Box of Trouble

I am blessed in that I live very near (stumbling distance) to the mega-liquor store Binny’s in River North. Binny’s has every variety of wine and beer known to man (except they don’t stock Trumer Pils) and at reasonable prices, too.

For Christmas someone gave me a wine stopper that you can “pump” the air out of the bottle with and it seals the bottle back up so that it keeps indefinitely (well, I don’t know how long indefinitely is because we typically drink it over a few days, but long enough). This isn’t the one I have (mine is plastic, better if you drop it on the ground a lot) but you get the idea. We also have a little 6 bottle wine refrigerator that we received and keep in the kitchen – this way we can keep the wine at a reasonable temperature (around 60 degrees or so) which means that it is cool but not cold.

With all of these technological upgrades, I have been purchasing more upscale wines, to boot (especially now since the red wines keep longer). I have been buying Pinot Noir in the $30 / range, which buys you quite a nice bottle of wine at Binny’s (something that would cost you $70+ at a restaurant).

Just for grins I was going on a trip and I asked the clerk at Binny’s what the “best box wine” was in the house. He took me over and pointed to the “Black Box” series of wines as he grimaced at my question. I selected the Merlot (which I don’t usually drink) for $16 and off I went.

The box wine came in a 3 liter box. This is exactly 4 times the .75 (750 ml) bottles of wine that you buy on the shelf. The box was surprisingly compact – certainly it is more efficient to purchase wine this way (if all else was equal, which it isn’t).

The wine also had a tap, like a mini beer keg. That was a cool feature, which would facilitate pouring and is a lot easier than opening each one with a corkscrew (or screw cap nowadays). This would also eliminate the need for a pump stopper like the one I received as a gift.

Before we started drinking it, I did a little math. Since the box contained the quantity of four bottles of wine, at $16 the cost per bottle was $4. OK, that is kind of scary when you think of it that way, you are near Boone’s Farm territory. Even factoring the element of savings due to the fact that the box was small and compact (easy to ship, cheaper than 4 glass bottles) this was a bit scary.

So… we were drinking a $32 bottle of wine (OK, so around $30 or something like that, but $32 makes the fractions work better) and then we went to the equivalent of a $4 bottle of wine… 1/8 as good ?!?

One time I remember hearing a comedy sketch by someone is that there is nothing worse than getting a lot of cheap crap… I think the line was something like “get 3 short sleeve suits at K Mart for the price of one” or the famous line from that old Ted D*nson movie “Cousins” where the old uncle says “I’d rather have a case of the clap than a case of this wine!”

That is what leaped to mind as I swirled the Black Box around in my glass. It had kind of an eerie odor, and it wasn’t good. My friend Elton said that if you start out on it and get used to it – it isn’t so bad – but it was a nasty come down. Now I feel sorry for him because I abandoned that whole box in his apartment where it will surely be drunk at some point in the future.

I don’t know anything about the wine “process” and I remember the big scrum over whether a cork or screw cap was better. I do know that if they ever put some decent wine in a nicely packaged box like this it would go over well in an outdoors party situation (maybe for the in-laws). And it sure as heck was efficient to carry and pour. Too bad it was…

a box of trouble

Cross posted at LITGM

16 thoughts on “Box of Trouble”

  1. Try the Delicato bag-in-box wines, especially their Shiraz (California). It won’t be a life-changing event, but it tastes good. Guzzle, don’t sip, with barbecue, pizza, and any reddish leftovers. (How’s that for a food pairing?) You won’t get any better or worse wine out of a bag than was put into it, but a lot of producers just put in some really awful stuff. On the other hand, if you like their product in glass, you’ll like it in plastic and cardboard, too.

    Just about anything from south of the equator is likely to be a good deal. Sauvignon blanc from Chile is ridiculously cheap and eminently quaffable, especially for summer. Chenin blanc (a.k.a. Steen) from South Africa is another bargain. Try some torrontes from Argentina if you can find it; it’s a strange white with a distinctive taste. For reds, carménère from Chile, pinotage from South Africa, or malbec from Argentina are a lot of fun, and they also do the usual red varietals. If you spend $15/bottle for any of them, you’ve been had. I can get some of them for $6.50 for a 1.5 liter bottle and put the savings towards my new liver.

  2. Yes, they still do. Before I got married and had kids, I drank wine with a vintage year. Now I drink wine with an expiration date.

