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Box Scores: 15 Top-Rated California Value Wines

Compelling quality and value are propelling the growth of boxed and canned wines as a younger generation of drinkers looks beyond the bottle
Alternative packaging like boxes, Tetra Paks and cans is booming in the wine industry.
Alternative packaging like boxes, Tetra Paks and cans is booming in the wine industry.

Augustus Weed
Posted: December 15, 2016

Note: For more recent reviews of alternatively packaged wines, read our May 25, 2018, tasting report, "Wine on the Go: 24 Top-Rated Wines in Cans and Boxes."

Time was, box wines were bypassed by bargain-hunting wine lovers. Times change. A new and improved breed of box wines is offering crowd-pleasing wines that are luring young wine lovers with a trifecta of good quality, great value and eco-friendly packaging.

“The younger generation isn’t stuck on having a cork,” says Gregg Lamer of Boxx Cellars, a California-based company that distributes box wines from around the world. The increasingly important and wine-enthusiastic Millennial market is more open to packaging alternatives like bag-in-box, Tetra Paks, aluminum cans and kegs, which all also happen to be more beach- pool- and park-friendly than glass bottles. “Let’s step up our tailgating program,” Lamer enthuses.

Value, tied to quality, is the key factor driving the recent surge in box-wine sales and production. “[Wine lovers] want a wine that will overdeliver for the price,” says Nick Banuelos, marketing director for Delicato Family Vineyards' Bota Box. “Glass, corks, capsules and labels are expensive and can be a sizable cost increase versus our bag-in-a-box package.” A 3-liter box contains the equivalent of four 750ml bottles of wine, meaning a $20 box equates to $5 a bottle.

And producers are putting better quality in the box, as illustrated by recent Wine Spectator blind tastings of box wines from California. Of 44 bag-in-box and Tetra Pak wines reviewed along with their peers bottled in glass, 15 rated "very good," or 85 to 89 points on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale. An additional 26 rated "good," or 80 to 84 points. Quality was split down the middle among whites and reds, although vintage wines performed slightly better than non-vintage "boxings," backed by California's generally strong 2015 and 2014 vintages.

• Get Scores and Tasting Notes for Top-Rated Box Wines

Leading the way in California is Loft's 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, and Gallo’s The Naked Grape Pinot Noir is a serious bargain for a varietal that typically commands higher prices. Large, established brands like Bota Box and Black Box are expanding their lineups, banking on the popularity of red blends, and also offering smaller containers such as 1.5-liter boxes and Tetra Paks, a compressed cardboard carton with a foil liner popular among juice and coconut water brands.

Bandit winemaker Joel Gott, one of the partners behind the Three Thieves wine company, was an early adopter of Tetra Pak technology. Like many box-wine producers, Gott aims for easygoing wines that are soft in texture, with gentle tannins in his reds and juicy whites. It shows in the bright and fragrant Bandit Pinot Grigio.

The upswing in quality can be partly credited to a greater emphasis on production standards. “We source from prestigious appellations and create on a smaller production scale, using sophisticated cool-temperature winemaking techniques,” says Loft winemaker Denise Worden. Most box wines carry the broad California appellation, typically including grapes from regions such as Lodi, Monterey and the Central Coast.

Smaller Boxes, Bigger Sales

Glass bottles remain the standard, but boxes and Tetra Paks are taking a bigger piece of the pie in the U.S. market. According to marketing group Nielsen, the value share of 3-liter boxes grew 94 percent over five years, from 1.7 percent in 2010 to 3.3 percent in 2015. That year the category increased 12.3 percent by volume, while in comparison, 750ml bottles only grew 2.8 percent. That steady growth comes as longtime box-wine buyers trade up in price and down in volume from bulk 5-liter boxes to 3-liter containers, with higher quality wine inside.

“There is no doubt that there is greater consumer acceptance of boxed wine,” says Bota Box's Banuelos. The brand grew 28 percent in 2015, to the equivalent of 4 million 9-liter cases, according to Wine Spectator sister publication Market Watch. Banuelos says that Millennials—mainly the older portion of the generation—make up the majority of new buyers and now account for 25 to 30 percent of Bota Box’s customers; that number continues to grow.

Millennials are also the key demographic behind the explosion of wine in aluminum cans, which outpaced both 3-liter boxes and Tetra Paks in growth in 2015 by a wide margin, with 60 percent growth by value and 129 percent growth by volume.

How does wine in a can stack up? Our editors tasted nine canned wines from California to find out. Quality was hit or miss, with six of the wines rating from good to very good. The top wine, the Alloy Wine Works Pinot Noir Central Coast 2014, packed with vibrant berry, floral and savory flavors, shows the potential of this growing segment as an everyday value.

“We make [canned wine] the same way we would a bottled wine,” says Andrew Jones of Alloy Wine Works in Paso Robles, who eschews oak in his Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to emphasize the fruit flavors. He is testing the limits of this nascent category by aging some of his wines, arguing that cans protect against light and oxygen better than glass bottles and certainly more than boxes with semi-permeable bags that let in a small amount of air over time and limit their shelf life to about a year to 18 months.

