Sipping From the Spigot
The time has come for the great boxed-wine challenge
A quick show of hands: How many of you open a $20-plus bottle of wine each night? How many carefully age their wines for measured maturity? When you pop the cork, do you finish the whole bottle? If not, do you notice how it just doesn't taste right the next day?
The truth is most people drink their wine on the same day they buy it. Most people prefer good-quality, inexpensive wines and stay loyal to the brands they like. And most people have variable rates of wine consumption: maybe a glass tonight, maybe three tomorrow. Plus, since a half-empty bottle of wine goes stale after just one day, they end up drinking subpar wine.
The Australians and Europeans solved all of these problems years ago with one elegant solution. They take a good-quality wine; put it in an inert, vacuum-sealed bag; drop the bag in a box; and place a spigot on the side. In Australia, for instance, 54% of wines sold are box wines.
Imagine dining in a nice European trattoria or brasserie and ordering a carafe of the house wine. It would be a simple, unpretentious wine made for casual consumption. That's what you'll find in the best box wines. They are always priced popularly, with 3-liter boxes (equivalent to four bottles of wine) normally running $10-20. Best of all, you can take as much as you want and not worry about the wine oxidizing by the next day. It will keep in the box for months.
Early on, box wines had a cheesy reputation in the U.S. As Evan Goldstein, a master sommelier and author of Perfect Pairings (University of California Press, $29.95), told me: "You're lucky you weren't doing the box-wine challenge 10 years ago. The wines tasted like plastic." I'd go a step further and say they tasted like you were sucking them through a $2 garden hose.
When fellow Food writer Mick Vann recently asked me which box wines I would recommend, it got me thinking. I've tasted a couple of box wines that really caught my attention. Both FishEye's Pinot Grigio ($14) and the Target stores' California Chardonnay taste like the grapes they are made from, unhampered by oak, and they are young, fruity, and crisp. But I wondered what other, if any, box wines a crew of knowledgeable wine tasters would pick. Are any box wines worthy of a place in America's refrigerators? I decided to put it to the test.
We asked the biggest wine distributors to send us every box wine they carried. The complications started when we used the word "box."Things have gotten more convoluted since Three Thieves came out with the Tetra Pak, which is like the juice cartons kids use. Adult juice, indeed. Anyway, the industry term for what I was looking for is "bag in a box." We ended up with (gulp!) 50 wines.
Next up was picking the experts. I wanted some parity among disciplines, and I knew that I wanted to start with the three Austinites who had won the Texas Best Sommelier awards (see "Austinites Sweep Texas Sommelier Competition," Sept. 8, 2006): Devon Broglie of Whole Foods, Craig Collins of Prestige Wine Cellars, and Scott Cameron of Avante Beverages. I also wanted some experienced winemakers. Jim Johnson of Alamosa Wine Cellars not only makes great Texas wine; he has worked at some high-end California wineries like Heitz and St. Francis. Mark Penna is making stellar wine for Damian Mandola but also has the experience of actually making this style of wine from when he was the winemaker at Ste. Genevieve. Two retailers from Twin Liquors: our budding TV star Ross Outon (soon to be seen on the PBS reality series The Winemakers) and Martin Aechternacht. I invited two consumers. Steve Tipton is on the board of the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas and owner of one of the top wine cellars in the city. The other consumer was my brother-in-law, Stephen Aechternacht (Martin's father), because he actually regularly drinks boxed wines. The last two slots were chef spots: one for a current chef, Charles Mayes of Cafe Josie, and another for a retired chef, the Chronicle's Vann.
(Let me jump in here with an important oversight. When our Food editor makes a mistake, she calls it the "off-with-my-head department." Well, get your guillotines sharpened. I didn't notice until we were posing for our picture that I had completely forgotten to give this group a gender option. I left out female wine professionals and consumers. So sorry. Be careful with that axe, Eugenia.)
Broglie was kind enough to get us a place for the box-off at the Whole Foods Market Culinary Center. It was a first visit there for most of us, and we were all bowled over at how beautiful and functional the place is. Not only did they treat us kindly and let us dirty a hundred or so of their wine glasses, but they were considerate and helpful, even though they had a private cooking class going on at the same time!
We tasted the wines in varietal groups: Pinot Grigios, Chardonnays, other whites, Merlots, Cabernets, Shirazes, and other reds. Instead of using a 100-point scale, we decided to use the system that most wine competitions would use. A wine could receive any of four rankings. We defined gold as a wine that we would happily buy and keep around the house for personal consumption. Silver meant we'd buy it for parties, cooking, and infrequent drinking. Bronze meant we would happily drink it for free at someone else's party. No medal meant we wouldn't even swallow the stuff; we'd spit it out.
The competition was conducted double blind. Here's how that works: Four volunteers poured the wines in another room and brought them in pitchers so no one, myself included, knew which wines we were drinking. Then, to keep us all honest, for each varietal, we slipped in real glass-bottle wines in the $15-20 range to see if the experts could tell the difference.
The good news is that out of 50 wines, only eight averaged "no medal." The vast majority rated bronze, which is a definite step up from the original box wines. The bad news is that, with the exception of three categories, our judges picked the bottle wines as the top in their varietal. Remember, none of us knew what he was tasting, which just goes to show that you still mostly get what you pay for. However, there are some exceptions.
And the Winners Are ...
