Food

For July 4, wine in a box could be a winner

July 4th is approaching, which probably means you’re firming up plans for all those picnics, road trips and backyard meals.

It’s also the time of year when glass wine bottles, with their attendant corks and coverings, can be less elegant than annoying.

True, screwcaps allow you to leave your corkscrew in the kitchen. But you’re still toting a hunk of glass that weighs nearly as much as the wine inside.

Which is part of the reason why wine boxes, once popular (and then scorned) in the late ’70s and early ’80s, are making a comeback.

But there’s a difference this time: The wine inside is very much more likely to be worth drinking. Old-school box wines tended to be pretty nasty. In the past two years, however, several decent “superpremium” (wine-industry doublespeak for “not total plonk”) wines have gotten the box treatment.

The packages themselves aren’t much different from the Reagan era. The wine is stored in bags of multilayered resin film mostly manufactured by the Scholle Corp. of Irvine, Calif., which pioneered the “bag in box” concept 50 years ago as a technology to hold battery acid. A new push-button tap has replaced old pull levers, and the boxes seem to keep wine fresh for four to six weeks after opening (more than enough time to polish one off).

Perhaps the biggest splash has come from California’s Black Box label, which sold 265,000 cases last year of its $18-to-$25 three-liter boxes, equivalent to four standard bottles.  The Australians are also contenders — no surprise, since they popularized the sale of what they call “cask” wines, and proved that the boxes could attract waves of new customers.

“That package created wine drinkers,” says Roberta Morris, director of global market development at Scholle, which manufactures about 70 percent of the wine-box packages on the market.

And now other U.S. companies are broadening the box category.  The most forward-thinking is Three Thieves, a two-year-old partnership between California vintners Joel Gott and Roger Scommegna, and Charles Bieler, U.S. sales director for Chateau Routas of Provence.

You might recall Three Thieves from their retro-cool one-liter jugs of zinfandel and Cabernet sauvignon, which flew off shelves last year. Their latest idea? One-liter Tetra Briks of wine, which they’ve introduced under their Bandit label. The soft-sided Tetra Brik, manufactured by Swiss-based Tetra Pak, is already used for everything from soup to those ubiquitous juice boxes; its aseptic lining keeps contents inert and fresh. The same Tualatin, Ore., facility that boxes Three Thieves also packages chicken broth.

Europeans have embraced these boxes for years. In fact, Scommegna was inspired by watching Italian grandmothers grab them off the shelf.  (Tetra Briks account for nearly a third of wine sales by volume in Italian supermarkets, nearly as much as the standard 750-ml glass bottle.)

Americans, who love the new when it comes to anything but wine, are latecomers to the Tetra Pak party.

“This stuff is exciting, but it’s terrifying,” says Bieler. “It’s not automatic and people have to take a bit of a leap of faith. Where did 750 [milliliters, the standard wine-bottle size] come from anyway?”

Two factors work in the Thieves’ favor.  One is quality: They’re talented winemakers, and the wines are usually respectable, sometimes surprisingly good. Their initial effort — 20,000 cases of Bandit Bianco, made from Italian trebbiano grapes — was a runaway hit.

The other is price. At $6-7 per liter, you get 25 percent more wine — decent wine, mind you — at a price just a notch above Two-Buck Chuck. In part, they’re passing along their own savings. Even second-rate glass and cork are expensive, but a Three Thieves Tetra Brik costs the company just 10 cents, about the same as a cheap cork. Shipping costs less, too, both because of the reduction in weight and that the squared-off Briks mean there is no wasted space between containers.

Meanwhile, the savvy minds at Wine Block, a new brand owned by Kendall-Jackson founder Jess Jackson, haven’t strayed quite as far outside the box. (Sorry … couldn’t resist.) But their focus on convenience is impressive.

Wine Block took the standard Scholle plastic container and shrank it by half: 1.5-liter bags are housed inside vibrant square cubes that tuck into a fridge or cooler with far less fuss than their 3-liter counterparts. (Target offers a similar product, the Wine Cube, in some stores.) The Block is a box fit for Goldilocks: Not too big, not too small, as perfect for a summer bash as it is for casual drinkers who don’t buy wine because they can’t finish a bottle before it spoils.

The wines themselves — 75,000 cases each of Cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay — are primarily sourced with excess from Kendall-Jackson’s own 12,000 acres of vineyards, plus some off the bulk market.  Once again: A well-made product from a reputable name — at $10 for the equivalent of two standard bottles.

“We think we have a tiger by the tail here,” says Kendall-Jackson vice president George Rose.

So what’s the catch? The glut in the California wine market, which opened the door for projects like these, is gone. Good, cheap juice is harder to get. That said, Wine Block is still tapped into the Kendall-Jackson pipeline; the Three Thieves are adding pinot grigio, merlot and syrah to their repertoire and looking for new deals on the global market.

Meantime, these new-style boxes allow you to enjoy wine without lugging around a clunky bottle. Seems like a perfectly good thing to celebrate on Independence Day.

TASTING NOTES

So, how are these new box wines?  They’re tailored for easy drinking — and often not bad. You’ll generally taste clear fruit, modest amounts of oak and a clean finish. At least one was truly distinctive.

Whites generally fared better than reds. The standout by far was Three Thieves 2003 Bandit Bianco trebbiano Rubicone ($6/1 litre), packaged from grapes in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. Trebbiano is a workhorse of a grape, perhaps Europe’s most-planted variety and often added to punch up other wines.  Whatever the Thieves did here, it works. Theirs is refreshing and tangy, with a smooth core of citrus flavors and a hint of almond. Drink it, cook with it, serve it to friends; a wine this pleasant, and this versatile, is nearly impossible to find at the price.

The Wine Block 2004 California chardonnay ($10/1.5 litres) was also a contender.  It’s a standard Golden State chard — with that inevitable brush of oak — but there’s peach, pear and tart lime in the mix, making it balanced and pleasant.  Those bright notes offset the expected creaminess. Very much what you’d expect, given the source. Kendall-Jackson knows its market and this wine will please many of its fans.

I don’t think the reds are quite as far along, though several are a good option for a backyard bash.

Again, Wine Block showed well with both its 2002 California Cabernet sauvignon and its 2002 California merlot (both $10/1.5 litres). They’re competent varietal examples that will get plastic cups clicking. The Cab is built around plum, black cherry and cocoa flavors. It’s a bit too sweet, but well-defined and it finishes well. The merlot is focused on brambly fruit, with the oak nicely folded in along with subtle aromas of tobacco and coffee. It’s bright, just full-bodied enough and shows way better than many bottled merlots.

The Black Box 2003 Paso Robles Cabernet sauvignon ($18/3 litres) showed the most delicate flavors, but it lacked character. While the wine is full of those classic cherry and blackberry notes, its aromas were muted.

The big names of Australian wine also provide decent options.  If you’re a shiraz fan, the Hardy’s 2003 Stamp of Australia shiraz ($16/3 litres) should work. It’s a workaday Aussie effort, but there’s good spice and it’s got a nice earthy note to balance out the fruit. Doesn’t play all the notes correctly, but the tune is pleasant enough.

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