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Monday, March 29, 2010

Thinking Inside the Box

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A few months ago, longtime Vine reader and erstwhile neighbor Christine asked, "So, when are you going to do a column on box wines." I mentioned to her that planned to do one for April Fool's.

"No, seriously," she said with an edge in her voice that gave me goosebumps. This is, after all, a woman who hiked the state of Vermont in five weeks, and offhandedly asks questions like, "Hey, are you guys interested in a triathlon?"

She was correct, of course. My experience with box wines had been unpleasant for the most part, but it made sense for me to give a take. After all, it is the least expensive wine delivery system.

So, how do they get the wine in there? The wine's not really in the box, of course. There's an aluminum or plastic pouch inside the box, tapped with a small spout of some kind. These containers are officially called "casks," although they're known in Australia as "goons."

Box wine tends to be of lesser quality than bottled wine—but there are advantages. Once you open a bottle of wine, you're committed. The wine starts to oxidize almost immediately, and your wine will lose quality rapidly. Box wine never touches air until it hits the glass, so it can keep consistent quality until needed (although you can't age box wine). One of our friends termed box wine "Homer Simpson wine—you push a button, and there it is!"

They hold up to five liters of wine, but the most common size we'll see is three liters. Three liters is equivalent to four regular-sized bottles. And there's the rub. I drink a lot of wine, obviously, but having three liters of a generally-not-great wine lying around for just myself and the Sweet Partner in Crime isn't what I'm looking for. Generally, you'd get these containers for larger gatherings—or if someone is distracted, gone for work, or just lame enough to need a wine that will last for a month.

Still, the obvious reason was to par-tay. Thus, the First AnnualBox Wine Extravaganza was born. Christine and I each got two boxes of wine, and we went from there. The cast of characters:

  • The Sweet Partner in Crime and I.
  • Christine and her handyman husband Jeff.
  • Katherine, a mutual friend.
  • Marlene & Steve, our Francophile neighbors.

We did our best to take notes on our tastings, but by the end of the evening, predictably, we lost track of who said what. The quotes tell the stories well enough.

The wines:
Angel Juice 2006 Pinot Grigio
Banrock Station 2008 Chardonnay
Black Box 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon
Black Box 2007 Shiraz

(Christine and I bought our wines separately, so we ran with what we had.)

First up, the Angel Juice.

  • "It's lawnmower wine. You know, for a hot day in the yard." (Which led to: "What? You mean you'd put it in the lawnmower?")
  • "It'll drink, but there's not much body."
  • "It's so light—it's not really much of a wine."
  • "It's like Crystal Light—the Wine of the Astronauts!"
  • "Kinda bitter—like the seeds are crushed up in it."
  • "It says 'honeysuckle and citrus'—I don't get either. More lemon rind than lemon!"
  • "It quenches your thirst —but I won't say much beyond that."
  • "One word: Wimpy."

We did find that it went reasonably well with food. Pesto paired well for some reason.

Then came the Banrock Station. Honestly, we all wished we'd just stayed on the train…

  • "It smells like honey wine or cider."
  • "It's sour. There's no oak -- none. It's just bad, bad, bad."
  • "It's like a golden shower for your mouth."
  • "I wouldn't cook with it."
  • "It tastes like battery acid."
  • "It's a cut above Mad Dog."
  • "I'd give it to a homeless guy so he could get a change of pace."

Truly an awful wine—unanimously one of the worst we'd had collectively. More optimistically, the suggestion was made: "Maybe you could make a spritzer out of it." (You couldn't.) Christine made the best suggestion: "Well, at least you could recycle the box…"

With palates collectively in shock, we were worried as we edged towards the reds. The Black Box wines—we were dubious—but we went forward. We were too invested to turn back:

  • "This isn't bad!"
  • "It's not complicated -- but it's decent." (Surprised nods all around.)
  • "It's versatile. This is good wine for a party."
  • "It's inoffensive -- it would go with a lot of things. There's enough fruit and tannin to be interesting."
  • "It passes the cube test. If it's really hot, you could put ice in it and it's still drinkable."

Black Box's Shiraz followed suit:

  • "It's nondescript, but you really could drink it with anything."
  • "It's a really simple wine."
  • "Hey! This goes pretty well with chocolate!"
  • "It's good."
  • "It's yummy—has a little bite to it, unlike that chardonnay, which just bites."
  • "It's far too easy to dispense!"

We made a dent in all four. The Cabernet had the least left by morning. The chardonnay was the cheapest ($16), while the shiraz was the most expensive ($24). Since there are clear levels of quality, if you're willing to drop $20 or more on a box, you'll probably end up OK.

One last note on the Banrock: We did follow Christine's recommendation.