In the interest of full disclosure

April 13, 2008 at 8:01 pm (What we're drinking) (, )

Sometimes I do embarassing things.  I frequently forget people’s names and have to spend significant portions of conversations trying to get them to refer to themselves in the third person.  Two days ago I called a nice young lady “Sir.”  I have an approximately 100% rate of getting caught in any lie I tell.  This weekend, though, I did something that went beyond embarassing and extended into the realm of mortifying.

I, a manager of one of the best fine wine and spirits stores in the country, bought a boxed wine.  From the grocery store.

Sickening, I know.  Like any human, I suffer from impulse decisions.  You know how you’re not supposed to grocery shop when you’re hungry?  Well, winos shouldn’t wander the booze section when thirsty and unoccupied for the rest of the afternoon.  Embarassing things might happen.

In addition to being a bit of a lush, I also tend to be eco-minded.  I ride my bike to work, I reduce/reuse/recycle with the best of them, and I had our store participate in last month’s Earth Hour.  Overall, I think I maintain a pretty decent carbon footprint.  So, when I stumbled across a wine advertising itself as being the perfect beverage for the green drinker, I was powerless to resist.

For a product so dependant on a healthy planet, wine as we know it is downright dirty.  Millions upon millions of glass bottles are made (in dirty factories), shipped around the world (on polluting boats, trains, planes and trucks), and discarded (all too often right into the landfill) every year.  One of the best solutions to this problem is the good-old “bag in a box,” a category of wine that most readers of this blog will have left in their past a long, long time ago.

Before you think I picked up a box of White Zin on my way out the door, know that I didn’t stoop that low.  Instead, I bought an organic Australian Chardonnay packaged in a one liter Tetra Pak box, a method of packaging that says more “OJ” than “Ojai Vineyard.”  At $11.99, this put the wine in a price range I have pretty high standards for, so I felt comfortable expecting a good product.  More than anything else, though, I wanted to see what drinking wine out of a box would make me feel like.

The first thing that I noticed when I picked up the wine is that the box was light.  At one liter, there was over 30% more wine in the package than a standard bottle and the whole shebang still felt downright dainty.  This has it’s benefits, as one of the most polluting parts of a wine’s life is the time it spends on ships and trucks rumbling towards your dinner table.  Lighter bottles (or boxes) mean lighter trucks that get better gas mileage, reducing the CO2 added to the atmosphere.  Square boxes can also be packed more efficiently, meaning that less container space is wasted by funky-shaped bottles.  While the light packaging was appreciated when I was treking it in bags to my kitchen, it didn’t help me feel impressed by the wine: nothing says “whoa baby” like a thick, five-pound glass bottle with a cavernous punt.  I am not a practical person.

If the heft of my new purchase was uninspiring, the sight of it sitting in my refrigerator was just depressing.  No gleaming glass, no austere label: just another mass-produced product at home next to the leftovers.  Normally I patiently relax while I wait for a bottle of white wine to chill down.  This time I just felt guilty.  The pride and soothing self-righteousness that usually accompanies an eco-minded decision were replaced by the dissapointment at having bought an industrial wine.  Goodbye caring artisans, hello focus groups and the lowest common denominator.  Needless to say, this wine was going to have to kick some butt to make me feel better.  As I unscrewed the plastic top (not in itself a bad thing anymore) and lifted the cardboard container over my glass, optimism was scarce.

 Well guess what?  It was pretty bad.  In fact, it really, really blew.  Fortunately, though, its flaws were of a typical nature: thin flavors, out-of-whack acid, tart and inexplicable finish, etc.  Typical pitfalls for all grocery store wines, especially those of this pedigree and price.  There was, however, no noticeable difference between it and pitiful wines that come out of glass and cork.  And suprisingly, after a few minutes of thinking and tasting, I was able to put the wine’s container behind me.  True, the presentation and ritual behind buying and serving the wine were compromised by the packaging, but the (admittedly subpar) taste seemed to be unaffected.  Overall, I would rate the score as Grocery Store Plonk: 0, Tetra Pak: 1.

If good wine remains a priority in your life, it looks like your eco options are currently limited to committed recycling of bottles and supporting organic and biodynamic farmers.  I’m sure better and more sustainable packaging will soon carry some fantastic wines, but that doesn’t seem to be the situation today.  If you or your family members tend to gravitate towards more, um, forgettable wines, you might as well make sure that the packaging has an equally light impact. 

I’m glad I tried this little experiment, it illustrated that the impact of putting wine in a box has a bigger influence on my mind than on my tongue.  I like to believe that I’ll be mature enough to look past these hangups once the wine inside is worth drinking, but until a winemaker makes that gamble, I’ll be stuck lugging glass up the steps and keeping my trash cans full of blue bags.

Posted by Lance

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