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The Great Wine Protector

July 10, 2011

A couple weeks ago when I wrote about wine afflicted with cork taint, AC, who works in a wine store, reminded us that “corked” is a term widely and incorrectly used to describe a host of flaws in wine. Oftentimes people will use the word when the cork fails and the wine is oxidized.

A few months ago I wrote about another simple thing that can produce off flavors in wine: light. And specifically, I asked you to pay attention to the color of the glass bottle that holds your wine, as some are more effective than others.

Light and air can damage wine. So can heat. And so can the very thing that is supposed to protect it from the elements, the cork. Fortunately, there is a technology that protects against all of these things. The only problem is that Americans can’t stand it.

It’s the dreaded wine box.

Seriously. Light cannot penetrate the cardboard box and break down the wine. Oxygen never comes in contact with the wine either, as it’s kept in an airtight pouch. Provided the wine doesn’t sit in the pouch for an extended period of time, the wine that comes out of the spigot should always taste just like it did when it was packaged.

But man, does boxed wine have a tough time in the marketplace. Because in the U.S., boxed wine, even more than screw-top wine, is synonymous with plonk. For years the only wine sold in boxes was Franzia and its like.

Now you may like Franzia. And that’s fine. People’s taste varies. I for one do not like it because it’s wine that is made on an incredibly large scale using bulk grapes that retain none of the characteristic flavors I look for in my favorite varietals. It’s the wine equivalent of eating a chicken breast that doesn’t really taste like chicken. But millions of people do this every day, and they don’t seem to mind.

Anyhow, while Franzia makes boxed wine, not all boxed wine is a bland and boring as Franzia. That said, there really isn’t any great boxed wine on the market, but some of it is indeed good, especially for the price.

The question is how can you tell the difference.

Well, there are some brands that have been lauded for their quality boxed wines, like Black Box, Bota, Bandit, and Boho. And these are good places to start. But each of these producers makes a line of products, and some are more promising than others. Here is what I like to do should I confront a few different options at the store.

1)    Where are the grapes from?
Does the wine carry a general California appellation or something a bit more specific like Sonoma Valley or even Lodi? If you are looking for a wine to have varietal character, you are better off looking for wine made from the grapes of a particular wine-growing region.

2)    Is the wine a good fit for the place?
This is a bit more of a complicated question. I might be circumspect to buy a Pinot Noir from Lodi, but would jump on a Zinfandel from the region. California is not as well known for its Pinot Grigio as the significantly cooler Washington and Oregon.

3)    What’s the vintage?
When it comes to boxed wine, the year isn’t about knowing the total rainfall of a region or how hot it got before harvest. Rather, this is important information to know how young and vibrant a wine is. Some things like Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc you will want to drink as young as possible. Other things like Cabernet Sauvignon might be a little bit rough around the edges, if it hasn’t been sitting around the winery for a few years.

4)    How long has it been in the box?
This is tricky because there is no “filled-on” date, but there will often be a “best by” date somewhere on the box. If you are trying to decide between two different wines, this could be a good tiebreaker. Wine in a box is a good storage solution, but it is not a long-term storage solution. Buy the youngest box (to be clear an older vintage could still be the younger box).

Right now in our fridge we have a Bota Box of 2010 Pinot Grigio from California. It is light and refreshing, and goes great with summery meals. If I want to have a glass of wine with some leftover pesto it hits the spot. When I forget to chill a bottle in time for our roast chicken dinner with zucchini persillade, it fills in nicely.

This isn’t a wine that is going to knock your socks off or impress your friends. At its best, box wine can be a very pleasant thing to have around for a casual dinner. But it is nothing to sneer at either, because that box can do things bottles only dream about. And if you like drinking reasonable quantities of young, fresh and vibrant white wines, a box might be your best bet.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. irishj permalink
    July 11, 2011 4:16 pm

    Daniel, as someone who has worked in the wine business for more than 20 years (as national sales manager for a very high end Russian River Valley winery for the last 10) I in fact agree with you this time. Screw caps are the best closure and a lot of high end CA (and Washington State) wineries are now using them…Stags Leap Winery was one of the first, Whitehall Lane uses them on all of there whites and many of their reds…wineries like Martin Ray and Angeline use them on almost all of their wines. What has been learned is that their is great consumer acceptance of this closure…the people who would buy these wines are educated enough in the business as a rule to have read all of the press on Stelvin (screw cap) vs cork or synthetic cork. Cork has an almost 7% spoilage rate, which is really unacceptable..many consumers taste a corked wine and just think that wine is not good…causing them to never buy it again…BAD for the industry. As for box wine, if you travel to Australia many of the best wines are available in this format and consumers readily pay $50 or $60 for good ones…5 liters is 6 bottles of wine and in the foil bag lined box it will last a couple of weeks after opening, as the wine is dispensed the bag collapses leaving no room for air to spoil the wine. I am not sure that the US market is ready for that yet…but you are correct there are several that are better than acceptable quaffers.
    What you may not know about these lower end wines, and this includes wines in the $12-20 range (for a 750ml) use grape concentrate to “fix” the wines. It is perfectly legal in the US to use up to 27% concentrate- look up “mega -purple” as one example. It is amazing what effect this concentrate has on cheap grapes that would be undrinkable otherwise. The question is: does this matter? It is after all grape juice in a super concentrated form that they are adding…if you are a purist this is adulterating the wine (chaptelization in France) If you are just drinking the wine it makes it taste better

  2. Matt K permalink
    July 11, 2011 5:16 pm

    Thank you for posting this! My wife doesn’t drink wine and I do, so I keep a Bota Box of red (I’m a fan of both their Malbec and their Red Zin) on stand-by so I can have a decent glass with dinner without having to feel like I need to guzzle a whole bottle at a sitting. Plus it’s MUCH less expensive per litre. I’ve recently purchased a box of their Riesling which is in my fridge (haven’t had a chance to try it yet – I’ve been drinking beer more this summer than white).

    Good to know there are some other good boxes out there. When I’ve ventured away from Bota, I’ve had pretty bad experiences (my wife bought me a box of something-Canyon (Clabbert?)) I tried to drink it but couldn’t do it.

  3. July 12, 2011 4:22 pm

    Hi Daniel,

    Totally agree with everything you say and in short, our little company’s goal to change all of those perceptions. Not to be a crass opportunist or anything (okay, maybe just a little bit…), but would love for you to give our stuff a try. While we may be a touch biased (okay, very much so), we’re pretty sure we are putting out the best boxed wine on the planet right now.

    Just let me know if you’re interested in giving us a shot and I’ll set something up. Would love the feedback.

    Take care,


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