Thursday, March 12, 2009

Thinking Inside the Box

I'm certainly not averse to knocking back a beer or two (but not three, thanks), I make a spectacular Martini, and I'm very fond of moderately priced Proseccos, (my admittedly cursory research indicates that, sadly, the plural is probably not Prosecci) but for the most part, I think that alcoholic beverages begin and end with red, red wine. I have nothing against a crisp white on a hot day, but, truly, on a hot day, I'd rather take some cheap red wine and turn it into Sangria.

In fact, until just over a year ago, making Sangria was the only thing that motivated me to buy boxed wine. It is a truth, whether or not universally acknowledged, that the best Sangria begins with wine that is not worth serving on its own. My favorite wine for Sangria is Franzia's Chillable Red. Sangria involves the addition of citrus juices, various fruits, other spirits, and sugar, so starting off with something undrinkably sweet (i.e., Chillable Red) is a good way to go. Or at least my friends quaff large quantities of my Sangria with apparent enjoyment.

Anyway, a few years back, I tasted the Chillable Red once out of a combination of culinary curiosity and a fear of speaking without first-hand knowledge, and that was enough to put me off boxed wine, even though one of my precepts for living is that it is wrong to extrapolate the universe from a single data point. But sometime early last year, I was shopping for some inexpensive wine to use in cooking, and I was in one of the county liquor/wine stores (in my county, you can only buy liquor at a county store), and I saw some Black Box Merlot, and I read the description that was taped to the shelf beneath the wine, and I thought, "I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot Well, why not?" and I brought it home.

It almost goes without saying that if you want to find the most pompous people in the world, a collection of wine enthusiasts is a pretty good place to begin (and end) your search. And if you mention boxed wines to such people, you are likely to run into the sort of snobbery that's evident in this discussion thread on Chowhound (worth reading for a laugh). But I'm not a wine enthusiast: drinking wine just makes me happy. I should say that I'm probably not more of an enthusiast/snob because of a lack of aptitude. When I was in my early twenties, I shared an apartment for three years with a serious oenophile (who was not at all snobbish about wine, or anything else), but none of his immense knowledge rubbed off on me. Though he did introduce me to Port, for which I shall be eternally grateful.

Anyway, I was very happy with my box of Merlot. It was quaffable, it was a nice addition to a lot of the things I like to cook, and five weeks after I opened it, it tasted the same as the day I first had it. Boxed wines, as you probably know, are stored in plastic bags, and as the bag empties, it collapses, so that the wine is not exposed to air. One of the annoying things about expensive wine is that if you don't drink it all in one evening, it's never as good later. You can, of course, solve this problem by drinking it all in one evening, but that doesn't work so well for me.

With a boxed wine, though, I can have one glass a night for as many nights as I like without worrying about a diminution in quality.

And then there's the price factor. A box of most of the Black Box wines retails for about $20-24, but they're almost always on sale in the $18-20 range. A box of wine holds three liters (typically: some of the ultra-cheap wines -- like Franzia -- come in five-liter boxes), or the equivalent of four bottles. That's decent wine (I am not really down with the whole 100-point wine rating system. There have been times in my life where I've been served very expensive wines, and they were special, but for the most part, when I taste a wine my reaction is either, "Hey, that's tasty" or "Oh, please, no.") for about $5 a bottle.

And many boxed wines really are pretty good wines. For a time, I stuck to the various brands of Black Box, but then one day, I thought, "Well, why not try the Hardy's Shiraz?" It was on sale for $13.99, and, hey, it was tasty. During the three years that I shared an apartment with my friend Rob, I enjoyed many wines and tried my best to taste the black cherry or currants or whatever that my friends claimed to be tasting, but the only thing I ever really agreed with was that "flinty" was a term that made sense with respect to Chablis. But when I sat down with my first glass of Hardy's Shiraz, I absolutely tasted vanilla. It was something of a revelation.

The Hardy's Shiraz is still one of my favorite boxed wines, but a few weeks ago, I decided to give Fish Eye (cheaper still) a try, and I was, again, pleasantly surprised by its easy drinkability. It is not a complex wine, but it's consistently enjoyable, something you don't always get when you play glass bottle roulette at the wine store. Last week, I needed to make some Boeuf Bourgignon for the all-church dinner, so I went in search of a Burgundy. I didn't find any in a brand that I was willing to take a chance on (I have not yet been willing to wade in the ten-dollar waters), so I decided to try the Fish Eye Cabernet Sauvignon, and I have been very happy with it, both in the stew and in my glass.

I'm not claiming that any of these wines is amazing, but they're all good and dependable, and that's really what I want out of my vin de table. And I'll serve vin de table with just about anything. I have no doubt that the fifty-dollar bottle of Chateau/Veuve Whatever is a superior wine to those who know, but for me this is one of those situations where ignorance is bliss. Besides, these days spending that kind of money on wine seems somewhere between ridiculous and obscene.

After tax season, I'm going to have a boxed wine tasting party. I'm thinking three each of four varieties, and I'll use a double-blind system and make my friends give numerical ratings. It should be a lot of fun, and, if nothing else, I'll enjoy doing the shopping for it. Twelve boxes of wine is a bit of an investment, but since everyone will be drinking only small quantities of each wine, I'll have leftovers for months. And they'll still be good.

By the way, it took a while to take this series of pictures, so even though I had the wine tap barely flowing, by the time I was done, I had quite a bit of wine in my glass, and I had to drink it all by myself. I hope you people appreciate the sort of sacrifices I make to keep you informed and entertained.


  1. Sorry for correcting you but as I guess you just love to name things properly "vin ordinaire" is normally called "vin de table"... Living in a wine area, with lots of different sorts (in bottle and in boxes...)you can imagine how interesting this post was to me.

  2. Thanks for the correction, Jérôme. I've made the appropriate changes.

    So you're telling me that the French like wine? This is big news to me: I had always thought that you guys were all about the beer. I suppose that also means that my dreams of taking a bicycle tour through the Loire valley during Oktoberfest were probably misguided, as well. Zut alors!

  3. @ TED : oh we do like beer too... and I was just pointing out that my village is surrounded with wineyards, producing really tasty and very different wines

  4. Ok, now you're just gloating.

  5. Ted,
    A box-wine tasting party is a great idea. Plus if you get your friends to bring wine in bottles, you can compare them and shed some light on that "which is better question".