Don’t think you like Box Wine? You actually love it, and have probably been drinking it for years. It’s a well kept secret that the house wine at many of North Carolina’s better restaurants comes from a box. I’m sure this is surprising to many of you. But it’s not to the rest of the world. Half the wine sold in Australia, Brazil, Norway, and Sweden is poured from a box. So, what do they know that we don’t?
[dropcap]B[/dropcap]ox wine has a bad reputation and deservedly so. Most of us associate box wine with the stack of Franzia or similar brand in the aisle of value wines at the grocery store. Box wines were introduced a few decades ago to make cheap wines even cheaper. And in the United States, low-end bulk wines still dominate the box market. But in the early 2000s, brands like Black Box and Fish Eye decided to offer a better wine in this format, putting a fairly tasty wine inside cardboard boxes. Many wine lovers and critics have taken notice, making box wines the highest growth category in this business.
[quote float=”center”]Quality wine makers have watched this evolution, with several deciding that it’s time for them to jump into the game. Relatively small producers in Europe and the new world are selling serious, so-called premium box wines. And these wines usually beat similarly priced bottled wines in blind tastings. Look for wineries like El Agosto, Shania, La Quercia, and From the Tank for the best in premium box wines.[/quote]
Premium box wines from smaller wineries? Now that I’ve peaked your interest, it’s time to look at the advantages and disadvantages of box wine, and see if they’re right for you. Let’s start with the advantages, and then bring this discussion back to earth by covering their downside.
Value is the overwhelming advantage to box wines. These wines win blind tastings because wineries put the money saved in packaging back into the wine. Bottles are elegant, but they are an antiquated packaging comprised largely of thick and heavy glass. The materials are costly to make and expensive to ship, whereas box wines are made of light plastic and cardboard, and a typical box wine is 96% wine.
Prices for wine in low cost packaging plummet to a range of $21 to $43 for a three liter box. This may sound a bit expensive, but you get four bottles in a box. So you’re paying $5.25 to $10.75 for a bottle of wine that you won’t just tolerate but actually enjoy. And many of these are wines made by relatively small wineries that care about what’s in your box. Yes, you can buy Trader Joe’s box wine for as little as $11. However, you should know that Bronco Wine Company, supplier to Trader Joe’s and about 30 other discount wine purveyors, are involved in litigation over high levels of arsenic in their California wines. Not enough to get you outright, but arsenic is considered a carcinogen. Alas, there is no free (or cheap) lunch.
The value continues because the wines last for four to eight weeks. The secret behind this trick is a flexible plastic bag filled with wine and a squirt of non-reactive gas. This combo is then capped off with an air tight spigot. The bag collapses as you dispense the wine. Go ahead, pour a small glass of wine while you cook. And maybe add a little to the recipe. Each glass will taste as fresh as the next. There’s no oxidized wine to throw out the next day, and no lost bottles from corked wine.
And then there’s the convenience factor. Restaurants love them because they don’t roll, spill, or break into a thousand sharp pieces when you knock them over. They’re great for picnics and parties where guests can serve themselves. And try lugging four regular bottles around – it’s much easier to grab a handled box and run. For pools and other places glass is not welcome, several of our customers buy the tetra pack. The tetra pack comes in half and one liter sizes looking much like an adult juice box. They don’t have the inner plastic bag so the wine lasts as long as it does in a regular bottle. But they’re light, unbreakable, and easy to haul out from a pool or a hiking or camping trip.
And the packaging is environmentally friendly to boot. You can recycle the cardboard portion of the package. And research indicates that box wines produce about half the carbon emissions and have a much smaller carbon footprint than wine from a bottle.
Okay, box wines sound great, but what are the disadvantages? The first might be palate exhaustion. No problem here if you’re serving it at a party sometime in the next month. But a four bottle box is going to last a long time if just one or two of you are drinking it. To finish a box of wine, you need to make it your “go to” wine for a while. And you may not want the same Chardonnay every night for the next three weeks.
No surprise, but box wines don’t age well. Over time the plastic absorbs some of the flavor components in wine. The wines still taste good, but after about a year there is a noticeable difference in taste compared to the same wine in a bottle.
Another disadvantage is the stigma of box wine. Much like screwtops, it will be years before box wines are truly accepted in polite company. It won’t be anytime soon that we’ll bring a box wine as a hostess gift. And don’t expect the sommelier to show you the box before pressing the spigot to fill your glass.
Which brings me to the biggest disadvantage of all – the loss of ritual. There is something inherently satisfying about the manner in which we open a bottle of wine. We are enveloped in the look, feel, and aromas of the entire process. Much like reading an actual newspaper versus online, I am of the old school and will continue to open a bottle of fine wine on the weekends. But to fill the weekday gap, you’re likely to find a box of premium wine resting on my kitchen counter.
John Kerr is the co-owner of Metro Wines located on Charlotte Street in downtown Asheville.