Bottle vs. cask: the uphill battle

My other job -- the one that keeps me housed, clothed and fed -- is in marketing. Marketers make a living by trying to figure out what you like and making sure they provide it. Surveys are only a part of that creative process, but they're the most fun since the data becomes fodder for product fantasies -- things you never thought you'd want (but will). Occasionally, however, I have to call bullshit on surveys. I just received a press release stating that 96 percent of Americans prefer their wine in glass bottles. Ignoring that the survey was sponsored by the Glass Packaging Institute -- aka lobbyists for glass manufacturers -- the results reflect more of what consumers don't know: their options.

Before Prohibition, most wine was sold in whatever container seemed to work. Toting vessels of various sizes and materials, people siphoned from large barrels at the local wine merchant, much like water at the grocery store now. It's only in the past 50 years that the now-standard 750 milliliter bottle came into use. According to the GPI survey, Americans prefer glass because it preserves the "quality, purity, taste and shelf life" of the wine. But what most people don't know is that bag-in-a-box wine -- or "cask" -- is far superior as a method for all of the above. Yes, it's designed for everyday drinking wine, and there haven't been too many experiments with aging wine in a cask, but it's certainly effective when it comes to maintaining freshness. And since more than 90 percent of wine is created to be consumed within the first two years after bottling, what's the big deal if casks don't age wine well? Hell, 99 percent of people I know crack it open when they get home.

The bag-in-a-box, so nicknamed because the cardboard encasement houses a heavy plastic bladder filled with wine, is equipped with a spigot that doesn't allow oxygen -- wine's nemesis -- to enter the remaining liquid. The bag collapses as you draw juice out, so once opened, the wine stays fresh for up to three months, compared to the maximum four or five days associated with corks and even screwtops. I had a cask of California Zinfandel on my kitchen counter open for more than three months, and it stayed tasty up until the fruity end.

Lately, "high-end," vintage-dated wines have been bagged (or boxed?), and Australia and California are releasing plenty of good, value-priced juice (Hardy's and Black Box are two to try). Each three liter box, holding four bottles of wine, normally retails for under $20. Storage is easy: You can keep the tall, squarish boxes conveniently on the countertop or in the fridge.

Thankfully, consumers are starting to catch on to the cask (although the survey results don't mention bag-in-a-box as a response option). And people are not drinking just any wine, but premium wine. According to AC Nielsen, the boxed wine segment is growing nine times faster than the wine category as a whole, with the vast majority of those purchases coming from people who formerly preferred bottles.

With the likes of insipid, lowbrow Franzia paving the way, I'm not surprised more Americans aren't rushing to the stores to buy wine squeezed from a plastic bag. But boxed wine, no longer the pariah of the wine world, is due some respect from the masses. Wake up and smell the fresh wine.

Recommended Wines

Villa Maria 2004 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough (New Zealand). SW = 3. $13. A smooth operator that caresses the tongue with ripe peaches and tangy lime. Much more full-bodied and less crisp than other New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. 4 stars

Duckhorn 2002 Decoy Napa Valley. SW = 2. $26. A big, dry, full-bodied wine with loads of sweet raspberry, bright cherry and heady black currant. Quite delicious. 4 stars

Sweetness (SW) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. 1 (star) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.


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