Wine Searcher

W. Blake Gray throws caution to the wind and taste-tests more than 20 wines that came out of a box.

Wine in a box was one of the great ideas of the 20th century, but it has taken into the 21st century – at least – to be fully appreciated.

Decades after the first boxes of wine appeared 50 years ago, they were still seen as irredeemably cheap by many snooty Americans, who didn’t grow up with wine on the dinner table and thus didn’t see it as a daily staple. A book co-written by New York Times columnist Gail Collins included wine in a box as one of the worst ideas of the millennium, along with flagellants, foot binding, trench warfare and French mime.

Unlike foot binding and French mime, wine in a box has finally found a US audience. The category has doubled its share of the US market since 2009, according to Nielsen, and now represents 17.5 percent of all US wine by volume.

“Our main business is boxes,” says Gerald Stinner of New York-based Maison Cubi, which imports quality 3-liter boxes from France. “Month after month, every year it’s growing, and faster in the higher price range.”

The big change is that an increasing number of consumers aren’t confusing the medium with the message. A box with a deflatable plastic bladder inside is a terrific vessel for wine intended to be drunk right away. When opened, the wine lasts much longer than in a bottle – up to a month (a theory I tested and proved true.) It’s much lighter in weight than glass and thus better for the environment. It’s not a vessel for aging wine; the bladder is more permeable than glass. But for wine intended to be drunk right away – as most wines are – there’s no reason box wine can’t be good. And increasingly they are.

“I’m very impressed at the quality of wine we can get,” Stinner says. “I don’t remember having French wine (in bottles) at these prices at that quality.”

There have been some drunken missteps on the 50-year path to a world of quality wine boxes. The American public, many of whom still think a screwcap isn’t ceremonious enough, is quick to confuse quality wine in 3-liter boxes with joke items like disposable wine purses. One environmentally minded company issued a wine two years ago in a bottle made of corrugated paper, but the wine was so terrible it probably set the concept back a decade.

While the line between US and “Old World” style wines in bottles may have blurred; there still a major divide when it comes to box wines.

I reviewed more than two dozen box wines (see my recommendations below) and it would have been easy to pick out the American brands in a blind tasting. With one exception, US-made box wines are sweeter and fruitier than box wines imported from Europe.

The exception to this US-Europe divide is a big one. Gallo, the world’s largest winery, enters the 3-liter premium box-wine competition this month with its new Vin Vault brand. What struck me, other than their quality, was that neither Vin Vault Pinot Noir nor Chardonnay follows the typical US-brand box-wine style: they’re not sweet nor fruit driven.

Gallo is not stupid, and its leap into this market is well timed with the heat of the category. Maybe Vin Vault will change the box-wine market. Or, maybe the market will ultimately win, and the style of its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay will edge closer to the brand’s overtly fruity Cabernet and Red Blend.

I did taste some bad wines; for one I noted: “Smells like rotten peaches wrapped in plastic”; for another: “Overripe pear with a fusty old-armchair note.” But I also had some box wines I liked so much that I kept them around to drink even when I would be professionally better off opening fresh bottles of expensive wines. And in one case I proved to myself that these wines really are good a month after opening – that’s how long it took to drink every last drop.

2013 Maison Cubi Syrah Carignane, Vin de France

Earthy and peppery with black plum notes. The tannins are a bit firm, but if I was served this in a restaurant, I’d think it was a bottle of Corbières from a good producer, not a Vin de France in a box. One of my favorites.

2014 Maison Cubi Sauvignon Blanc, Côtes-de-Thongue

Grassy and tropical in a New Zealand style, with a line of acidity and slightly rounded edges. Perhaps leaner than many American drinkers are accustomed to, but very refreshing.