Friday, October 20, 2006

The Modern Pinnacle of Wine Packaging?

I loved this article in UnFiltered, the newsletter from The Wine Source, in Baltimore. I am fond of pointing out that marketing of wine in glass bottles is not a very old concept, less than 150 years according to this article. I suspect that the glass bottle brought wine into the homes of the common people. There are several reviews at the end, a number of nice wines in boxes, from acceptable to fastastic. Black Box 2005 Pinot Grigio got a raving thumbs-up! Repeat after me…the quality of the wine is not determined by the container it’s stored in.


Tetra. Aluminum. Plastic. Glass.

All these new fangled materials are being used to store wines these days. No wonder the marketplace is confused.

And yes, glass is a new fangled product, at least in the history of wine. How new? Well, historical credit for the invention of glass blowing goes to the Romans, although glass was essentially a luxury item for centuries. The oldest wine bottle ever found has been dated to 321 A.D. But it wasn’t until 1821 that an English company patented a machine to mold bottles that were uniform in size and shape. Selling wine already bottled, however, was illegal in England until 1860, due to both the political influence of pub owners and the lack of both labeling standards and means of authenticating the fill volume. Relatively heavy and long lasting, glass has provided two distinct advantages for wine packaging; its chemically inert, preventing contamination; and impervious to oxygen, preventing spoilage.

So, glass is the ideal product to package wine in, right?

Well, uhm, no, not really. Since the primary purpose of any wine container is to transport, preserve and dispense, the modern pinnacle of wine packaging is, without question, the bag-in-a-box. It is lightweight, prevents oxidation of the contents over a reasonably long period of time, even when only partially full, and requires only a pinch to pour. No tools necessary. So, what’s the problem?


All right, maybe not image entirely. For collectors, one drawback is that the bag-in-box is probably not conducive to cellaring. I’m not really sure how a wine will age and mature in a poly-bag. I admit that this contention is purely speculative, and I am therefore curious about any research regarding the phenomenon. But for the rest of us, those that don’t plan on aging wines at all, it’s all about the image.

Or in other words, what would the neighbor’s think?

For many, wine choices are about image as much as price and taste. We all learned long ago that good wine was closed with a cork, not with a screw top or bottle cap. (Wrong about THAT, weren’t we!). Likewise, we learned that the stuff in boxes that our in-laws drank was swill. Guess what? Wrong about that as well.

Repeat after me…the quality of the wine is not determined by the container it’s stored in.

You want proof? Remember Charles Shaw wines, the famous Two-Buck-Chuck? That wine was produced by a guy named Fred Franzia. His family used to own Franzia. Fred, who’s a very bright guy, realized that many of us are trapped by our own wine stereotypes and he could make more money putting bag-in-box quality wine in bottle than by jumping back into the crowded bag-in-box market. The result? Charles Shaw wines were a huge success, purchased and applauded by those same snobs that wouldn’t touch bag- in-box wines! Fred laughed all the way to the bank (not that he needed the cash.)

Since then, the wine press is fond of talking about the revolution in boxed wines. As usual, their hyperbole doesn’t match the facts. Bag-in-box wines are a staple in Europe and Australia, as well as other places where wine choices are less status driven. The American wine industry is getting into the game because if they don’t, then French, Italian, Spanish and Australian bag-in-box wines will dominate the marketplace. Its not revolution, its economics.

But are today’s bag-in-box wines better than Fred Franzia’s parents’ wines? Well, sure, but so are most wines. There are more and better wines available on the market than at anytime in history. And its not because of Robert Parker or any other critic, either. Technology, both in the vineyard and cellar, has vastly improved winemaking and the tread towards planting in temperate climates has greatly improved vintage conditions. Oh, yeah, and containerized shipping has lowered the costs of shipping everywhere, and cheap (and unregulated) airfare has allowed the masses to travel more readily, and the Internet is making the spread of information easier and anyway, its always been true that…

