Moving everyday table wine from a bottle into a simple box could have cultural implications too, including a shift in focus from the ritual of the bottle to the wine itself and the pleasure we find in consuming it. The event of drinking wine might become more focused on camaraderie and conversation, rather than on posturing and ceremony. The fetishized wine bottle might be relegated, rightfully, to the realm of fine wines. And we could be done with pretense—no need to fake proper French pronunciation of some made-up “chateau” from a California mass-producer, no tired discussion of vintage and whether it was a good year for a wine that is clearly not meant to age, no listening to remarks about the charming animals that adorn the label. It’s hard to talk about terroir or feel snooty when you are drinking a wine that in an ounce per ounce comparison costs about as much as a latte.
Don’t get me wrong. I certainly enjoy fine wines. My partner and I love sampling both new wines and old favorites during special meals at home and when we dine out. We are members of the “Vinicultural Society,” of one of our favorite vineyards in Sonoma, with a standing order for an assortment of the artisanal wines they produce every season. We have a small cellar (two cheap wine racks and a couple of cardboard boxes in the corner of the basement) where wines age and wait for the right occasion. I try not to be a snob about it all, but I admit to being a sucker for austere food wines, for handcrafted wines that showcase the terroir (the environment in which a wine is produced), for unusual varietals, and even a little bit of barnyard. But I also believe that there is a place for an everyday table wine, for boxed wine.
Boxed wine still has a long way to go to achieve widespread acceptance. Many people just can’t get past the reputation of boxed wine as a low-cost, low-quality, and low-class beverage. My friends certainly have served me many a mediocre bottle of table wine—please take no offense, friends; I have done the same to you. Most people don’t have the resources to break out a bottle of vintage champagne for each gathering.
Yet while it seems to be perfectly acceptable to serve bottles of rather average table wine, bottles emblazoned with fuzzy animals, frosted desserts, or witty quips, most people I know would scoff at a glass of wine poured from a box. As a result, even though the boxed wine I have in my house is often superior to the bottles I serve my guests, I still perform the ritual uncorking of the bottle when entertaining. Disdain for the box itself and the inelegant act of dispensing wine that it requires—this is why people reject boxed wine. Our hang-ups with boxed wine arise from preconceptions about cultural capital, class, and image more than issues of quality. Most of the sharp criticism that I have heard directed against wine in the box has come from acquaintances who are neither expert in matters of wine nor in possession of sophisticated palates. I’ve had a friend condemn boxed wines wholesale on the same evening that she served us a bottle of wine labeled Red Velvet Cupcake. Seriously.
Perhaps the increasing availability of better wine in a box will soon change things. But it’s also possible that boxed wine will develop a following with younger drinkers. As Lynda Eller, communications director for Chateau Ste. Michelle explains, “We are finding that younger millennial consumers are more experimental and open to alternative closures.” A 2012 study by America's Wine Market Council showed that 65 percent of Americans aged 26-34 group drink wine every day or several times a week. They also consume more at each sitting (up to 2.92 glasses) than do other age groups. That’s a lot of wine.
And while we’re drinking more wine than people in previous generations did, we’re also facing worse financial prospects due to unemployment and underemployment, stagnating salaries, staggering student loan debts, and related factors. I certainly have greater disposable income now that I am no longer a student, and like other people my age I am using it to buy more “premium” wines than any other previous generation, but that doesn’t mean that can I uncork a high-end bottle every night—or that I would even want to. Boxed wines help fill the space in between. And I’m not the only one catching on to the beauty of the box. In the United States sales of 3-liter boxes were up 10.7 percent last year, and Tetra Paks were up 27.9 percent. Not all wine drinking needs to be a revelatory experience, or an act of conspicuous consumption. On a cold winter evening, after a long day of work, a couple glasses of red table wine provide the best comfort, especially when they’re enjoyed over dinner and conversation with the one you love. As a friend remarked one evening, “I don’t want a fine wine, just a wine that’s fine.”
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