August 19, 2008

And It's Just a Box of Wine

NYT published an op-ed emphasizing the virtues of boxed wine, and how wine in a box is gaining popularity in European countries where people (per capita) drink more wine. In it, we see some of the practical reasons for box wine:

Although some sommeliers may scoff at wine from a plastic spigot, boxes are perfect for table wines that don't need to age, which is to say, all but a relative handful of the top wines from around the world. What's more, boxed wine is superior to glass bottle storage in resolving that age-old problem of not being able to finish a bottle in one sitting. Once open, a box preserves wine for about four weeks compared with only a day or two for a bottle. Boxed wine may be short on charm, but it is long on practicality.

I like wine, and I like the advantages of boxed wine described above. But you'll never see boxed wine catch on unless vintners start putting some better wines in boxes.

But you'll read in that article, and in the comments to that article, that some people say they'll buy wine in a box when pigs fly. That's another obstacle to this greener and more convenient packaging. It's pig-headed, and it's something that's frustrated me about wine drinking and wine drinkers over the years.

Wine is a beverage, but some people treat it like a sort of religion, embracing a wine mystique.

People drink wine for different reasons. Even the same people drink wine for different reasons at different times. I understand the enjoyment of uncorking a bottle of wine. I understand the adventure of trying many different wines, exploring different styles and labels. That's all good. But I get a chuckle or shake my head at people who think they're somehow too good to drink the same wine if it comes in a box.

They need to get over themselves and their vehement reactions. Wine will always (in our lifetimes, anyway) be available in bottles. We're not looking at a ban on bottled wine. What we are looking at is encouraging the production, consumption and distribution of better wines to more people. And this is certainly a good thing for everyone who enjoys wine.

I once visited a vineyard for a tour and got to see the vintner's new corking machine which used synthetic corks rather than the traditional, natural kind. After an explanation about why they were moving to synthetic cork (and why we would likely see more and more synthetic cork in wines) a man who was in our group started arguing with our guide. He was appalled at the idea a winemaker would use fake cork. The man had already explained to us that the synthetic cork allowed them to deliver a better and more consistent product. I listened to the argument and just shook my head at the arrogance of someone arguing that the natural cork was preferable just because it was what this man was used to.

As if, in the whole history of making and bottling wine, nothing has changed.

I have no patience for people like that. If there are practical reasons not to put wine in boxes, those are the reasons which should be considered. I suspect some elitism at work when I hear vehement objections; that folks aren't afraid of the box, but rather what it represents: a loss of the mystique of their favorite beverage.

I just want to drink a decent wine, at a decent price, in a convenient package.

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Posted by James at August 19, 2008 9:12 AM
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Wine = Good. Wine snobs = butt of beer drinkers' jokes.

Maybe Mr. Argumentative was one of SNL's "Cork-ah-soakers". Did he like-ah the long, skinny corks or the short-ah fat ones?

Also, a reasonable boxed wine is a good way to deceptively reduce entertainment costs.

1. Buy box of wine.
2. Pour boxed wine into caraff (sp?) and place on bar.
3. Place bottle of same type of wine next to carraf.
4. See if the cork-ah-soakers can tell the difference. The pretentious wannabees (i.e. most) can't.

Posted by: Bull at August 19, 2008 9:35 AM

Same thing happened when the screwtop first appeared on higher-end wines. Wine doesn't get corked, it's easy to open and reclose, it's cheaper, etc., but people are outraged. One of my favorite daily wines (Big House Red from Bonny Doon) comes with a screwtop now, and my neighborhood market stopped selling it because people stopped buying it. Why'd they stop buying it? It's the same wine!

Posted by: Karen at August 19, 2008 10:00 AM

Some boxed wine is not very good, but the worst I've ever had from a box was not nearly as bad as the worst I've had from a bottle.

And I've had some from a box that was pretty good. Certainly good enough for every day. Based on the price, quality, quantity, and shelf life, the better boxed ones are a much greater deal than what most people buy in bottles for their everyday wine.

OTOH there is the issue like BOB-bob said where some red wines are better if you let them mellow. Nothing mellows in a box. But you can pour it out and let it mellow overnight...

It would be extremely nice to be able to get the finer wines in a box, but I will not hold my breath (especially if people really like to age wines - I can't resist any bottle long enough to age it). There was a nice one from Spain that I don't remember the name of (but would recognize the bottle) that I wish I could have every day. A box would make that feasible.

Posted by: Julie at August 19, 2008 10:19 AM

Las Rocas garnacha. That was it. Seriously. Give me a beer hat full of that stuff.

Posted by: Julie at August 19, 2008 10:26 AM

A lot of those people aren't buying the wine; they're buying the image.

If wines become popular, some worry that the only wine they'll be able to get is the equivalent of a Pabst Blue Ribbon or a McDonalds hamburger.

I think that's an unfounded fear; the market for craft beer is alive and well despite Budweiser's popularity.

Posted by: James at August 19, 2008 11:51 AM

James hit the nail on the head. What's in the container has to be good.

