Tuesday, June 14, 2011

"You're like my mommy after her box of wine." -- Ralph Wiggum, The Simpsons

If there’s a product much maligned for no reason beyond snobbery, it’s boxed wine. My wine-collecting friend would never touch the stuff, but then, he has a basement full of fine bottles. What about wine in a box is so bad?

As someone who used to purchase $80 bottles of Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Chateau Beaucastel and not give it a thought, I’m glad when I can put my money to other uses as my palette and wallette no longer consistently maintain similar stride.

Though not a wine expert, I drink wine every day. After all, I’m a writer. And I’ve had Neighbors From Hell. So a glass or two of wine ends my day nicely. Perhaps necessarily. When my book is a bestseller I’ll have a basement full of bottles, perhaps, but for now, I’ve been in search of inexpensive wines that are drinkable. Hence this month’s review.


First, I challenge the notion that boxed wine is bad just because it’s in a box. I purchase Franzia burgundy often – in five-liter boxes – because I cook with it so much. Is it drinkable? Insofar as I drink it, yes. Is it enjoyable? I’ve had worse.

If you start with a great wine, barrel-aged, and put it in a box instead of a glass bottle, what goes wrong? Experts may say you lose something in not respecting the value of a bottle’s shape, color, corking, etc.; but real experts also say most bottled wines are mistreated in transit from the vineyard to your mouth – shaken too much, not kept at the right temperature, etc. So I’m focusing on what goes right:

  • The box is more eco-friendly – three-liter boxes replace four 750 ml bottles.
  • The box preserves the wine better – if opening a bottle and not finishing it, the following day it has lost much of what made it great; boxed wine comes with a spout so that oxygen cannot enter and spoil the taste – have a glass a day over the course of a couple weeks and the last one is generally as good as the first.

The Franzias and their ilk aside, I shopped around and found artisan wines in a box. Octavin Wine Bar offers several; its Silver Birch Sauvignon Blanc was highly rated so I gave it a shot. Let’s just say it put Franzia’s “Refreshing White” to shame. Some boxed wines really do suck; this one is great. Drink it alone, pair it with poultry, fish, pasta – or do what I do and drink it with red meat. Red meat doesn’t need red wine – many whites work well with a medium-rare grass-fed steak, and this is one.
Next, I stayed within the Octavin distribution (in tall boxes shaped on top like octagons) to try its Pinot Evil Pinot Noir. Again, I was very pleased. To me, good wines complement great food, or stand on their own with strength. I’m drinking some as I write this, and it gives me a craving for smoky meats – a charcuterie plate of sausages and pates would suit me well with this wine. All I have around are peanuts in their shell, but you get my point.

Both of these wines offer complexity and definable character, unlike the wines that first entered the box market. At $20 for a 3L, they cost more than Franzia’s suite of wines that come in at $15 or under for the 5L boxes. You’ll know where that extra money went. But that’s not to bash the Franzia burgundy – I’ll still cook with it, and I’ll still drink it.

So, who gives a crap what a nonfiction/societal culture writer has to say about wine? No one. But in my work I often have to take on the conventions we all accept too readily. Like nuisance noise is just a part of living in a neighborhood, and you should never complain to your neighbors about anything they do.

Boxed wine is awful. Sometimes, yes. But the statement is broad and not useful. You can’t take it to a great BYOB restaurant. There’s another convention worth challenging; just keep an empty 750 ML bottle around, fill it nearly to the top with your favorite boxed wine, re-cork and head out, apparently having enjoyed a taste before leaving home. Just be sure to finish it during the meal, and see if you can sneak it out when you leave for more refilling.


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