  3. One big advantage of the box and bag method is that it prevents contact oxygen from reaching the wine after it has been opened and destroying the flavor and the chemicals that provide the health benefits. From what I can tell, unless you plan on storing a wine for decades, the box and bag is an all around technically superior option.

    I think the problem with the actual wine results from status consciences. Fine wine is strongly associated with economic elitism. Older wine is even more prestigious and it always comes in bottles. I think that people who drink very good/expensive wine don’t really care about the marginal cost of the bottle or the loss of quality in a stored open bottle. Only people who consume the lower prestige wines are sensitive enough to cost that they will adopt the new method. That in turn means that only lower quality wines end up in boxes. That creates a feedback loop in which people associate boxed wine with low quality and are therefor even more loathe to adopt the system.

    To get around this, I imagine that one could put a decent wine in a box, perhaps modify the exterior cosmetically and then sell the wine as kind of special “healthy wine”. It would be technically true and people might be willing to absorb the stigma of the box if they thought it was good for them.

    Does anyone know about the quality of boxed wine in,say, France?

  4. This post shows why serious tasters do blind taste tests.

    (Those interested in Black Box wines — which are generally quite good — should look at the long list of awards they have won, which you can find on their site. Almost all of those awards would have come from blind taste tests.

    The scientifically minded might want to look at the recent study of wine ratings a supposed prices; the key finding was that the subjects thought the supposedly more expensive wines tasted better.)

    All that said, box wines can spoil, and so you do want to look hard for production dates when you buy them.

  5. Ha ha as far as blind taste tests I was going to go blind if I kept drinking that wine. Anyone who knows me knows how cheap I am and was damn disposed to like that wine if it was remotely tolerable. But it wasn’t.

    Could it have been a bad “box”? I will try another box some time and see if it is better.

  6. Those silly hand pumps don’t do squat for preserving opened wine. The third best option is to put the bottle in the fridge (even red wines). The second best option is to keep it in a collapsible bag so oxygen doesn’t get in. The first best option is to keep it in a collapsible bag IN the fridge. I agree with Shannon — wine boxes would seem to be a technically superior option that is hampered mainly by perception.

    In a similar vein, I read an article a few years ago by some vintners who performed blind taste tests between corked and screw-capped bottles of their own stuff. They concluded that the screw cap wine was consistently good, but corked bottles suffer from micro-leaks that make them more variable and occasionally “off.” They had taken to screw-capping their private stock while continuing to sell the corked stuff.

    I recently discovered Black Box, and I rather like it.

  7. Art Dodger – you should read “To Cork or Not to Cork” – it is the very best book I have ever read on the topic of wine closures. You will learn about the science behind the different types of closures and why some different types of wines use cork, plastic, and screw caps.

  8. Jonathan,

    I think an accordion bottle would work if you can get the lining right. They are design expressly for storing chemicals that degrade in contact with oxygen or moisture.

    One marketing work around for either system might be to make something that people can transfer their wine into from a bottle. Once people got used the idea then it might spread.

    Another perceptual problem with boxes is the volume of box. People look at the box and think, “jeeze, how much wine does this guy drink anyway?”

  9. “Bad wine can be used to make a perfectly good pot roast.”

    Lexington makes a good point. Bad wine is still a valuable food that can be used to enhance something else, or it can be modified.

    My keen interest in history often leads to the collection of errant trivia. I once heard about “winter wine”, a crude way to make fortified wine before the invention of distillation. Simply wait for the cold of winter, and throw out any ice that collects in your wine. The ice is water, and the remaining wine has a higher alcohol content as well as a more potent flavor. At least one source claims that including a date on a vintage was started with winter wine, as people would know that more potent wine would come from the colder winters.

    When I moved out on my own, I would make winter wine in the freezer for my roommates. (I don’t drink myself.) Boxed wine was best not only because it was the greatest volume per dollar spent, but also because quality control was generally good. Rarely is there good wine to be found in boxes, but you won’t get a stomach-churning mess either.

    I would use plastic 2-liter soft drink bottles. Simply fill one up about 70% of the way, stick it in the freezer until ice forms, and then pour whatever is liquid into another 2-liter bottle. I strained it through the colander I had purchased to make spaghetti in order to catch all the slushy ice.

    The result was good enough for college-aged kids who had a pretension of sophistication. White wines worked better than red if you are planning on drinking the result, mainly because concentrating a red’s flavor is not really a good idea if you are going to drink it directly. The concentrated red made a fantastic cooking wine, though.


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