A little background on the changing wine industry. Remember that until about 5 years ago, only cheap crappy wines would be in a screw cap bottle (Blue Nun, anyone?). Now that cork is becoming scarce, many bottlers are using screw caps. I challenge you to pour a glass of Matua Sauvignon Blanc and not love it.

Though that wine has a screw cap, the the bottle is still glass, so I am not sure how I would react to wine in plastic. I still prefer soda in a glass bottle to the plastic. If the plastic will not alter the taste, then I'll drink it.

Over the past few years, the only wine I've seen come in a bag/box has been Almanden and wines of that caliber. It appears that higher-end wines are getting into the act, and I'll be interested to taste those. Again, like James said, what's in the package has to be good.

Take a listen to this August 5th NPR interview with Ray Isle, deputy wine editor for Food and Wine Magazine, regarding boxed wine.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93313809

He says you wouldn't want to use wine in a box for a wine you'll age over time due to what he hypothesizes would be an inevitable chemical interaction with the polyethylene bag inside the box and the wine itself.

Tetra packs are another new packaging coming into use. They're like juice boxes. I'd be more inclined to drink that because it wouldn't have the plastic flavor undertone. That and, as he says, you can flatten it out, which has the added benefit of a much lower carbon footprint because they're recyclable (and there's no plastic bag inside). I'd be interested in tasting these, too.

Posted by: Patti M. at August 19, 2008 12:50 PM

I meant to include a quote from Ray Isle about boxed wine:

"For a kind of wonderful, friendly, juicy Dolcetto d'Alba, why not?"

I'm ready to try it.

Posted by: Patti M. at August 19, 2008 12:56 PM

Did I secretly hope to get wine suggestions if I posted this? Yes. And now I have two suggestions for screw-top bottle wines.

Yes - box/bag wine is no good for aging. The plastic isn't stable enough. That's another reason you won't see bottles going away any time soon.

I love the looks of a bottle of wine. I just like how a bottle looks. I would not want to serve wine in a box; I'd put it in another container. But I'm less interested in boxed wine for guests. I want it for myself.

I would love if I had a container of wine that does not expose the wine to the air, so that I can enjoy it over a couple of weeks.

Only once have I had a wine that sat around that long and didn't get ruined. Maggie doesn't drink wine, so opening a bottle in my house means that some of the wine is going to be consumed long past its peak.

Posted by: James at August 19, 2008 1:06 PM

I'm not really a wine drinker. Or a beer drinker. But if I do like a wine, it is based entirely on the taste and not at all on the name on the label or the type of container it comes in.

Posted by: briwei at August 19, 2008 1:12 PM

I learned that "some red wines have to mellow" lesson with I bottle I bought recently. Stephen Vincent 2005... I think it is a Cabernet Sauvignon.

I didn't let it mellow and, as a result, I hated it. I had bought 2 bottles, so I was bummed. I went back to it a while later and it was great. If I'd drunk it in a reasonable amount of time, it'd have been even better.

As Julie points out, you can decant a wine, even if it is in a box. In fact, decanting the wine is better than just uncorking a bottle, because it exposes more of the wine to the air. I hear that an hour is a good amount of time after decanting. But as time goes on, the flavor deteriorates.

So, decanting a glass or two would be ideal for one person wanting wine for his or her dinner. Otherwise, you're ruining half a bottle.

Posted by: James at August 19, 2008 1:18 PM

This article on about.com claims that something between 5 and 10 percent of wines are corked (have reacted with their natural cork).

They say that the screw cap is even better for wine than the synthetic cork because it prevents oxidation better. In any case, natural cork is far from the best method of protecting the quality of a bottle of wine.

Posted by: James at August 19, 2008 1:21 PM

If you feel you need to hold a taste test, I volunteer to help you.

Posted by: Patti M. at August 19, 2008 2:06 PM

Suggestions eh. Hmmm...we like so many wines. I recommend going to a good wine store (sorry don't know your area well enough) that gives a nice discount for bulk and pick up a mixed case of different wines. The Wine and Cheese cask in Sommerville is our favorite store because they send us a newsletter every month with descriptions of what's on sale and offer a case discount and 4 times a year a super case discount.

Specific recommendations are hard because stuff isn't always available except for the big labels. Right now a great summer wine I would recommend is Gruner Veltliner from Germany (or Austria maybe?). It often comes in liter bottles but since it's white you can store in the fridge and it'll stay decent tasting for a while. Reds tend to be the tough ones to keep around for more than a few days.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at August 19, 2008 2:18 PM

I dunno, a lot of the objections to boxed wine over bottled wine sound exactly like the objections to digital photos over physical photos--romantic nonsense.

Anyway, as one who doesn't really partake you probably wouldn't find boxed or bottled wine in my house. The only alcoholic beverage I ever touch is winecoolers, and then only rarely.

But the winecoolers have to be in bottles.

Or it just wouldn't be the same.

;-)

Posted by: Chuck S at August 19, 2008 7:21 PM

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