Can good wine come in a box?

Aug. 1 2006 6:59 AM

A Loaf of Bread, a Box of Wine?

Good wine in strange containers.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Nothing grates on casual wine drinkers quite like wine snobbery. There is, however, one form of wine snootiness that has long been not just accepted but encouraged: disdain for jug and box wines. Newcomers to oenophilia quickly learn that it is not enough merely to eschew wines like Almaden Mountain chablis and Inglenook white zinfandel—you must trumpet your contempt for them. Suddenly, though, this once-surefire way of exhibiting discriminating taste is no longer such a gimme. That's because something new has arrived at the wine shop: jug and box wines that are actually pleasant to drink.

At the vanguard of this trend is a brand called Three Thieves—the Thieves being Napa Valley winemaker Joel Gott, venture capitalist and vineyard owner Roger Scommegna, and Charles Bieler, a New Yorker whose family used to own Chateau Routas, in Provence. The Thieves made their debut in 2003 with a 1-liter, screw-cap jug of zinfandel. With the help of some clever design (the jug itself, with its thick handle and nicely tapered neck, is quite attractive) and an eye-catching label (showing, in black, three gun-toting banditos on horseback, set against a flaming-orange backdrop), they sold the equivalent of around 50,000 cases their first year, and a $45,000 initial investment has now blossomed into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. The Thieves have added more wines to their portfolio, including cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, and chardonnay, and introduced two new vessels for those wines: 1-liter aseptic boxes and single-serving aseptic boxes—Juicy Juice for mom and dad. (The tall, slender boxes come without straws, so there is no confusing the kids. You may need to keep an eye on your spouse, however. I found my wife, an exceedingly modest drinker, sipping out of one of the cabernet sauvignon boxes while tooling around the kitchen the other afternoon. "These things are dangerous," she said. Evidently.)

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Then there is Dtour, a collaborative effort from a more prominent trio: New York chef Daniel Boulud, New York importer and sommelier Daniel Johnnes, and famed Burgundy winemaker Dominique Lafon. They are offering neither jug or box wines, but rather, tube wines—wines held in 3-liter bags and placed inside large cardboard tubes (think Morton's salt containers on steroids). You pour the wine through a spigot attached to the bag, which you reach by punching out a perforated opening in the canister. Dtour comes in red and white: a Côtes-du-Rhône and a Mâcon-Villages. (The vacuum-sealed bag prevents oxidation, and the wine can be kept for up to six weeks after it's opened.)

So why the sudden urge to package good wines in non-bottles? I suspect one, subsidiary factor is the call of the gutter: the proclivity of highbrow purveyors (of food, art, couture, etc.) to seek edginess by embracing the lowbrow. Haute cuisine, for instance, has been in thrall for years now to so-called molecular gastronomy, an approach to cooking that, among other things, finds much inspiration in junk food. Given the stigma that has long been associated with jug and box wines, it was surely inevitable that some enterprising winemaker would eventually dare to be different by putting a decent cabernet in a box or jug.

Apart from the novelty factor, there are some practical reasons for this new embrace of the jug and carton. Because they contain substantially more wine than standard bottles, jugs and boxes are generally much handier for barbecues, picnics, and the like. The Dtour tube, to cite just one example, holds the equivalent of four 750-milliliter bottles. If I'm having a cookout at the beach and want to serve a decent wine, I'd much prefer to carry a pair of 3-liter tubes than eight glass bottles (plus a corkscrew).

The advent of brands like Three Thieves and Dtour is also serving another useful purpose: It is making a small dent in the global wine glut. Thanks to an oversupply of producers and a surfeit of bumper crops, the world market has been flooded in recent years with far more wine than it can absorb, creating financial distress in a number of viticultural regions. The situation is most acute in France, where thousands of winemakers are now facing bankruptcy, but it has also been felt in California, Australia, and other areas. Most of the unwanted wine is rotgut, but there is also some quality juice lying around. Three Thieves was started in part to take advantage of all the drinkable zinfandel, syrah, and chardonnay that was in danger of going to waste (thus the tag line, "Liberators of World Class Wine").

California's surplus has since receded. But Charles Bieler says that with Three Thieves now selling in excess of 100,000 cases per year, the brand has little difficulty getting the wines it needs at good prices. Also helping in this regard is the partnership the Thieves formed last year with Trinchero Family Estates, the country's fifth-largest wine company. As it happens, Trinchero is headed by Bob Trinchero, the man credited with inventing white zinfandel. Jug wines have come full circle.

Dtour 2004 Mâcon-Villages (France), $37 (3-liter tube)

Very assertive aromas, with a big whiff of honeysuckle, and some pineapple and verbena thrown in. Crisp and clean in the mouth, with more honeysuckle and a pronounced grapefruit note. Gently spicy across the palate. Nice.

Dtour 2004 Côtes-du-Rhône (France), $37 (3-liter tube)

A spicy, inviting nose, redolent of cherries and with a subtle note of Provençal herbs. Warm, ripe, cherry fruit in the mouth with a not-unpleasant medicinal edge. Depth and persistence here, as well. An apples-and-oranges comparison, but I like this slightly better than the Mâcon.

Three Thieves 2005 Chardonnay (California), $10.99 (1-liter jug)

A nice tropical nose of figs, melon, and lemon. Unoaked, which is pleasant. A little too sweet for my taste, but clean flavors, good concentration, and a nice lemony finish. As California chardonnays go, I've had a lot worse for a lot more.

Three Thieves 2003 Zinfandel (California), $10.99 (1-liter jug)

Spicy, brambly red berry aromas—the sort sometimes referred to as "zinberry"—along with a distinct medicinal note. A warm, fairly rich wine, with good structure and a decent finish. The classic American barbecue wine in a barbecue-friendly format.

Banrock Station 2005 Chardonnay (Australia), $18 (3-liter box)

Full-bodied, somewhat creamy wine, with peach, lemon, and marzipan flavors and a lick of honey. Some heft to the wine, but not at all heavy; best of all, lacks the sweetness that mars so many chardonnays, particularly at this price point. Surprisingly pleasant.

Black Box 2004 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon (California), $18 (3-liter box)

Hello, roadkill—a blast of animal fur greets the nose, and then quickly, mercifully gives way to red berries, smoke, and clay. A cabernet light in color and light on the palate—more East Coast in style than California. That said, not bad—sprightly red fruit with a nice dash of spice and good structure.