Cutting Corners

There are few things less romantic than a box of wine. That bulky shape, plastic spigot, and bladderlike bag just don’t scream, “Let’s get engaged!” For Americans, they don’t even whisper, “Drinkable.”

In the United States, box wine has been synonymous with plonk. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy—if people only expect to find plonk in a box, few companies will ever be willing to put something better in it. Yet Australians and Europeans love it: As much as half of the wine they consume is out of a box (or, more accurately, “bag in a box”).

Boxes have several advantages over the traditional bottle. They’re more efficient to store and transport, and the wine stays fresher longer—producers claim up to 45 days after opening—because almost no air contacts the wine as it is poured. There’s no risk of cork taint or breakage. And if you remove the bag from the box, the wine can be quickly chilled. So the box makes sense for someone who might only have a glass or two a day and doesn’t want to worry about a half-full bottle going stale.

A tasting here at CHOW of 12 different American box wines across several brands and varieties—all readily available at wine merchants and liquor stores—revealed that good wines were few and far between. Many tasted heavily manipulated, seeming more like a clumsily mixed solution of alcohol, acid, water, and a conservative dash of wine flavoring.

The product we consistently liked best was the Bota Box from Delicato Family Vineyards, whose wines tasted fresh and bright. The three-liter box of 2005 Shiraz was nicely balanced, with an oaky smell, like woodchips—but the aroma was integrated with some pepper and some sweet berry. And the three-liter 2005 Chardonnay smelled of green apple and pear, tending toward dry.

Beyond Delicato, we found few brands to get behind. Black Box (we tried the Chardonnay and the Merlot) and Killer Juice (the Cabernet) tasted like drinkable, cheap wine but lacked harmony, balance, and freshness. Fish Eye Pinot Grigio and Shiraz and Bandit Chardonnay and Merlot, which I had seen praised, were disappointing: Though they tasted like real wine as opposed to alcoholic grape water, the flavors weren’t quite ripe enough and the alcohol was high.

The five-liter Franzia Chardonnay and Trove Chardonnay and Cabernet were undrinkable, tasting more as if they had been constructed in a laboratory than in a vineyard.

We didn’t find a lot of other options on the market, which, according to Roger Dooley, who writes a blog devoted to box wines, is a common problem. Dooley, a hobbyist from Mishawaka, Indiana, says the trouble is that “there simply isn’t enough product to keep me busy.” But the selection is gradually improving: “I think we are starting to see more diversity in box wines in the States and the availability of better and more interesting wines. I just had an Argentine Malbec—that’s something you wouldn’t have found a few years ago.”

There’s promise yet for box wines on the American market. DTour is a collaboration from three huge names in gastronomy: Daniel Boulud, the much-heralded chef; Daniel Johnnes, importer, sommelier, and wine director of Restaurant Daniel; and Dominique Lafon, a famed Burgundian winemaker. The trio launched a 2004 Chardonnay from the Mâcon region of Burgundy to much fanfare in 2005, in a three-liter bag-in-a–cardboard tube. They followed in 2006 with another vintage of Mâcon and a Côtes du Rhône. The product fell out of the market this year because of problems with the packaging, but Johnnes says that DTour will return in 2008. At around $37 a pop (the equivalent of about $9 a bottle) the DTour wines were high end for box wine, but their success could be a bellwether for the entire category. “They were twice as expensive, so we had to make them three times as good as what was out there. But, oh my God, they sold huge all over the world,” Johnnes told me. “They were in six or seven countries in Europe, Canada, and every state in the U.S.”