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Beer blahs? Bring bubbly to the beach

Want to turn your picnic into an elegant outing? Jon Bonné takes a look at Champagnes and wines that are easier for you to carry along — and open.

Sun, sand and ... corkscrews?

Oh, I think not. In this season of road trips and outdoor concerts, trips to the shore or the woods, no corkscrew means one less item to haul. Winemakers have bent over backwards to find new alternatives to corks. Quality wine is getting as easy to open as beer.

Screwcaps, a curiosity just three years ago, are now commonplace. Caps for white wines are still more common than ones for reds, but for a quick-drinking bottle, you can find no shortage of options. Almost all New Zealand winemakers have abandoned corks as well as many in Chablis and Bordeaux, where you’d expect the cork to reign supreme. The screwcap market is so flush as to have warranted a handful of devices meant either to ease unscrewing (a task, let's be honest, that requires about half as much brainpower as mastering the Wave) or to make the process more elegant (file under hat-on-pig, or maybe Champale-in-a-goblet).

My hands-down favorite closure remains , a glass stopper with a rubber O-ring that’s as elegant as it is practical. After early trials, primarily in Germany, Vino-Lok is now popping up here. The stoppers not only are a cinch to remove — easier than a bottle cap — but also have the virtue of almost perfectly sealing your wine. U.S. vintners have caught the glass-stopper bug, and not just for cheaper wines.  Peter Rosback at Oregon’s Sineann has put several high-end reds under stopper, including his $35 cabernet franc. Napa’s Whitehall Lane is following suit with its $75 reserve Cab.

For true beach days, the 187 ml mini bottle is the way to go. Just like box wine, 187s are making huge strides, with sales up 20 percent in a year, according to ACNielsen data. As with the boxes, the problem here is quality: Much of the wine in minis ranges from dull to undrinkable. Good chardonnay, in particular, seems to be in short supply, though that has lots to do with the eternal glut of bad chardonnay. Still, standouts can be found. Fans of Little Pengiun shiraz from Australia can rejoice that the popular Yellow Tail wannabe has embraced the mini format. Those big berry flavors are most definitely made for summer. (We await a Yellow Tail mini.)

But the best mini arrivals in the past few months are matching blue-and-pink 187s from Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte. Though the packaging for Feuillatte’s “1/4” bottles is too girly even for the most self-assured of men, the new offering has two big virtues: 1) real Champagne in an attractive bottle, much like Pommery’s Pop and Piper-Heidsieck’s Baby Piper; and 2) a spiffy wrist strap that secures around the bottle neck. The colors — hot blue and fuschia — limit its customer base, but I’d almost be willing to live with the man-purse implications just to strap a bottle of Champagne to my wrist as I carry my beach towel. Almost.

(Public-service announcement: If you happen to try any of these in the sun, don't forget to drink plenty of water. Hydrate, people, hydrate. And don't give the beach patrol reason to suspect.)

The explosion of options in box wine will serve you well, too. For sheer convenience, the one to beat remains the single-serving , but Boisset’s French Rabbit — a series of collapsible, earth-friendly 1-liter boxes — offers similar convenience and slightly better wine. Sourced from vineyards in France’s Languedoc and Roussillon regions, the pinot noir and merlot aren’t bad, despite being on opposite ends of the chic scale, and the cabernet sauvignon was impressive.

That’s more than can be said for most new 3-liter boxes, which are improving but still need work. If you can overlook the names, Fish Eye shiraz and Killer Juice cabernet, two entries from California heavyweight The Wine Group, work quite well as paper-cup wines. The Fish Eye offers pretty peppery aromas as you go, unusual for inexpensive fruit-juicy shiraz. Otherwise, though we’ve found before, your options slide downhill rapidly.

Perhaps the weirdest new packaging move is the Australian-born Zork, a sealed, hollow pop-off plastic cap with a peel-around fastener. It lacks the quick-and-dirty virtue of the screw cap and, despite what advocates insist, its looks scream “cheap” to me — though it’s being used on wine in the $10 to 15 range. On the up side, inadvertently twisting in a corkscrew doesn’t appear to do any major damage to your wine.

With so many new packaging options, the next challenge for beach wines is quality. Table wines have staked their claim, and now’s the moment for better wines to follow suit. That’s not to say we need Barolo in a box, but if there were wine justice in this world, good Beaujolais would come in mini-bottles. 

