Admin note: Off to Italy!
I'll be spending this week in Friuli-Venezia Giulia in Northeastern Italy, touring the region and participating in the Vino e Territorio workshop in Cividale. Accordingly, The 30 Second Wine Advisor and Wine Advisor FoodLetter won't be published on the normal schedule this week. We'll resume regular publication next Monday.
If time and connectivity permit, however, I may surprise you with one or two bulletins from Italy, including photos for subscribers to our HTML/graphics edition. Otherwise, see you next week!
Thinking inside the box
A while back, after I reported on the "Two Buck Chuck" phenomenon and the economic factors that prompted an industrial-scale California wine producer to make a simple but palatable wine that sells for $2 a bottle, several of you wrote to ask what I think about wine-in-the-box.
This wine packaging is commonplace in Australia and surprisingly prevalent for low-price wines in Europe. There's plenty of it in the U.S., too, but the market has been reserved almost entirely for very-low-end wines of the type otherwise sold in oversize jugs.
Until now, that is.
Black Box Wines, a producer based in Walnut Creek, in California's suburban East San Francisco Bay area, recently launched what it calls "America's first 'super-premium' boxed wine," a 2001 California Chardonnay that won a silver medal in this year's San Francisco Chronicle wine competition. (It should be noted that the Chronicle's event dispenses a lot of medals - 40 silvers in the "Chardonnay up to $12.99" category alone. It should also be noted that "super-premium" isn't quite as fancy as it sounds. It's simply wine-industry talk for wine meant to sell in the $7 to $14 range.)
The great potential advantage of boxed wine is the unusual packaging. The wine is put in a soft plastic bag inside a sturdy cardboard box. You stash it in a corner of the refrigerator and dispense wine by the glass from a plastic spigot at the bottom of the box. As the level of wine goes down, the bag collapses, keeping air away from the liquid so - in theory at least - it will stay fresh much longer than wine in an open bottle. For those who enjoy having a quick glass of decent wine without having to open a bottle, it's an appealing concept, provided that the wine in the box is good.
Black Box wines are currently sold at retail only in the San Francisco area and nearby Northern California, but I managed to acquire a box so I could check it out. It's attractively packaged, an upright jet-black block with discreet logo and lettering in gold. (HTML/graphics subscribers will see a photo above.) It comes in a standard three-liter size (the equivalent of four regular 750 ml. wine bottles, a little smaller than a gallon milk jug), and retails for a suggested $25, which works out to $6.25 a bottle ... quite a bit more than "Two Buck Chuck."
To make things fair, I tasted it "blind" against four other Chardonnays, including a cheap American box wine (Franzia non-vintage "Vintner Select" California Chardonnay, $7.99 for a 3-liter box), another "super-premium" boxed Chardonnay made in Australia by a French firm for sale in the U.S. (Jean Duree non-vintage Southeast Australia Chardonnay ($20.49 for a 3-liter box), a budget-price California Chardonnay (Meridian Vineyards 2001 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay, $7.99), and a higher-price California Chardonnay that just skates into the top end of the "super-premium" category (Franciscan 2001 Napa Valley Chardonnay, $13.99. Another penny and it would be an "ultra-premium" in trade parlance.)
The results? The good news - for Black Box - is that it resoundingly out-performed the other two boxed wines. The inexpensive Franzia stood out on the basis of its distinct "bubble gum" aroma and soft, rather sweet flavor. Quite frankly, it's a jug-style wine made for the mass-market, fine for picnic quaffing but not really intended to be compared with serious wines. The Australian Chardonnay from Jean Duree was simply a bad wine, raisiny and nutty and reeking of cotton candy and the artifical floral scent of aerosol air freshener.
The Black Box, in contrast, was clean and well-made. Pale gold in color with delicate scents of apples and spice, it showed crisp apple flavors, fresh if rather simple and light-bodied. A basic "glass of white wine," it was certainly passable if not particularly exciting.
The not-so-good news? I can't say it was up to the bottled competition. The Meridian, for just a couple of dollars more, ranks as a real bargain for fanciers of California Chardonnay, with appetizing tropical-fruit and toasty oak aromas and a good, "fruit-forward" flavor. And the Franciscan, described in more detail in today's tasting report, justified its higher price with real quality. Although oaky New World Chardonnay is not my favorite style of wine, this one presented itself well, with complex and interesting aromas and flavors and good balance making it fully competitive with Chardonnays well above its $14 price.
My conclusion? Black Box deserves applause for its effort to stake out a new niche in affordable U.S. wines, and I look forward to seeing what they do with the Merlot to be released soon. If you like the idea of being able to dispense drinkable table wine from a supply that will last for a while, it's worth your consideration, and it certainly sets a new standard for wine in a box. But at this point, don't expect the level of complexity or flavor interest that a few dollars more can provide.
Visit the Black Box Wines Website,
To review my articles on Charles Shaw ("Two Buck Chuck"), see "Wine trends and Two Buck Chuck" (Dec. 30, 2002),
Franciscan 2001 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($13.99)
Clear straw color, with the oaky-spicy aromas characteristic of barrel-fermented and oak-aged California Chardonnays: Butterscotch, brown spices and smoky oak play a significant role but don't overwhelm ripe tropical fruit. Butter and oak and ripe appley fruit mingle in a full flavor that's fruity and soft but not overtly sweet. If you like New World Chardonnay in this style, this is a good example, well made and fairly priced. (March 1, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: Fine with a simple dish of chicken braised in onions and garlic.
VALUE: Appropriate to good value, particularly when compared with more expensive California Chardonnays.
WHEN TO DRINK: In my experience, California Chardonnays aren't made for aging. It can be held for a couple of years, but don't expect it to "evolve."
WEB LINK: You'll find the Franciscan Website at
Wine Lovers' Voting Booth:
Biggest wine-buying mistake?
We all make mistakes. Or at least most of us do. Accordingly, you would have to look long and hard to find a wine lover who hasn't made a bad decision about purchasing a wine and later regretted the impulse that led to the buy.
In the hope that by sharing our bad experiences we can help each other enjoy more good ones, we invite you to participate in this week's Wine Lovers' Voting Booth survey by responding to the question, "What was your biggest wine-buying mistake?"
To join the fun, just click to the Voting Booth,
Collectible wine - It's a buyer's market
In the last year, there's been so much pressure on wine prices that collectible wines are offering some truly great buying opportunities, if you know where to look. And NextWine has been leading the market in getting prices right. Collectors, restaurants and distributors are selling off older stocks, often at prices the market hasn't seen for years. And not just off vintages or second labels, either.
Take a look at the prices below, compared with slower-moving and less responsive wine sellers on both coasts.
1970 Mouton - NextWine $199. Wine Shops: $332; $265
This is a great time to pick up some bargains and build your cellar. Buy online at
NextWine. The wines you love now, the wines you'll love next.
Wine Tasting 101: Vouvray
Learn to taste wine analytically in a friendly, supportive environment where there are no wrong answers. This month's topic in Wine Tasting 101 is Vouvray. The benchmark of Touraine in the Loire Valley of France, not far from Tours, Vouvray is made entirely from the Chenin Blanc grape.
Click to Wine Tasting 101
Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is currently distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
First sighting: 2000 Port (Feb. 28)
Two offbeat whites (Feb. 26)
Big red: Mourvèdre (Feb. 24)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Alder-smoked salmon pasta (Feb. 27)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, March 3, 2003