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Thinking Inside the Box

Box wine improves (which is easy to do, considering . . .)

Photo: Okan Arabacioglu, License: N/A

Okan Arabacioglu

I Like wine. I drink it every day: a glass with dinner, often another glass—or more, depending on the kind of day it’s been—after. Given my fairly steady consumption, I buy by the case and make a game of finding the best wine I can find for $10 a bottle or less. (Currently, my house red is Castelmaure Corbieres, and Fâmega Vinho Verde.) So price is a consideration, yes, but my wine-buying philosophy has always been Life Is Too Short to Drink Cheap Wine. No Two-Buck Chuck in my house.

Then one day I took an unaccustomed detour down the liquor store’s Big Bottle aisle, home of Paul Masson and Carlo Rossi and their giant jugs of fortified grape juice. I was gunning for the checkout, with my cranky 4-year-old and a case of Corbieres in my cart (yes, I take my kids to the liquor store), when Bota Box shiraz caught my eye. Partly it was the appealing packaging: a 100 percent post-consumer recycled fiberboard box with coolio mod graphics. But mainly it was the shelf tag proclaiming that Wine Enthusiast had awarded it 84 points and, I’ll admit it, the price—$15.49 for three liters, the equivalent of $3.87 per standard 750 ml bottle of wine.

I threw it in the cart and kept rolling. Fifteen bucks, what the hell. I further self-justified my impulse buy with a dimly recalled article from The New York Times about how box wines have been going upscale and getting better. Not that better would be hard—in my experience, box wines are simply awful. But once upon a time screwtop wines were also awful, and then technology caught up with winemakers’ needs and now some very nice wines indeed are being put out in screwtop format (my sorta-affordable fave: Armida Winery’s Poizin zinfandel, around $25/bottle). Maybe box wines were undergoing a similar renaissance?

That evening I hosted a board meeting for Baltimore Food Makers, a group whose members appreciate, and likely know a thing or two about, good wine. I ceremoniously cracked open the, um, tap, and decanted a healthy pour into three Riedel tumblers. There was earnest sniffing and tasting, followed by uncomfortable silence broken first by Zeb. “Well, it’s certainly fruit forward,” he said cautiously. “With remarkable legs,” referring to the noticeably thick streaks of wine coating the side of the glass when swirled.

Brian could hold back no longer. “Dude, those aren’t legs, those are thunder thighs. And I’ve had strawberry jam that was less fruity!” He was right. Even though we were all hoping for a $3.87 miracle, Bota Box shiraz was an undeniably crude, grossly sweet wine. (Though Zeb and I both drank a couple glasses anyway—what the heck, it was there.)

Still, the notion of better box wine stayed with me. Does box necessarily equal bad? I went to Wells Discount Liquors for a long chat with its principal wine consultant, Lee Grandes. His take is that box wine is where screwtop wines were a couple of decades ago: A market for better wine in a box is developing, albeit very slowly. It’s hampered by the chicken-and-egg problem that most box wine sold in the States is undeniably bad, so people don’t want to buy box wine.

Some of these literally do come in a box, usually a 1-liter one, the same kind of package used for juice boxes The best of these I’ve tried is Yellow+Blue’s Malbec (at Wells, $11); I like that it’s organic and vinified with native yeasts and has nicely restrained fruit and well-developed tannins—two qualities I most definitely do not associate with either box wine or cheap Malbec.

The majority of box wines, however, actually come in a plastic laminate bag, with a plastic tap, packed in a cardboard box. There are advantages to this system; being stored in a bladder protects wine from its enemies, light and air. Thus box wines stay fresh for weeks after opening, whereas wine in a bottle begins to oxidize immediately upon opening. Box wine bashers point out that the bags are not hermetically sealed and have a shelf life shorter than bottled wine; indeed, box wines often carry a best-before date. But, seriously, who buys box wine for cellaring?

There are also environmental benefits: Box wine’s carbon footprint is about half that of bottled, due to lower energy costs to produce and ship the packaging. And upscale box wines do tend to tout their greenie advantages on their attractively designed exteriors (Yellow+Blue donates 1 percent of profits to Five-liter econo-box Franzia and friends, however, feel no need to mention environmental merits. They rely on box wine’s traditional appeal: a whole lotta wine for very little money—and fridge-friendly!

Admittedly it’s mostly still crappy out there in the box wine world, especially among U.S. producers. However, discerning drinkers are no longer completely stuck: If you know what to look for, there are some decent, very attractively priced wines-in-a-box out there. Look for wines identifying their region of origin, such as an Argentinean Torrontés or Chilean Central Valley, as well as specific vintage years.

Wells’ Grandes steered me to three good choices from respected vineyards putting the very same wine into both bottles and boxes. Another Malbec, this time from Maipe, was big and rich, with lovely round tannins and complex dark fruit—blackberry, plum—leavened by a delicate floral topnote. It sells for $9.99 per 750 ml bottle—or $21.99 per 3-liter box, the equivalent of $5.50 per bottle. Yep, same exact wine, 50 percent cheaper by the box.

He also recommended a nice, 2010 Coteaux du Languedoc by Picpoul de Pinet. An enjoyably crisp and mineral-y white with hints of pear, it goes for $8.49 in the bottle, $22.99 in the box (equivalent $5.75/bottle). Finally, the Alain Jaume and Fils Côtes du Rhône Réserve Grand Veneur is a terrific find; estate bottled (estate bagged?) from a respected French vintner, it garnered 87 points from Wine Advocate. I liked that it’s vivid and full-bodied but not overbearing, with peppery notes overlaying wild berry aromas. Definitely the most sophisticated box wine I’ve encountered, it sells for $11.99 per bottle or $33.99 per 3-liter box.

Yes, these are all imported wines. Ultimately high petroleum prices may be what’s needed to push more quality American winemakers over the box wine hump. ‘Til then, though, it’s fun to play around with the wines that are out there—you might find something you really like. Even if you don’t, it’s small dollars for an enjoyable experiment. ?

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