…the quality of the wine is not determined by the container it’s stored in. Repeat after me.
2005 Oz Chardonnay South Eastern Australia TWS price $16.99 (4 liter) What to say (nicely!) about Aussie Chardonnay in a box…? Well, I’ve had worse Chardonnay from California for a lot more money in a bottle. No, no, scratch that! OK, OK…this is a typically ripe and juicy Chardonnay. It's got all that stuff that makes Chardonnay the most popular white wine in the USA; vanilla and caramel flavors, some creamy, buttery tones laying atop ripe pear and apples, limited acidity. The fact that it's in a box is frankly meaningless, you either will like this style of Chardonnay (and a lot of you do!) or you don’t. Me, I’m an acid- head, I like high acid Chardonnay from cool vintages, like 2004 Chablis…which is nothing at all like this wine. But, hey, it’s really not about me at all. I wanna know what you think! Well? (PW)
2005 Hugues Bealieu Petit Frog Picpoul de Pinet Languedoc, Southern France Regular price $24.99 TWS price $19.99 (3 liter) Little needs to be said about the quality of this perennially popular crisp white from the Languedoc Cooperative Hugues Bealieu. What is of note is their forward decision to package their irresistibly quaffable Picpoul in an affordable three-liter size box. This is a great box to have stocked in the fridge when your oh-so thirsty and oh-so wine- savvy neighbors stop by unexpectedly. Just tell them it’s a great little wine you discovered on your recent trip to the south of France. The truth is overrated anyway. (IAS)
2005 Black Box Pinot Grigio California TWS price $16.99 (3 liter) Black Box was one of the first successful producers of vintage dated box wine from California designed for retail shelves. They have struck pay dirt once again with their newly released remarkably vibrant 2005 Pinot Grigio. The rather translucent color belies a subtle creamy richness and varietally characteristic mineral note. Try this delicious wine next to a host of insipid mass-produced Italian Pinot Grigio and you’ll be shocked by the cleanliness and verve of this spectacular value. (IAS)
2005 Delicato Shiraz Central Coast, California TWS price $17.99 (3 liter) I have a grudge against Delicato, the really, really huge Central Coast producer that makes this wine. First of all, they call this wine Shiraz. I think that’s basically dishonest. I believe that they’re trying to confuse the market and make the consumer think that this wine comes from Australia. Well, it doesn’t. It comes from California, and in California the grape is called Syrah. I also don’t much like that they call their packaging a ‘bota’ box. Bota box? A bota is leather or animal skin bag that Iberian shepherds use to squirt wine into their mouths. Don’t try that with this product! Those annoying issues notwithstanding, this is very good wine. And, let me tell you, I hate having to admit that. I truly wish this wine sucked so I could let my bias against the stuff on the outside of the box win. Instead, I’m forced to admit that if you’re looking for Syrah from California, then you could do much, much worse than this wine. (PW)
2004 Castelmaure Corbières Corbières, France Regular price $35.99 TWS price $29.99 (5 liter) Of all our bag-in-box wines, this one might be the most un-exciting. Not because of the quality of the wine, mind you. The wine itself is fine, it's good; it's mostly Grenache from the beautiful Mediterranean facing vineyards of Corbières at the edge of the Pyrennes. It’s fresh, ripe (but not too ripe!) with nice herbal touches and a dash of black pepper. It’s un-exciting because the French have been making wines just like this and putting them into poly bags for twenty years or so. So what’s the big deal? It’s a very good value wine from the south of France. It just happens to be in a box, so it’s cheaper and lasts longer than most. Nothing exciting about that. (PW)
2005 Black Box Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles, California TWS price $16.99 (3 liter) Lets get one thing clear: it is hot in Paso Robles. The not just hot but dry climate produces Cabernet Sauvignons possessing intense fruit as well as a dusty, dry quality. While the 2004 Black Box Paso Robles Cab contains those qualities it also boasts a softness not often found in wines from this area. Try this delicious red with steak off the grill or pan fried Portabellas. Oh, and it comes in a convenient three liter box, so you can have it at your BBQ and also with the leftovers the rest of the week. (IAS)

winemail issue 17, August 23.p65

Again, repeat after me…the quality of the wine is not determined by the container it’s stored in.

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