Our Take

Think Inside the Box

Bryan Dent
Written by Bryan Dent

Wine-in-a-box turns 50 years old in 2015.  This is cause for great rejoicing and celebration.

Box wine has come a long way since it debuted in Australia in 1965.  Back then, according to George M. Taber’s excellent book A Toast to Bargain Wines, the plastic bladders inside the box (or “cask”) were the same as those used to transport battery acid.  Drinkers had to snip off a corner of the bladder to pour the wine and then re-seal it with a little peg provided in the package.  Sounds like they were more trouble than they were worth.   

Eventually the packaging improved, but for a long time the wine didn’t.  Maybe you remember the vile “Burgundies” and “Rhines” that were the norm as recently as a decade ago.  I still shudder to think of some of the Rhines I once poured down my throat, sickly-sweet concoctions that were just a headache in a box waiting to get out.

Everything changed in 2003 when an entrepreneur named Ryan Sproule introduced Black Box.  Sproule’s brainstorm was that he could sell quality wine at a cheap price and still turn a profit if he could just get past the stigma that all box wines are junk.  Showing an admirable can-do zeal, Sproule hustled his wine himself, offering free samples to retailers and only later revealing that it came in a box.

Black Box turned into a hit and made Sproule rich.  More importantly, it raised the bar for quality in box wine.  The era of faux-Burgundy as the industry standard was over:  Box wine sellers had to raise their game, produce serious wine or else surrender the market to Sproule and his imitators.  Bargain-hunting boozers are the beneficiaries.

Sure, some box wine is still sub-par.  Wines with uninformative descriptive names like “Crisp White” or “Chillable Red” are likely to be the worst.  (Call me a snob, but I don’t trust any wine that won’t tell me upfront what grapes it’s made from.)  Yet even these are better than they used to be.

A few years ago Wine Spectator reviewed 39 box wines.  Amazingly, all but two scored in the 80-88 range, rated as either “good” or “very good.”  One shocker was a Carlo Rossi cabernet, 5 liters and going for around $15 at the time, that scored 84 points.

Carlo Rossi, king of the jug wines, pulling a very respectable 84?  For 5 liters?  That’s value, maybe even the best value you’ll find anywhere in the liquor section.

Happy birthday, box wine.  You’re looking great these days.  Many happy returns.

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Bryan Dent

Bryan Dent

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