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.