Wine in a box
“There are only three things which make life worth living: to be writing a tolerably good book, to be in a dinner party of six, and to be traveling south with someone whom your conscience permits you to love.”
(I know what you are thinking, "What could that quote possibly have to do with wine in a box. And what is he thinking anyway writing a long discurve article about wine in a box? How could this possibly be interesting?" It probably won't be, but I will try....)
For some years during the bittersweet return north to Paris at the end of our summer vacation, we would invariably make a detour to the charming village of St. Laurent des Arbres, in the department of the Gard, Provence. Not because St. Laurent is one of the most charming and unspoilt villages in France. Which it is. But we were compelled there every year to buy wine in bulk.
The little town is in the AOC of Lirac, just across the Rhone from Chateauneuf du Pape and adjacent to Tavel. Many of the vineyards are owned by people who are equally proprietors of vines in the neighboring appellation or at the prestigious transfluvial chateaux. Often these are the wines they, and many of the locals, have on their tables; reserving their other wines for the market where they--sometimes deservedly--fetch high prices.
Here red, white and rosé wines may not always be as good as their nearby cousins, but they are frequently comparable. Very occasionally they surpass some of the world famous names from those Papal domaines on the Rhone's other bank.
We would make our way to the local wine cooperative, taste, and most years buy a 20 liter plastic jug of one color and say 30 of another. Depending on which was better that year. One time, the first time, they made a white, a wine, it was a miracle. And every year St. Laurent would call us back to see if it had happened again.
Once home, a portion of the wine would be transferred to smaller containers to be consumed over the next few months. The rest we would bottle and cork, making custom labels, and give away as presents during the holiday season. Sometimes a bottle opened several years later was much better than it had been young, sometimes faded to nothing.
Now I must confess, St. Laurent was not our only detour. The whole trip home was always a series of detours. Mostly because I dreaded not the return home but leaving the south. Real life begins somewhere south of Montélimar. In fact our vacation was usually spent half by the seaside and half coming home stopping at a series of vineyards. St. Laurent-Lirac-Tavel-Chateaneuf. Valence-St. Joseph-Hermitage. Vienne-Ampuis-Cote Rotie-Condrieu. Cluny-Macon-Puilly, Dezize-les-Maranges-Chassagne-Montrachet. At some places we would by bulk wine and at other places bottles.
At all of the places that offered the "vin en vrac", while tasting both the bulk and the bottled wines, we would see a stream of local residents coming and going always buying the bulk wine and almost never the bottles. Hoses, sort of like those of a gasoline station pump protude from sides in the various vats. There are drains in the floor underneath them. There is the ever-present musty smell of yeasts and spilled wine.
Various characters come in carrying an empty container, maybe a clear plastic square or big bellied glass jug, and they chat familiarly in strong regional accents while the hose is inserted into the neck of their vessels, the wine goes shhhhh, until it geysers up into the air. Topped up, still chatting while the next customer arrives. (If you want a great wine hack: get several of the locals discussing which winemaker makes the absolute best wine in the area. Many of them work the vineyards in some capacity. They often love to dispute over which are the better wines. Even if they have never had a bottle of the expensive stuff, they usually know quality because they see what care is taken of the plants and the fruit.
This is a daily scene in almost every major wine region in Europe. A huge percentage of wine is consumed this way. The savings to both customer and winemaker of dispensing with bottles, corks, labels, marketing and labour costs are enormous. And a lot of these wines are very good. They could be aged. (Sadly most wines with high tannins that are bottled and meant to be aged are consumed too young) But if you are going to drink them before they age, why bottle them? And here is the clincher; why should you risk having them corked? Pour them out into a wide carafe and aerate them to simulate a little aging if you like.
