Drinking Outside the Box
New Yorkers do not take kindly to wine in a box. They’re all too busy continuing the old cork vs. screw top debate to give the spigot even a moment’s consideration. At least this was the convention until the past year or so. There are rumblings and rumors of the resurgence of boxed wine in certain circles, even those that include individuals who pen articles for reputable publications. Don’t kid yourself, though; this is not your mother’s box of wine.
In order to overcome the natural aversion to wine found in anything other than a glass, bottle, snifter, or decanter, you must first immerse yourself in the rich and somewhat sordid history of nontraditional wine containers. There is no need for extensive research, as Wikipedia provides just enough information to keep your opinion on the topic as undecided as the website’s credibility. Apparently, the technique was developed by Thomas Angrove in southern Australia. His company was granted a patent in ’65 and proceeded to unleash upon the rest of the world what can only be described as a monster from down under. It goes without saying that the Australians are resourceful, intelligent people, and that hermetically sealing wine in a bag-in-a-box extends the life of an open container by up to seven weeks. But what decent human being would ever need that much time to consume even several liters of wine, when one evening seems to suit most New Yorkers just fine?
You can only assume that the Aussies had no idea where their wine would end up. Upon a more recent evaluation, it was confirmed that neither Top of the Rock nor Sardi’s serves “cask wine,” as the overly euphemistic prefer to call it. You need only consult your well-established stereotypes to know that the only real markets for boxed wine are the states in between the Northeast and California, with the heaviest consumption somewhere smack-dab in the middle. In fact, it stands more to reason that this technology was not invented by Aussies at all, but by a group of middle-aged women in muumuus who were too lazy to deal with the hassle presented by a bottle when their mugs needed a good topping off (certain authors’ female relatives not excluded). Wine on tap did to a housewife’s wine what the remote control did to television: turned a sedentary action into one more suggestive of a coma.
But some aspects of the New Yorker’s distaste for boxed wine don’t quite add up. Five liters of wine in one container sounds like the perfect amount for any Manhattanite, and if you add a straw, no doubt you would see boxes of Franzia popping up all over Williamsburg. The one exception to this rule is perhaps the Trader Joe’s case of wine, which in all reality is just a box filled with wine bottles that probably net the same price per fluid ounce as your standard boxed wine. The saving grace here is that there is no plastic bag or spigot to shame the buyer into waiting until cover of darkness to make such a purchase.
Provided that you could overcome the current stigma, you then have to overcome the insurmountable feat of finding boxed wine in Manhattan. Imagine yourself in the last three wine stores you’ve visited. If you can’t remember three distinct stores, you’re either not enough of a lush and need to step up your game, or you were already drunk by the time you reached the store and should be commended for your dedication. But think, do you ever remember seeing a box of wine? Odds are, unless you are a bag-in-a-box enthusiast, you haven’t. The few stores that do carry it have it hidden on lower shelves, in obscure dark corners so as not to agitate or scandalize the other patrons. Of the more prominent stores, Astor Wines is one of the few with a designated section for boxes. Again, you have to search for it, because it’s hidden in an odd corner behind the organic wines and suspiciously close to the five-gallon jugs.
For those few trailblazers who find themselves hopelessly devoted to quality, rectangularly-packaged alcohol, the internet is usually the first place to begin the long and arduous search for a retailer with like sympathies. At Chow.com one woman who identifies herself as misskate7511 goes so far as to describe her dream box as her “grail of vino.” Her use of the word “grail” is representative of the spirit it takes to be a boxed wine devotee in this city. Much like the crusaders, box worshipers require a zeal that those of other creeds should fear and that in most instances borders on madness. As the world has learned in the past decade or so, extremism less often produces converts than it does things like the Tea Party or the Snuggie. So it would appear that the fight for boxed wine must ride on the backs of the middle classes and wine-container moderates, which could explain the recent addition of a certain product at the always open-minded Bottlerocket.