As the alternative-packaging category grows, consumers may see more box and can wines appearing at venues and on restaurant wine lists: Burger chain Red Robin sells The Naked Grape by the glass for $4.50. But many consumers and industry professionals still view the category with skepticism. “Most people are waiting on the sideline to see what’s going to happen,” says Boxx Cellars' Lamer. He believes that if more producers decide to bottle their wine in boxes it will help push the category into the mainstream. “If you put the right wine in the box, [it] will sell.”

Recommended Boxed and Canned Wines from California

The wines below were reviewed blind in Wine Spectator's Napa office, decanted into empty glass bottles to disguise their original packaging and tasted alongside wines originally bottled in glass.

Note: Box wines are stored in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag that deflates as the wine is poured through a spigot, keeping oxygen out, so they don't have to be finished at once. Producers claim that an opened box will stay fresh for four to six weeks. Follow-up Wine Spectator tastings, conducted weekly for a month following the initial blind tasting from which the scores are derived, found that the boxed wines tasted best within two to three weeks of opening.

LOFT Cabernet Sauvignon California 2014 Score: 89 | $25/3L
A pleasant up-front push of dark berry, spice, vanilla bean and cedar flavors folds together. Ends with a strong woody presence and a finish that tails off. Complete and easy to enjoy. Drink now through 2021. 20,000 cases made.—J.L.

BLACK BOX Chardonnay California 2015 Score: 88 | $25/3L
Clean, centered on ripe fig, tropical fruit and light cedary notes. Turns simpler on the aftertaste, but the flavors linger. Drink now. 842,148 cases made.—J.L.

BOTA BOX Cabernet Sauvignon California 2014 Score: 88 | $23/3L
A solid, chunky, extracted effort, centered on rich dark berry, mocha, savory herb and light cedar notes. Well-focused and persistent on the finish, ending chewy. Drink now. 550,000 cases made.—J.L.

WINE CUBE Chardonnay California 2014 Score: 88 | $18/3L
A stylish offering, focused on rich fruit, with tropical touches and light oak flavors. Turns spicy and candied, but holds together well, finishing lively and clean. Drink now. 16,850 cases made.—J.L.

THE NAKED GRAPE Chardonnay California NV Score: 87 | $18/3L
Clean, fresh aromas highlight the ripe pear, melon and honeysuckle notes. Maintains vibrancy on the long, tight finish. Drink now. 12,000 cases made.—J.L.

THE NAKED GRAPE Pinot Noir California NV Score: 87 | $18/3L
Charming and simple, with candied plum and wild berry flavors; works well as a quaffer. Drink now. 25,000 cases made.—J.L.

ALLOY WINE WORKS Pinot Noir Central Coast 2014 Score: 87 | NA/500ml
Intense and vibrant, with a taut core of cranberry, huckleberry and raspberry flavors, marked by floral, woody, savory and loamy earth accents. More a solid red than a pure Pinot, this is a tasty mouthful. Retails for $30 for four cans. Drink now through 2020. 1,500 cases made.—J.L.

VIN VAULT Cabernet Sauvignon California NV Score: 87 | $20/3L
Creamy, vanilla-scented oak is at the core of this medium-weight effort, with spicy dried dark berry and woody flavors, accented by notes of herb and sage. Drink now. 32,000 cases made.—J.L.

ALLOY WINE WORKS Chardonnay Central Coast 2015 Score: 86 | $30/2L
Not shy on savory cedar flavors, with a touch of smoke adding dimension to the rustic, pithy core of green apple and citrus. Drink now. 1,500 cases made.—J.L.

BANDIT Pinot Grigio California NV Score: 86 | $9/1L
Bright and fragrant, with a lip-smacking mix of green apple and lime flavors. Crisp acidity and peach blossom notes emerge on the finish. Drink now. 141,000 cases made.—M.W.

BIG HOUSE Chardonnay California Bootleggers Series 2014 Score: 86 | $20/3L
Trim and well-focused, this is successful in an understated style, where the lemon-citrus flavors join ripe pear and melon notes. Ends simpler. Drink now. 19,000 cases made.—J.L.

BOTA BOX Sauvignon Blanc California 2015 Score: 86 | $23/3L
Light and crisp, with vibrant notes of Key lime, honeydew melon and grass, balanced by fresh acidity. Drink now. 150,000 cases made.—M.W.

BOTA BOX Shiraz California 2014 Score: 86 | $23/3L
Straightforward and juicy, with modest blackberry and cracked pepper flavors. Drink now through 2021. 125,000 cases made.—T.F.

LOFT Chardonnay California 2014 Score: 86 | $25/3L
Delivers a subtle mix of light citrus, tropical fruit and pineapple flavors. More exciting up front, as this fades on the finish. Exhibits a pleasant core of Chardonnay flavors. Drink now. 25,000 cases made.—J.L.

WINE CUBE Pinot Grigio California 2014 Score: 86 | $18/3L
Offers refreshing apple and citrus flavors, with peach, floral and orange citrus notes lingering on the finish. Drink now. 6,050 cases made.—M.W.

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