November 9-15, 2005

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Wine Tasting Room of the Week

Inside the Box

By Heather Irwin

After centuries of rather jowly packaging traditions, the wine industry is giving itself a facelift. Unable to keep up with the more portable single-serve beverages that appeal to 21- to 35-year-old drinkers, vintners have begun the monumental and often glacially slow move to change over last several years, modernizing and transforming wine into a more relevant and convenient "everyday" beverage.

It's been a long road. Though it was far from flashy, the first step for vintners was to take a hard look at the sticky issue of bottle closures. The natural cork closures used for centuries are lovely, but they sometimes let in nasty bacteria that can taint wine. Since corks have an estimated 5 percent failure rate (or about one in every 20 bottles), average wine-drinking folks--not to mention collectors purchasing $100 to $5,000 bottles of wine--are getting a little tired of paying their hard-earned cash for something that might smell like a wet dog.

Synthetic corks, which act and look similar to traditional corks, are a good first step, but the jury's still out. Long-term effects of the synthetic material on the wine have not been studied, and the synthetic corking process can be just as expensive as traditional corking, making it a good interim step but probably not a long-term solution. Gaining more credibility are the Stelvin closures--or screw tops--which have the benefit of being both sterile and inexpensive. Vintners love them because they maintain the pure character of the wine without and question of taint. The downside? They're the same screw tops that close a 40-ounce Mickey's Big Mouth.

Going far beyond the simple issue of closures, however, are completely new types of packaging--even when they're not so new. According to the Alliance for Innovative Wine Packaging, super-premium (read: not crappy) wines are deftly moving into the emerging frontier of the box. With a rather promising 42.5 percent growth rate in just the last year, wines like Delicato's Bota Box and Three Thieves' Bandit Tetra Pak are striking a chord with consumers for the first time in nearly two decades.

Box wine? This new generation of box wines start out as relatively well-crafted Merlots, Zinfandels and Cabernet Sauvignons, rather than their unenlightened White Zinfandel and Hearty Burgundy cousins of the '70s and '80s, when box wines first came into widespread existence. That's a good first step. In addition, these wines are packaged in hip, ego-maintaining boxes that give credibility to the wine that is well-hidden within--floating in a sort of space-age vacuum bag. And here's where the box really scores: with a generous three liters (about four bottles) inside, drinkers can open the box for a single glass or for a party, keeping any leftovers fresh for four to six weeks! You're lucky to get a day or more out of wine in an open bottle.

With most premium boxes selling for between $16 and $25, it's convenient as well as a good value--if you can think inside the box.

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Wine Tasting Room of the Week
All Along the Wine Road.

Wine Tasting Room of the Week
Hess Collection Winery.

Wine Tasting Room of the Week
Chateau Potelle Winery.