Our goal was to find any box wine that could stand up against its glass brethren, and we found three that were absolute knockouts. They were the winning Cabernet, Merlot, and other white.
Our final step was to bring the Top 3 wines in for a face-off. Still, none of us knew what he was tasting, other than a Cab, a Merlot, and an other white. We were aiming for Best Red, Best White, and Best of Show. For the red, all but one judge chose the Cabernet, so all that remained was to choose between the Cabernet and other white for the Best of Show.
This was the crowning moment of our run through 50 wines, so excitement was in the air. Our first three judges voted Cab, signaling a trend. But then the next three picked the other white. Things teeter-tottered through the rest of the judges, and the final vote was ... a tie. We decided to award a Best of Show to both wines.
That's when we finally got to see what we had picked.
1) Seeberger Riesling ($16 for 3 liters) is made in Germany and full of crisp, appley Riesling flavors. The fact that it's a low 10% alcohol makes it a perfect Texas summer wine. Ross Outon summed up his reasons for picking the Seeberger: "The only note I wrote down as I tried the winning white wine was, 'Riesling ... best white.'That says it all.It was varietally correct enough for me to pull out blind, and it was also balanced and well-structured ... and I'd drink another glass." Devon Broglie was equally ecstatic: "I felt like it had a crisp, clean finish. This is a wonderful summer white and the definition of summer quaffing wine! I am going to start keeping a box in the fridge just on principle!" Seeberger is available at most HEB stores, although based on Devon's opinion, I bet we'll be seeing it at Whole Foods in the near future.
2) Powers 2003 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($20 for 3 liters) is made by Badger Mountain Vineyard in Kennewick, Wash. Their main operation is organic, but for this less expensive wine, they must rely on nonorganic fruit. This wine easily could be mistaken for a $15-20-a-bottle Cabernet. It is 100% Cabernet that has seen time in real barrels, something you hardly ever find in wines less than $15 a bottle. That's positively amazing for a wine that works out to the equivalent of $5 a bottle. Winemaker Jim Johnson commented that it is "the perfect box wine, appropriate color, nice nose. It finishes dry, and the fruit is bright, forward, and squeaky clean. Very well-made." I agree. The Powers was my favorite wine of the entire contest. It is available at Grape Vine, Spec's, Whole Foods, and Whip In.
The other top wine was Hardys Stamp Merlot ($16 for 3 liters). Hardy Wine Co. is a huge Australian company with more than a dozen brands. For the Stamp line, winemaker Peter Dawson blends his wines using fruit from all over Australia, then puts the same wines in his bottles as in his boxes. The box wines come at a discount because making and shipping the wine costs so much less than using glass and corks. Their Merlot is velvety with just a touch of green-pepper aroma and quite rich for the price. Vann loved it. "This red is sippable or can go with just about any food," he said. "For an out-of-a-box wine, this is just what the doctor ordered for that glass-a-night before bedtime or ideal for the feast for friends." Hardys Stamp Merlot is only available at Spec's.
News You Can Use Next Time You Go to the Store
Another trend that we noticed was that a few brands showed well in almost every varietal. This is convenient because once you get the image of the label fixed in your mind, you can rest assured that you have a good chance of finding decent wines no matter the grape.
For instance, the highest ranked brand was Wine Cube, a brand sold only at Target stores. They placed in the top tier for their Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, and Shiraz and in the third tier for their Cabernet. These wines are line priced at $16, making them the equivalent of $4 for a regular 750-milliliter bottle.
I was surprised at the strong showing for Delicato, which placed in Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet. Delicato has been advertising all the awards they've been winning, but I've never been convinced. Well, they've obviously invested the time and money in really raising the quality of their wines. That goes to prove why critical tastings should always be double blind.
Other labels showed well. Box Star is an Australian brand that placed in Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet, and Shiraz. Black Box wines also did well in the box-off, placing with their Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet. And Rain Dance placed in the top tier for both their Chardonnay and Shiraz.
So Should I Sell My Collection of First Growth Bordeaux and Buy Boxes?
First and foremost, wine is food, and just like most of us can't and don't eat lobster and caviar every night, we'll also never be in the $100-a-night wine club. Although the idea is appealing, after a while you'd be lusting after $500 bottles. Instead, relax, and know that a good wine at a bargain price is a thing of beauty, one that we all should be excited to find.
Does it matter if it's in a box? Of course it does. On the plus side, you can pour as much as you want and know that the rest will stay nice and fresh, just awaiting your next pour. You'll also save some money by avoiding the price penalty for bottles and corks.
The minus side is that you might feel embarrassed in the checkout line. What will they think if they see me with a box wine?
Just smile, take comfort in your intelligence, and tell them you read it here: Good wines do come in boxes.
Results of Top-Placing Wines
Grape Brand Rank
Box Star: 1
Rain Dance: 1
Wine Cube: 1
Black Box: 2
Killer Juice: 3
Wine Cube: 1
Seeberger Riesling: 1
Franzia Chablis: 2
Black Box: 2
Box Star: 3
Black Box: 2
Box Star: 3
Wine Cube: 3
Pinot Evil: 1
Le Faux Frog Pinot: 2
Badger Mountain Red (Organic): 3
Rain Dance: 1
Wine Cube: 1
Banrock Station: 2
Box Star: 2
Black Box: 3
Hardys Shiraz: 3