The state of boxed wine may not be high on your list of wine concerns, and typically isn't on mine. Lately, however, I've been curious about the future of this emerging category. It's the same kind of curiosity that drove me to wonder why so many corks and wines smelled moldy. Or why certain wineries had a similar taint from TCA, the culprit behind the mold.
For a long time, many in the wine industry were in denial about tainted corks and couldn't imagine they could be so pervasive. Purists dismissed alternative closures as blasphemy and an affront to tradition. Today, twist-offs, one of the successful remedies, are the preferred closure for a growing number of wine drinkers. They ensure convenience and eliminate one of the two major culprits that damage wines (heat being the other). The global acceptance of twisties proves that enough people were fed up with bad corks or the hassle of needing a tool to open a bottle. It's testimony to the open-mindedness of wine lovers in a fast-changing world of innovation in just about every area of life.
Boxed wines have been around for awhile, but I didn't pay much attention to them until recently. Over the past few years I've revisited the category multiple times to gauge its growth. Based on these various tastings, I can say that overall quality has increased as vintners tap into the growing market for alternative packaging. A few of the wines even rise to the level of very good (85 to 89 points) on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. But the majority of them are merely good to ordinary, barely worth it except for the bargain prices. The four wines that most impressed me in my last go-around carried California appellations, showing the benefits of regional blending: two Cabernets (Loft and Bota Box) and two Chardonnays (Wine Cube and Black Box). They have character and hold their own against comparable bottlings.
The case for boxed wine boils down to value and convenience. Paying $25 for a 3-liter box is roughly the same as $6 for a 750ml bottle. You won't need a corkscrew—only your refrigerator, where you can keep an opened box for two to three weeks. Boxed wine is essentially a plastic bag in a box, served from a spout, which prevents oxidation. Vintage dates are less important than "drink by" dates, and cellaring isn't required.
Boxed wines have drawbacks. They have a shelf life. Quality is variable and even the better wines aren't terribly sophisticated, lacking the definition of more distinctive wines from top appellations. Whatever oak you might encounter is typically from oak adjuncts such as staves, not barrels, and since the wines lack the cachet of bottles, you have to put aside any prejudices about design and presentation. Boxed wines are like big milk cartons.
On the plus side, environmental concerns are also a factor, since the boxes are lighter to ship than bottles. Yet it's clearly the low costs associated with boxed wines—for both producers and consumers—that will continue to drive the growth of the category. Budget-minded wine drinkers, tailgaters and campers can all attest to the value and portability of boxed wines. For producers, the absence of oak barrels, glass or corks, combined with the lower shipping costs, all makes boxed wines attractive.
The true test comes when you try the wines for yourself. You'll have to taste them for what they are and decide on their merits. Fresh, clean and easy to drink, boxed wines may end up being the key to reaching a broader spectrum of entry-level drinkers who want quality at the most affordable price.
No matter what you think about boxed wines, they are here to stay. Vintners are also testing wine in cans and plastic bottles, and though both share boxed wine's allure of convenience, their quality lags behind so far. The same people who were skeptical of alternative closures will deride boxed wines for the same reasons. They were proven wrong about twisties, and may be once again about boxes.
Try the wines and test your biases. Host a blind tasting of your favorite wines and disguise a couple of boxed wines in the mix. You may not be overwhelmed, but perhaps you'll be persuaded—or even surprised. At least you'll have challenged your assumptions and kept an open mind.