You’ll be quick to notice upon entering the 19th Street and 5th Avenue locale, that Bottlerocket’s system for categorizing and arranging various types of fermented grapes is not in the least bit traditional. Don’t try looking for groupings of Rosé, Malbec, or Pinot (gris, noir, or otherwise). One wall of the store does have a selection of wines based on country of origin, but the majority of the space is dedicated to fourteen kiosks of eccentric groupings of wine. Bottles are stored in slots that come to about waist-height, and one is left for display on the tabletop surface where the storage space ends. A metal column sits in the middle of each kiosk, covered in images, maps, articles and other various notes on the wines. In the event that you find reading an activity best left to others, large plastic sculptures on the top of each column will provide a helpful hint as to the assortment of wines found beneath them.
The first two kiosks are marked by a pizza box and an open Chinese food container with chopsticks. As you might guess, these mark wines that go well with takeout. How exactly Bottlerocket covers the wide variety of foods that fit this category is still a mystery, but the employees’ suggestion of champagne and dim sum or sparkling syrah and baby back ribs is enough to peak any wine-drinker’s interest. Other graven images include a three-foot long dollar bill (“value” wines), an ice cream sundae (“treats”), a sparkly green party hat (“events”), and a white cow with the markings for the different cuts of beef (obviously, “meat”). It’s not until you reach a display of a Francis Coppola sparkling white encased in a box of four small pink cans – complete with straws – that you get your first indication that Bottlerocket has an affinity for anything but bottles.
Of course in the rush to explore this new, egalitarian layout of wines, most first time visitors completely miss three shelf slots occupied by small crates marked “Wineberry.” At first glance, the cases bare a striking resemblance to those pine boxes in which the unnamed dead are laid to rest. Granted the unnamed dead would have to be dismembered into several smaller parts and then stuffed into roughly a dozen or so of these wine boxes, but the similarity cannot be overlooked – distinctive wine bottle etched designs notwithstanding. In addition to these bottles stamped onto the side of the box, there are stickers with plenty of French script and even a quaint black-and-white sketch of the countryside. For the ecologically-minded, multiple stamps ensure that the box is recyclable, 100% natural, approved by the Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification, and will allow the purchaser to save the world “one box at a time.” For the lushes, there are three separate markings indicating that one box equals four full bottles of wine.
Upon questioning the employees of Bottlerocket, you will quickly find that Wineberry is not only a crowd favorite but is carried in three varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé, and Bordeaux, which was apparently a huge hit during last summer’s tasting sessions. For $39 you can waddle your way home with three liters of wine, all enclosed in the above-described wooden casing. What you will most likely not bring home is knowledge of how such boxes are to be opened.
After removing the tape from the small hole where a spigot is conspicuously absent, you may flounder for a few minutes with the next step. Is the spigot hiding? Were you supposed to buy one when you purchased the box? Are you too thirsty to spend time figuring it out and instead prone to cut the damned bag with a pair of scissors and pour the whole three liters directly into your mouth? If you are lucky, after five unproductive minutes spent on the Wineberry website, another five Googling “how to open a Wineberry box,” and a final two spent staring at the wall and swearing, you will try to reach your fat fingers into the impossibly small hole for one last valiant effort. This will be rewarding, provided you find the tap that has been folded under the bag in a way that makes it nearly impossible to pull through the designated hole. After another twenty minutes of additional swearing, sweating, and enlisting the help of at least one of your neighbors as you both hop around taking turns shaking the box and pulling at the all-too-small nozzle, you will finally be the proud owner of bruises, shame, and hopefully a properly placed spigot.
If at all possible, it is advisable to take a quick moment to recompose yourself before opening the box to enjoy your first glass. While your opinions on boxed wine may still be questionable, this is not a family reunion or office party and you are at no risk of being deprived of alcohol if you wait a few extra minutes to fix a drink. A sommelier’s composure is necessary to give this wine its due. But even if it turns out that the Wineberry meets your standards, even if it supercedes them, does that mean the entire category is saved? Need you be reminded of the hassle you went through to just open the thing, not to mention your neighbor will most likely be expecting at least one glass as compensation for the finger she almost lost in the process. Also, where does one store wine when one has it on tap? If by now you have already forgotten these hardships and are enjoying a glass, you may be inclined to tell all the naysayers what conventional wisdom has said all along:
Just put a cork in it.