I admit squeezing wine from a spigot doesn't scream sexy. Bag-in-box wines have no romance, no foreplay and, historically, no flavor. But for the couch, party or beach, they're sensible and smart. Quality has persistently improved since the 1970s key-party days, and the simplicity of box wine (aka "cask wine") jives with our resource-strapped age -- cork remains expensive, glass costs more to recycle than produce, and shipping heavy bottles saps loads of oil.
Welcome to the future of wine packaging -- the cask.
According to Wikipedia, the cask was invented in Australia in the mid-'60s, where it's also affectionately called "chateau cardboard." The small, boxy encasement houses a heavy plastic bladder filled with wine and equipped with a pour spout that doesn't allow damaging oxygen to enter. The bag collapses as you draw wine out, so once opened, it stays fresh for up to six weeks, compared to the four or five days associated with corks and screwtops. Several "official" tastings have confirmed the lasting freshness claim, and I also had a tapped box of California zinfandel ("Le Cask," available online) on my kitchen counter about three months. It stayed tasty up until we drained it one late, drunken night. OK, maybe I can't swear to the freshness that last day.
But storage isn't the best feature of the boxes. The 3-liter pouch, which houses four bottles of wine and appeals to the most parsimonious of people, sells for under $20. Why? The wine costs up to 50 percent less to package and ship, so the savings are passed on to the consumer.
According to reports, Australia already drinks half of its wine from cask, and the Norwegians, Swedes and even the French deign to drink from a spigot. But we Yanks are catching on. Nielsen reports that premium 3-liter wine casks reflect the highest wine segment increases, with 36 percent annual volume growth. The only negative is shelf life -- untapped wine doesn't keep as long as bottled, leading some producers, like Fish Eye, to list expiration dates.
For now, I probably won't be bringing a cask to my boss's house for dinner, but for anything involving a crowd or everyday drinking, the box performs brilliantly. It might be a tough transition, but take this pariah by the neck and squeeze. Something good will come out -- fresh wine, every time.
In my experience, boxed reds far outshone the whites in quality. I conducted a blind tasting with a group of novice to expert tasters, pouring the wines into decanters to prevent marketing spoilage. A wave of incredulity washed over them; then they rejoiced.
Hardy's 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon SE Australia Smells like fresh fruit, rather than chemicals, with bright raspberries, blueberries, black cherry, earthy leather and coffee flavors. Refreshing acidity on the finish. Well structured and by far the crowd favorite. Sw = 1. $15 for a 3-liter cask. ****
Black Box 2006 Merlot California Deliciously fruity aroma. Has more going on than the others. Soft yet full-bodied, with tart red cherry, warm vanilla, black pepper and a slightly earthy swagger. Sw = 2. $19 for 3 liters. ***
Trove 2005 Cabernet California Fruity, peppery smell. Tastes of stewed red fruit, black tea and flowers but had an old wine flavor. Sw = 1. $15 for 3 liters. ** 1/2
Hardy's 2007 Shiraz SE Australia Fruit bomb blackberry, red cherry with a touch of bacon and tobacco. Odd, chemical finish. Sw = 3. $15 for 3 liters. ** 1/2
Black Box 2006 Pinot Grigio Veneto Simple, summer white. Tastes like peach and lemon-flavored water. Sw = 3. $19 for 3 liters. **
Didn't make the cut: Fish Eye 2006 Shiraz, Wine Cube Pinot Grigio, Wine Cube Cabernet-Shiraz, Washington Hills 2005 Merlot, Banrock Station 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Bota Box 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Bota Box 2006 Pinot Grigio.
Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. * (star) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.