In what has become an annual tradition within a tradition (which I suppose makes it some sort of Postmodern meta-tradition?), I’ve once again used my band’s appearance at the annual Summer Solstice music festival as an excuse to sneak in some “work.”
The work, such as it is, involves grabbing samples of wine in alternative packaging (bag-in-box, pouches, tetra-pack cartons, etc.), throwing them in a cooler, and sampling them the way that normal people do for wines built for on-the-go drinking; namely, drinking those wines under the bright sun, straight out of the cooler and poured into plastic cups and glasses, on the lawn, with picnic fare.
Seemed a perfect match for the 4th of July, anyway! Wish I could scream “queue the fireworks!” but by-and-large the wines I tried are best described as more capable than cause for celebration. The look on my face in the inset pic (taken by our singer/songwriter/guitarist Steve Liberace) can be used as a short-hand version of how I felt overall about this year’s alt packaging round up…
For starters, my previous challenge for producers to put fruitier red wines to be put into alternative packaging (Gamay would RAWK IT in that format, I’m convinced!) – those that can stand up to the chill of an ice cooler on a hot day – remains woefully unanswered in the U.S. market (at least as far as those making it to my sample pool are concerned). Instead, we’re seeing more of the ubiquitous Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, with continued mixed results.
I get that those varieties are recognizable and hence good candidates for bulk wine. But most bulk Chard goes flabby once the chill wears off, and most bulk Cab goes astringent once the temperature breaks the 80s.
Having said that, I can give some minor props to at least one red in my lineup, CalNaturale’s 2008 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, made from organic grapes, which runs about $7 for 3/4 of a normal bottle in a flexible Tetra-Pak carton. The packaging handles the stuffed cooler situation with ease, and the wine, while quite simple, packs a good bit of Paso Cab’s gritty, spicy red berry flavor while remaining fresh and avoiding feeling too concocted (wish I could say the same for their Mendocino Chardonnay, which I’ve sampled multiple times in multiple settings and remain underwhelmed each time).
This year’s version of the experiment also confirmed for me that boxed wine, while a decent value in terms of the amount of simple, refreshing wine for the price, totally sucks for the cooler. Which is a shame, because the wines can be crowd-pleasers, and the large format begs to be shared, but they’re mostly still built for the fridge: bulky packaging that deteriorates quickly in the wet environment inside a cooler.
Octavin has been hitting the revived bag-in-a-box category pretty hard lately, with the non-vintage South African “Herding Cats” Chenin Blanc/Chardonnay blend being one of the latest entries. It’s not as tasty or balanced as their bottled vintage versions, but I dug that it actually retains a slight bit of Chenin’s wooly character while still delivering decent tropical fruit. At something like $24 for a 3L, you’re getting what you pay for (and probably a hair more, really, but just a wooly hair!) when you consider that it breaks down to something like $1 and change per glass. [ Insert your own joke about cougar juice and cool cats here. ]
The most enjoyable and gulp-able of the alt packaging group this year turned out to be Pepperwood Grove’s non-vintage, nineteen dollar “The Big Green Box” Chardonnay. Yeah, it’s pretty woody, and has a bit too much vanilla bean action, but the green apple fruit was crisp and refreshing; while that’s probably not enough for the more discerning dinner table, that’s certainly enough to please a lot of people at a party or picnic (the author included) who are looking for a simple sipper when the wine is cold and the sun is warm. In the end it’s a slightly-better-than-average wine, but at $5 / bottle it’s also a better-than-average bargain.