Drinking Outside the Box: Do carton wines deserve respect?

Drinking Outside the Box: Do carton wines deserve respect?
Photos by Scott Andrews

Believe it or not, box wines are beginning to get some respect after years of being thought of as the trailer trash of the industry. "Trailer trash," alas, is not my term: Eric Asimov used it in The New York Times for a 2011 tasting — another sign that boxes are becoming worthy of attention. Many of the wines featured in Asimov's tasting, including one rating the full three stars, are not readily available in San Antonio, so the Current generously volunteered to taste ones that are.

Some things to know before we get to the results: It's immediately clear, for starters, that much attention is being paid to the actual boxes; they ranged from gold-on-black wannabe formal, to look-at-how-virtuous-I-am recycled casual. (All are more environmentally friendly than glass.) With one exception, Target's Cube, the wines tasted are all available at Whole Foods; they come in three-liter sizes; and most were under $20. The bladder inside the box means that as wine is dispensed, the bag collapses, keeping out the air that is the biggest problem with preservation; once opened, the wines will keep for quite a while. But the relative permeability of the box and bag, as compared to glass, also means they have a limited shelf life; you will find "serve-by" dates on many.

The Bota Box 2011 California Pinot Grigio didn't have a lot of character (which can be said of conventionally packaged PGs), but it was pleasantly fruity. "Like a flat Champagne," said one taster. "Welch's grape juice" thought another. Some green apple did eventually emerge, along with the suggestion that it would be good in a spritzer.

Big House's 2011 Unchained "Naked" Chardonnay box was harder to get going than some, but "I'd be the least embarrassed to take this one to a party due to the cartoon quality of the box," said a participant. "I have never liked chard, but I could drink this," claimed another. A little apple, slight citrus, some spice and a decently lingering finish were its best qualities.

The 2011 Black Box Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand claims that it "stays fresh for weeks after opening," but this is one that might not hang around that long. It was typically grassy, light on the palate, and smelled of grapefruit peel: "A Johnny one-note, but with soul." The grass dissipated with time, leaving the citrus to dominate.

The Big Green Box came filled with Pepperwood Grove's non-vintage pinot noir from Chile's Valle Central. Pinot can do well in Chile, but this was not one of those: it tasted cooked, like "barbecue in a glass," and, best comment of all, "I often wake up to this — a glass of half-drunk wine with cat hair in it."

Most of us thought that Target's Wine Cube was the most practical package; it was also the least expensive at $15-$17. "I wouldn't assume right away it was from a box," was one comment. But despite some good smoke and leather, this 2011 California Merlot also was judged thin with little complexity — though one wag did grant that it was merely "understated" and "would be good for an art opening" where it would come across "way better than most stuff you get."

The final wine was a 2011 Bota Box Cabernet Sauvignon from South Australia. In the most honest packaging, it was also our favorite red and opened up with time. Comments ranged from "I don't hate it" to "It has some character and depth … and would be great in sangria." Of the experience as a whole, we leave you with this insightful commentary: "I thought this stuff would be a helluva lot worse." Me too.

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