The Modest Pleasures of Boxed Wine
Not all good vino comes from the bottle.
I have a confession to make: I like boxed wine.
This frequently shocks people. As a “wine expert,” I am expected to turn my nose up at something as pedestrian as wine in a box. When I have company in the kitchen, they are often surprised and perplexed about why there’s one sitting on the counter for all to see.
Think about this for a moment: How much of the wine you buy are you actually saving to age properly? If you’re like most people, it’s significantly more likely than not that the bottle of wine you buy on the way home will be open on the table that same night. The biggest advantage of wine in a glass bottle is that it is a great container for allowing wine to evolve slowly. If you have no plans to cellar your wine, there’s not quite as much point.
Boxed wine, on the other hand, has some serious advantages. No need for a corkscrew! If you need some wine for cooking, you don’t have to open a second bottle, or short a guest their share (hospitality only goes so far). If you just want one glass, you don’t have to worry about the rest going to waste. Once opened, wine in a box will be fine for another four to six weeks before it will begin to oxidize. There’s also the environmental benefits. Boxed wine is far more carbon neutral than glass.
“Sure, that’s great,” you say. “But you forgot the most important thing. I may want to drink it right now, but I still want good wine. And there is no good wine in a box.”
This was true, at least until recently. Many people link boxed wine with the famous Franzia line, which comes in large 5-liter boxes and conforms to very few people’s idea of “good wine” (though don’t kid yourself — more people drink Franzia than drink fine wine). One of the first brands to try to promote quality box wine was Big House. The original Big House label consisted of value blends made by Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon Vineyard, from a vineyard near the notorious Soledad prison.
The Big House wines sold well, even better than Grahm had hoped, and a larger company came knocking with an offer to buy the label. Grahm returned to his pursuit of quirkier and more esoteric wines, and Big House grew. Then the winery introduced Big House Red and Big House White in 3-liter boxes. The bottles cost around $10. The boxes cost around $20. In other words, if you bought the box, you got the equivalent of four bottles for the price of two.
Around the same time (circa 2003), the Black Box brand of 3-liter bag-in-box wines began appearing on shelves. This brand was dedicated solely to box wines (Big House still comes in a bottle), and they are sourced from America, and in some cases, South America. Bota Box, another hugely popular brand, was introduced more recently, and is one of the fastest growing wine brands in the U.S.
It seems we’re learning something the Europeans have known for a while: Boxed wine makes sense. When I visited the Rhone Valley in 2011, I was stunned by how many top Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers also made simpler wines in box format for the European market. I asked one producer why they weren’t shipping those to the United States.
“Our importers are worried their customers won’t buy,” was the reply.
The one issue this format has is that it won’t last forever. They currently have about an 18-month shelf life, and more expensive versions shipped from Europe are subject to the risk that U.S. customers aren’t paying a premium for an ever-better box wine. Even so, some importers are taking the chance and seem to be finding acceptance with the under-40 crowd. They’ve certainly found a place with me!
Recommended Boxed Wines
Bota Box RedVolution and Nighthawk Black
Red blends are the sweet spot for the line. RedVolution makes me think of a tasty zin, while Nighthawk Black is a big, brooding petite sirah-like red.
Black Box shiraz and sauvignon blanc
It’s easier to make good cheap red than good cheap white. The shiraz is nice and rich, but the sauvignon blanc, sourced from Chile, is a great value.
Folonari Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and pinot grigio
The Folonari family are Italian wine powerhouses, and these are excellent bang-for-the-buck boxes.
Big House red and white
Always solid. The red is bright and soft. The white is light, dry and a little floral.
From the Tank red, white and rosé
Worth a search and the extra tariff. These are boxed wines from a top French importer.
Block red shiraz and cabernet sauvignon
A Trader Joe’s brand that delivers good quality and value.