Why is boxed wine so inexpensive? I've read the panel where they say, "we don't bottle, etc., etc.," which makes it less expensive. Is it really wine? I am embarrassed to ask the question, so please don't reveal my name!
Don't be embarrassed. It's a great question, and it gives me the opportunity to lay out a key to wine appreciation: why some wines are better (or worse) and more (or less) expensive than others. First of all, it's not the box; it's what's in it. Packaging is a minor component of wine costs. The most expensive cork-and-bottle combination available, which you might find on a $200 wine such as a Bordeaux grand cru, costs about $4. Screw-cap jugs, which boxes typically replace, cost even less than that. While boxes are a bit cheaper than glass, the main cost saving is on shipping, because boxes weigh less and can be packed more efficiently for transport. But it's not that big a deal in terms of the final cost, even taking transport into account.
A popular misconception, which I call the "rotgut" theory, is that these so-called bulk wines are cheap because they have serious flaws or off flavors. Forty or 50 years ago, this was probably the case. I distinctly recall that my parents' "chianti" (or whatever was really in those straw-wrapped Italian jugs they lugged home from the deli) smelled an awful lot like Mom's salad dressing, which suggests that they were marred by volatile acidity, or vinegariness. These wines were cheap because they tasted pretty bad. Fortunately, I was too young to drink them.
Today, bulk wines are as sound and free of noticeable flaws as the most expensive grand crus. They are vinified in impeccably clean, temperature-controlled facilities that prevent the infamous vat-house disasters of yore, such as "stuck" (incomplete) fermentation, gout de lie (a dirty taste imparted by aging wine in musty old barrels) and "malo in the bottle" (a foul-smelling secondary fermentation in the bottle caused by bacterial contamination).
So if it's not the cheap cardboard packaging or the presence of serious flaws, why are box wines (and jug wines) so inexpensive compared with others? The answer is that bulk wines, whether in boxes or jugs, are cheap because they are the precise mirror image of great wines in the way they are grown and vinified.
Great wines come from low-yielding vineyards planted in marginal climates on the poorest soils. Though hard on the vines, these tough conditions are good for the wine, because vines that are stressed must work harder to produce fruit, which leads to fewer but more concentrated and flavorful grapes.
By contrast, the vines used for bulk wines have it easy. They are planted in the fertile soils in ideal climates of regions such as California's Central Valley. Such regions are great for producing tons of grapes to fill up the bulk fermentation tanks, but not at all great for producing the complex, intense flavors needed to make great wine, because the vines are not stressed and the yields are way too high.
In addition, grapes for great wines are hand-harvested and often hand-sorted to remove rotted or bruised bunches, which ensures that only the best grapes are used to make the wine. Almost all bulk wine grapes are harvested by machine. The machines work by vigorously shaking the bunches off the vine. Though hugely cost-effective, the shaking method is totally unselective and tends to bruise the fragile grape skins, which results in inferior fruit flavors.
Finally, bulk wines don't get the hands-on treatment of a skilled winemaker; moreover, they wouldn't benefit much if they did. The best winemakers acknowledge that great wines are made in the vineyard, not in the winery. Winemakers can apply their artistry with barrel aging, blending and other techniques only if the basic wine they are working with has the right stuff. Unfortunately, bulk wines don't.
I have a gripe about bulk wines, and it has nothing to do with packaging or what they lack, but with what is added at the behest of the marketing department -- sugar. The big bulk wine producers apparently believe that when consumers buy wine, what they actually want is Coca-Cola. I challenge this belief. What I think consumers want is the same as the high rollers -- a dry wine, in which the natural flavors of the grape are not masked by sucrose.
When wineries deliver this, I predict that those hefty boxes will fly off the shelf.
Wine of the Week
Here's my selection, with the approximate price and origin of the wine. In case it is not on the shelf of your local wine store, the name of the distributor is included.
Codorniu Pinot Noir Brut Rose ($13; DOPS Wholesale; Spain): The best sparkling roses are made from the red pinot noir grape, which provides a delicate nose of wild strawberries married to a surprisingly robust palate of red-berry fruit, with hints of earth and yeasty dough. While there are other affordable sparkling roses from Spain, unlike this bottling, they are made from native Spanish grapes that lack the refinement of pinot noir, to say nothing of the sheer class of the pinot noir-based French Champagne rose. At a modest price, this bottle captures a fair quotient of that high style, while providing so many of those wonderful bubbles.