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Wine in a box, one serving at a time

The latest twist on ditching the bottle may be the most convenient yet. Jon Bonné takes a look.

Just when we got used to wine in a box getting respectable, it’s been reinvented.

Three Thieves, a partnership of vintners Joel Gott and Roger Scommegna, and Charles Bieler of France’s Chateau Routas, knows something about packaging wine. Their jug wines — which kitschily evoked memories of low-grade plonk but improved on the wine in the bottle — were revolutionary when unveiled a couple years ago. Next came their , soft-sided boxes that could easily tuck into a crowded refrigerator and eliminated the need for all that glass.

Now they’ve shrunk their boxes. The Three Thieves 250-ml “bullets,” sold four to a pack, resemble elongated, narrow juice boxes with less severe edges. It’s nothing new to buy such a four-pack; mass-market brands like Gallo and Sutter Home have been doing it for years. (Sutter Home was the brainchild of Trinchero Family Estates, which has become a partner in the Three Thieves project.). But the new format offers both more wine — 250 ml, versus the standard 187-ml serving — and less waste.

There are so many reasons why this new format makes sense. The Three Thieves folks have focused on its environmental virtues: made largely of paper, the Tetra Prisma, as the format is called (sometimes used for single-serve soups) eliminates the need to recycle glass and cuts down on shipping costs, which is one reason why airlines have taken a serious interest since its unveiling late last month.

But the truth is: It’s just plain brilliant. Either you can envision yourself swigging away at the modest box of wine nestled comfortably in your palm, or you turn up your nose and go back to decanting your bottle of Lynch Bages.

The potential of this format is immediate on first glance: Toss one of these suckers in a backpack and haul it to the beach — no corkscrew needed. Heck, no cup needed. Drink it and toss it in the recycling bin. (If you feel the need to tote around stemware, each box provides enough for two modest glasses or one jumbo.)

These little suckers may be the biggest newsroom conversation piece I’ve ever kept on my desk. Perhaps it’s the juice box concept rewritten in an adult context, but their appeal is simply instantaneous.

Whole Foods certainly got it. By May 1, says Bieler, the “bullets” — complete with smarmy back panels (“This is what happens when winemakers and engineers hang out together”) — will be available in every Whole Foods location that sells wine.

With that sort of unveiling, it’s no surprise Three Thieves ran through its initial batch of 10,000 6-liter cases and is planning another run next month. Other supermarkets are likely to feature them soon, and the company is working to place them in stadium and beach restaurant concessions. A four-pack will cost between $8.99 and $10.99 in retail stores.

“I'm an enthusiastic promoter,” Bieler says, “but it has blown our f---ing minds.”

There are a few shortfalls. Thanks to federal revenue regulations, individual boxes can only be retailed in bundles of four, though restaurants should be able to serve them one by one. But the biggest drawback right now is probably what’s inside the box.

The Three Thieves boxes will launch with a 2002 Cabernet and a 2004 pinot grigio, both from California. The wines certainly are on par with similar California efforts blended from wine bought on the open market. I just wish they were better. Bieler defends them as “varietally correct,” which is true, but when it comes to cheap California Cab and its often clunky oak flavors, that’s a pretty low bar.

Then there is the matter of the straw, or more precisely, the lack thereof. Chalk that one up to the Thieves’ biggest customer, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. The LCBO nixed the straw idea, invoking a juice-boxes-and-kids argument.

What juice might possibly be doing in the wine aisle is beyond me, but no matter. Even without the straw, bet on these little boxes becoming the summer’s must-try drink.

The end of Cal-Ital?Not long ago, I got an e-mail from Shafer Vineyards, the Napa winery known for its excellent, and much sought-after, Relentless and Hillside Select wines. After 13 years of producing a very lush Napa sangiovese called Firebreak, owner Doug Shafer had decided to give up and move on, replanting his vineyard with grapes more common to Napa: Cabernet sauvignon, syrah and petite sirah.

Shafer has always been savvy about managing its image (these are the folks who got plenty of what TV types like to call “promotional consideration” on last summer’s Fox show “Hell’s Kitchen”) and the winery decided to end its sangio era with a bang. Not only did it title its 2003 Firebreak “Last Chance,” but it sent a bottle — wrapped in a white flag — to Piero Antinori, who as head of Tuscany’s famed Antinori winery knows a thing or two about sangiovese.

The scuttlebutt about so-called “Cal-Ital” wines — made in the Golden State using grapes native to Italy — has long been that they’re too lush and too fruity, without the earthy subtleties that have made Brunello di Montalcino or Barbaresco so renowned. 

That assessment often is true, and it’d be tempting to view Shafer’s courteous surrender as a definitive nail in Cal-Ital’s coffin. But that’s too easy. California is too big, and too young as a winemaking region, to abandon its barbera and grignolino. It is fair, though, to take Shafer’s move as a sign that Napa’s all-grapes-welcome mentality is slowly subsiding, with its best producers focusing on the sort of wine that made the world first take notice of Napa.

Could Napa grow to become the next venue for great sangiovese? The climate and soil seem to dictate otherwise, but never say never. Here’s the thing, though: The final vintage of Firebreak will retail for a suggested $42. At that price, would you rather buy the real deal from Tuscany, or the earnest replica from California?

Three Thieves 2004 pinot grigio California “Bandit” ($10/4x250ml):
Fresh and grassy, with good basic lemon and gummy melon notes. But it’s also a bit watery, with a bite on the end.

Three Thieves 2002 Cabernet sauvignon California “Bandit” ($10/4x250ml): Decent black fruit, with no shortage of sweet oak in there, by one means or another. Totally generic, with punchy sangria-like notes, plus a few years’ age to deepen it. It is what it is, but works remarkably well when swigged from the box.

Shafer 2003 sangiovese Napa Valley “Firebreak Last Chance” ($42): The well-loved winery’s final run with Italian varieties includes 8 percent Cabernet sauvignon in the mix. Dense and deep ruby, filled with sharp cherry and blackberry, and an almost tangy overtone. Hints of charred wood play in too, along with a weird syrah-like bacon scent and a whack of that classic sangiovese dust. Yet it’s all Napa at its core, with thick fruit, grainy tannins and a ton of oak in there. A classy farewell, but you can't blame them for pulling up and moving on.