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Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.

Drinking Inside the Box

A few weeks ago, I made one of my favorite cold dishes, scallops ceviche, for myself and a friend. Redolent of fresh lime juice, cucumbers, jalapeños, and scallions, I decided to serve the ceviche with one of my favorite white wines, Muscadet. Muscadet, an appellation d’origine contrôlée white wine from the Loire Valley in France, is wonderfully light and refreshing, with enough acidity to stand up to the lime juice in the ceviche, and with just a touch of brininess to complement the sea scallops. Really a delicious match.

My friend and I really enjoyed the food and the wine, and when she asked for some more of the cold Muscadet, I happily complied. I took a short walk to the fridge, where the wine was chilling, and I filled her glass with the sublime liquid. When she asked to see the bottle so she could remember the name of the wine and the producer, I started to chuckle and motioned to her to join me at the refrigerator door. We both peered at the collection of white wine bottles on the first shelf of the fridge, but something seemed amiss, something was not quite right. Something was there that didn’t seem to belong.

Muscadet in a box.

My friend viewed me with a look of shock and utter disbelief, but tempered by a smile that said, “Cool!” And indeed the wine was cool and fresh and delicious, in spite of – or maybe because of – the fact that it was ensconced in a three-liter box (the equivalent of four bottles of wine), holding a collapsible plastic liner and featuring an easy push spout. French wine in a box. Who’d a thunk it?

I’m not a wine snob, and I believe there is a special place in Hell for those who are. But wine in a box? Yup. Today, you can find vintage-dated wines of good quality in boxes with air-resistant liners or in Tetra-Paks (basically fancy milk cartons), and folks are enjoying the wine and they are really enjoying the price. You can buy a perfectly drinkable 3 liter box of wine – from California, Australia, or France – for under $20; that’s less than $5 per bottle. Some are a bit more expensive, some a bit less, but the savings-per-bottle are astounding.

And there are other advantages. Because of its packaging, box wines stay fresh for close to a month once opened, so if you just want one six ounce glass of wine with your dinner, the box will last for about 16 dinners, and the last glass will be as fresh as the first. On the other hand, if you’re going to a picnic with half a dozen friends and you bring along a box of white and a box of red, that’s 32 glasses of wine available to enjoy in the sunshine.

Box wines are largely eco-friendly, with most of the components bio-degradable or recyclable, and they certainly eclipse the bottle/cork/ label/foil model in this arena. But I think what I like most about high-quality box wines is the same thing I like about wine bottles with screw caps: no corkscrew!

Except in restaurants, where the ritual of a server or sommelier removing the cork from a wine bottle still thrives, the corkscrew has become a quaint relic. I mean, it’s so 20th century. Add to this that it is now an indisputable fact that corks are responsible for quite a bit of spoiled wine, at least 5% of every bottle opened with a corkscrew. When a wine is “corked,” TCA – short for 2,4,6-trichloroanisole - produces cork taint in the wine due to the use of chlorine to bleach the corks. What other consumer product would accept a 5% rate of failure, especially when using alternative closures and containers – screw caps and boxes, among several others – are readily available?

By the way, my experience with corked wines is closer to 10%, and I’m not alone. Often, my wine students ask me to intentionally expose them to a corked wine so they can find out what it smells like (for the record, corked wine smells wet cardboard and old socks, along with other appealing aromas). I tell them to “just wait. I won’t have to do a thing, but I guarantee you before this course is over we will open at least one corked wine.” I have yet to disappoint those who crave the experience, but class members never ask to smell another corked wine. Unfortunately, they usually get at least one more.

The old image of box wines is that of cheap and crummy swill with generic labels (“Chablis,” “Burgundy,” “Rhine Wine,” all of it from the industrial vineyards of California’s San Joaquin Valley). These are 5 liter boxes, not 3 liters, and you should avoid them, unless for some reason you enjoy them; taste is, after all, subjective. Today, however, you can find perfectly drinkable box wines made from popular varietals, including Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, and even Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. The “new” box wines have caught on in the marketplace, and are the fastest-growing segment of wine sales in the United States, where they currently account for about 25% of all wine sales. Incidentally, in Australia nearly 40% of wine is sold in boxes, and in Denmark it’s more than 50%.

I must say that although box wines are represented in retail shops in the Hudson Valley, it is not the ideal place for box wines to flourish. In New York State, wine cannot be sold in supermarkets or convenience stores, and these are the natural homes for box wines. Pick up the groceries; pick up a box or two of wine. Buy some gas and a six-pack; grab that box of Pinot Grigio. In conversations with wine retailers in the Hudson Valley I found that box wine is not all that popular…yet. But I also noticed that almost every store I went into carried at least two or three different brands. Don’t be shy to ask your local wine retailer to order a particular box wine for you; a wide variety are available to them through their distributors.

So, box wine has come of age. It’s time to Drink Inside the Box. Or, to (mis)quote the Grateful Dead, “It’s Just a Box of Wine.”

Here are some popular box wines that you might enjoy:

From California:

Delicato produces California Shiraz, Merlot, and Chardonnay ($18/3l).

Trove produces California Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio ($23/3l)

Black Box produces wines with a pedigree of place, at about $20/3l: Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles; Chardonnay from either Napa Valley or Monterey; Sonoma County Merlot; and Shiraz from Australia’s Barossa Valley.

Three Thieves approaches box wines a little differently. Esteemed winemaker Joel Gott produces one liter Tetra Packs of White Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Three Thieves also markets its wines in 250ml 4-packs. Either way, it’s $10 per liter. Three Thieves recently announced that they will be producing a line of box wines produced from organically-grown grapes, too.

Corbett Canyon: If you’re on a tight budget, and you’ve got a big party, big picnic, or just a big thirst, Corbett Canyon produces decent wine at a true bargain price. White Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Merlot are available in 3 liter boxes for $10 each.

From Australia:

Hardy’s Stamp of Australia is available in Chardonnay, Riesling, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and a Shiraz-Grenache blend ($16/3l)

Banrock Station produces Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon ($16/3l)

From South Africa:

Rain Dance produces a very good Shiraz from the South Cape region for $15.

From France:

French Rabbit presents their wines in flashy one liter Tetra Paks. They are all Vin de Pays varietal-labeled wines, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. The cost is $10/liter.

Free Range is the company that produces the Muscadet I mentioned in this article. They also produce white and red Bordeaux wines, as well as Vin de Pays Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Merlot. Price is $30/3l.

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