This is where the box comes in. Many years ago big industrial winemaking companies started offering box-wines here in France like in the US and the UK. Most of it horrible stuff. But it quickly claimed a place on the supermarket shelves. When I first saw them there I thought, "what an abomination." Then the carefully repressed memory of tasting a glass of nauseating cough-syrupy white Zinfandel from a box at a party in Chicago came unbidden to my mind. Oh ye gods, My homeland has exported this evil thing to France. "I tremble for my country when I think that god is just".
But just a couple of years later most cooperatives and some smaller-scale winemakers from less well known AOC's or up-and-coming VDP's started offering their wines the same way. In a bag with a sealed tap, placed in a box for convenient shipping and storing, alongside the bring-your-own to fill up option. Where you can buy one they offer the other, The airtight bags keep the wine in good condition protected from oxygenation for longer than the plastic "cubi". Usually slightly more expensive than filling from the tap. But not much. Now most of the better wine merchants in Paris sell a good selection of some very nice, if not particularly exciting, wines in a box. Boxes are just bulk wine "vin en vrac" modernized. That is a good thing.
Hmmm will we ever have boxed Chateauneuf du Pape? Creepy.
How is this going to develop next? Aha, the game is afoot, Watson.
Bruno Quenioux is meddling with the wine business again. A big personality in the French wine world. He is an advocate for "personal" style wines. He created the Bordeauxtheque, which revitalized and centralized a lot of the local mass market for 1855 Classified First Growth Bourdeaux, at the Galeries Lafayette department store.
His newest venture is "Bibovino". He has convinced a number of well-known winemakers (Jean Paul Brun!) to offer some of their better wines in the box format. Wines that are meant to be consumed young, but are still first rate.
He has created a website to sell them in Belgium and has opened his first boutiques in Paris. It is likely he will expand quickly both the circle of producers and the distribution business. And this is likely to become common everywhere. And has been followed up by the younger and hipper http://www.vinenvrac.fr
If it does the face of many a wine-lover's traditional dinner party is going to change. Which makes me feel a little melancholy. No more popping of corks. But we can embrace a new social freedom. A real vinous dinner party has always been limited to six, for that is the number of glasses in a bottle. (see, I told you I'd try to make that quote relevant)
I am kind of oenologically kooky. One of my many winey eccentricities: For each truly great wine discovery, I start searching for a very good--but not great--wine that closely resembles it. They can be surprisingly hard to find. Whenever opening one of the real treasures, I always concoct a meal that has two separate courses designed to be consumed with those wines. So the palate comes off of the really good experience to see BANG! How really great the second wine is. An Hautes Cotes de Beaune, then a Beaune village. Vosne Romané, then a Vosne 1er cru. A Tonnerre or a Chablis village before Chateau Grenouille chablis grand cru. Macon before Pouilly Fuissé. A Cru Bourgeois before a big Médoc. Valpolicella before Amarone. Langhe before Barbaresco. Bullas before Jumilla. etc. And of course a Lirac or very good Cote du Rhone before a Chateau La Nerthe. Every great performance needs and deserves an overture. This is the primary use of our bulk wine. And quite often the first wine is one of the principal ingredients in the food, so I don't have to use much of the treasure for that purpose. Unfortunately I've done this for so long that I get really grumpy if the great wine is thrust on my palate without preparation. It takes too long to start appreciating the star of the meal and the first few mouthfuls seem totally wasted when not prepped by the first wine. Really grumpy. I start muttering about people not knowing how to respect wine. Which is utterly ridiculous)
St. Laurent des Arbres
And NOW for those of you serious about food and wine, who have actually read all the way down the page, a sincere thank you for making it this far on an answer about wine in a box. You are Scholar and a Gentleman. Or Lady. here's your bonus trivia:
Of what is St. Laurent (St. Lawrence) the patron saint?
The blason of St. Laurent des Arbres
St Lawrence was martyred by being placed on a gridiron over hot coals. Barbecued to death. They placed him on his back on the coals, and he made no sign of suffering. After the smell of his flesh burning filled the room, he said calmly to his executioners, "I am done on that side, you can turn me over now".
And thus became the patron saint of cooks and chefs.