. Nice balance and fine structure.

Bota Box’s Old Vine Zinfandel
Appellation: California
Vintage: 2006
Price: $16.99
Impressions: Smells like Zin! Nice, brambly red raspberry and tobacco, a tad sweet on the palate, short finish and soft tannins. Will play nice with barbecue sauce.

Target Wine Cube’s Cabernet Sauvignon
Appellation: California
Vintage: 2007
Price: $17.99
Impressions: Real Cab! Cassis, chocolate, a rich aroma with herbal complexity. Mouth-filling flavor and texture, clean and fruit-forward. Short finish with tannins so tame, they’ve got a newspaper and slippers in their mouth.