Of course, if there were wine justice in this world, people wouldn’t be scrunching up their faces at the word Beaujolais.

Tasting NotesHeaded to the shore?  Packing for a hike?  Here are six new picks that should survive the trip.

Nicolas Feuillatte NV Brut “1/4” ($12 per 187 ml bottle, Pasternak Wine Imports): Feuillatte offers both its traditional dry Brut (in electric blue) and Brut rosé (in fuschia), with those handy wrist straps a final selling point. The twist-off cap feels a bit cheap, and the dry wine is a bit on the sugary side, but the regular brut is full of ripe, sweet apple and honey scents. The rosé is more floral and the flavors more front-loaded, with a fresh, yeasty note and a pleasant dry character. The bubbles in both seem less pronounced than in the regular bottles, but it’s a small price to pay for portable Champagne.

French Rabbit 2004 cabernet sauvignon vin de pays d’Oc ($10, Boisset America): A bit leathery, both as in saddle leather and fruit leather. Scents of dried branches amid the usual oak. Surprisingly subtle and mouthfilling, with a medium-light weight and a clean finish. Way above average for the category.

French Rabbit 2004 pinot noir vin de pays d’Oc ($10, Boisset America): It’s hard to find pinot in a box, probably because it’s such a persnickety (and expensive) grape. And yet this one works, once you push past a slight burnt smell in the fruit. Surprisingly tart and fresh, dominated by strawberry jam and cola. Paper-cup pinot.

Johannes Ohling 2004 riesling trocken Rheingau “Nikki” ($12, Miskeit Wines): Ohlig's tall, slender bottles and Belle Epoque labels are charming enough, and with a Vino-Lok stopper, they have the added bonus of serving as great water bottles when you're done with the wine. Fully dry and crisp, even sweet-wine skeptics will like the opulent Rheingau aromatics in this bargain of a riesling.

Little Penguin 2004 shiraz South Eastern Australia ($7 for 4 187ml bottles, PWG Vintners): Big fruit-punch flavors in a tiny bottle. The sweetness is up front, with a basic Aussie-style appeal, but it’s tailored to make shiraz lovers happy, with a happy dash of spice at the end. Just ignore the name Foster’s (which makes Little Penguin) slapped on these four-bottle totes: Chix Pax. The wine does not, mercifully, taste like chicken.

Fish Eye shiraz California ($7 for 4 187 ml bottles): Boldly peppery, with dry-leaf notes and a bright, easygoing disposition. Nicely aromatic, with a juicy berry finish. Vintage not marked on the mini bottles, but an $18 3-liter box was from the 2004 harvest.

Hail a Cab? No thanksMy on old-school Napa Cabs revived some old issues for a lot of readers.  Napa certainly has its defenders, like Bruce Coulthard of St. Helena, Calif., who stuck up for his hometown wines: “I drink and buy the ‘Old Guard’ any opportunity that I get. The wines you have listed are very much the true flavors that have distinguished what the Napa wines are all about.”

But many of you were even less charitable than me about Napa’s biggest problem: not enough value for money. Wrote Thomas J. Rice, Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: “Lately, I have enjoyed Silverado's offerings as they are still comparatively reasonable. Some of these bottles just aren't worth it any longer. Bottles of Mondavi reserve that once were a splurge are now out of sight for ordinary humans. I contend that you can find better values elsewhere.”

Jacob V. Lulack, Plains, Mont.: “I don't need to pay some CEO for the buzz I get after the wine hits my stomach.”

Yet longtime Napa lover Max Hauser crunched the numbers and determined that many of these wines haven't witnessed the price spikes common to so-called “cult” Napa Cabs. Hauser says that, 25 years ago, he paid $8 for Stag's Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. and $12 for Clos du Val. Factoring in a “nominal inflation factor (CPI) of 2.23 since 1981,” he wrote, those prices would be $18 and $27. “Obviously some old-school Cabernets have risen more, but not always much.”

Among the wines we mentioned, Silver Oak in particular seemed to take a drubbing. Judi in Carbondale, Colo., offered a typical opinion: “I was a Silver Oak fan from many years ago, faithfully buying my one case every year. The last three years have not been worth the price and I doubt I'll even buy one bottle this year. For a lower price there are much better quality Cabs.”