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.

About the author

Bryan Dent

Bryan Dent

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