Thursday, November 13, 2008

Box Wines

Trove Merlot, 2004.

Simply put, the most disgusting box wine I have ever drank. I tried it with food, I tried it first-drink-of-the-night, I tried it second, I tried it at the end of a long drinking bout, I tried it mixed with other red wines. God awful rotgut flavor that makes Boone’s Farm and Mad Dog appear balanced and sophisticated.

Okay, I might be a tad unfair with that last comparison, but there is a weak thinness to Trove’s Merlot that was missing from their white wines. Granted, their whites weren’t stellar, but they were a serviceable, late-in-the-party-who-cares-what-they’re-drinking wine that could at least hold their head semi-high. I opted to try both a white and a red in the newfangled boxed-wine market and sad to say, this is one item that belongs with the old boxed-wine of your memory, the Mondavi and such.

There’s something vinegary and off about the Merlot of 2004, at least in my box. Whereas most boxed-wines aim for the twenty dollars for four bottles’ worth range, at a sale price of sixteen dollars for four bottles worth, Trove’s Merlot might just be the first top-shelf stocked boxed-wine that actually matched peer priced bottles.

Like I previously stated, this is a harsh wine (the kind you gift to frenemies and subordinates), but its harshness was not solely to be found in the realm of its awful flavor. Trove’s Merlot was, in fact, nausea inducing on at least two occasions, without over imbibing. The second time I lived up to the joke and puked a little in my mouth. While I can’t insist with 100% certainty that the wine was to blame, it was, after all, the second time I felt the urge to hurl while quaffing this disaster.

Vendange Merlot, Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio, Various Years

Remarkably good for the price, but even better, these adorable little boxes of wine hold just three glasses and run you about a dollar fifty per. While the Merlot is more or less a passable table wine and the Pinot a tasty addition to parties, the real stand out here is the Chardonnay. What a sensation! Fruity without over-sweetness, a cool sizzler on the tongue.

Vendange’s Chardonnay was a real winner in the house with The Critical Wife quaffing the little half-liter Tetras in short order and wanting more. Even I, not a regular white wine drinker if it isn’t summer, find the Chardonnay greatly appealing and perfect with cheese and crackers, with vegetarian dishes that aren’t too hugely thick and rich (mutter paneer, for example, would play the Incredible Hulk to this Chardonnay’s Elektra), or with nothing but your own backyard to accompany it. The re-sealable cap lets you set this wine aside for later, but it lacks the shelf-life of the larger box wines with their vacuum-sealing and their handy spigots.

Just shy of greatness, Vendange, especially their Chardonnay, still approaches it. An amazing wine for the price, plus the little boxes aren’t even recognizably wine, so you can tote them just about anywhere for your picnic delights. Add a straw and you’d be mistaken for an adult with a juice box. I’m thinking of taking up drinking them in the office.

Wine Cube, Merlot and Chardonnay, 2007

The surprising entry from Target of all places, Wine Cube’s Merlot is a watery concoction with less body than most Merlots on the market or in the memory. There’s something thin and communion-wine-ish about this offering, suitable for slipping to party guests who’ve acted like complete jack-asses, but nothing so rankly disappointing as the Trove swill. While not being offensive, the ’07 Merlot is exactly what you want to bolster a wine roster at party’s end when taste buds have reached saturation point. Duck into the kitchen and fill your more sloshed guests' glasses with this concoction and you’re unlikely to hear any complaints; top their first glass of the night with this red stuff from Wal-Mart’s competitor and you might just as well have ladled out some Mad Dog or Gallo.

My first impression of the Wine Cube Chardonnay was that it was as worthless as the Merlot – save for putting out fires and getting impressionable youths loaded. By halfway through the glass, the flavors had softened on the tongue . The first blast of taste was redolent of vinegar more than anything, when a good Chard should be pushing the ripe, fruity and floral notes. Astringent right out of the box, this little wine probably pairs much better with food than it does with washing dishes or filling an iPod playlist. C’est la vie. One likes a wine that complements food well, but one also is searching for a wine that can stand on its own two feet and give as good as it gets. Unfortunately for Target’s wine line, there are only the Pinot Grigio and the Cab/Shiraz mix remaining to sample and then my most likely course of action will be to never purchase their house varietals unless they improve significantly.

(A second night’s sampling of the Merlot only confirms and perhaps underscores the more critical portions of the above review. This is a wine, or to be generous a vintage, that is just disappointing across the board. Ugh. Half of it ended up down the drain. The half that I swallowed gave me instantaneous heartburn, as well as the more lingering kind.)

Killer Juice Cabernet, 2005

Saving the best for last, Killer Juice’s higher price translated into higher quality. No question about it, this fancifully named bit of grape packs a wallop and delivers with full bodied, rich flavor. I’m not by any means a wine snob of any skill or discernment, though I know a few of the general tricks (and, yes, I learned them prior to seeing Sideways). The glass turned a bit and swirled, this almost black wine showed off phenomenal legs denoting great strength of body. Allowed to air and then sniffed deeply prior to quaffing, Killer Juice’s Cabernet was almost overpoweringly strong and pleasurable. It was such a delight I repeated the experiment until my nose gave up on registering the earthy and berry-ful scented flavors.

Here was a wine that could compete with its bottled companions not only in prestige (some day) but also in taste (today) and in price (verrrrry today). Going for between sixteen dollars and twenty-one dollars depending on your prices, Killer Juice’s quantity translated into a range of four dollars to five and a quarter per bottle. Think about that for one second. Think of what you’d expect, save for the very serviceable Two Buck Chuck table offering, if you bought a five dollar bottle of wine.

It’s an amazing deal for an amazing wine, and the folks at Killer Juice have clearly hired a first-rate staff to grow and select the grapes for inclusion. This wine had power right out of the gate just in its immediate and dominating presence up your nose. Get a little in your mouth and you’ll note that the hype is deserved completely. If it didn’t sound like a slam, I’d praise this wine’s punch-in-the-mouth quality.

Maybe it was the expectations game, but this was the first boxed wine I’d drank since my rapscallion college days, and even though I had heard good things about this vineyard, I didn't expect much. There was still the all-too memorable night that a boxed Mondavi whispered sufficient sweet nothings to hoist my drunk ass up onto the roof of a party house. Plus, perhaps there are elevated sulfite issues, but boxed wine always left me feeling as though my head had been run over by every tractor in the John Deere catalog and my mouth filled with every animal dropping from every farm those tractors had ever serviced. Along with a smoldering in the chest that never seemed to extinguish. So, going in with a low bar to hurdle might not have hurt Killer Juice's write up any.

As can be expected, though, with good wine, I didn’t know when to quit. My first night suckling at the Killer Juice teat found me awakened around 3 a.m. by The Wife as I slumped on the couch, a DVD still spinning. The second night I managed a decent bedtime, but this good wine required my attention. By the fourth night, the whole thing was done and gone. A fitting end, but the equivalent of a bottle per night. A bit much for me these days. While quality still predominately resides in the bottle, so too does prudence. And with boxed wines hidden reserves, you can easily lose track of just how much you've drank. Not so with the more ubiquitous bottles.

With a full-bodied, deep-aroma-ed flavor and punch, Killer Juice’s Merlot was supremely satisfying, a rich berry flavor that had hardened notes of burnt oak and other woody materials that provided substantial challenge to the discerning palate. There is something almost mossy and primitive in the sheer force of this wine, satisfying on any number of levels. The pleasure to be had from drinking it coupled with the sheer quantity that turns up in these boxes are its undoing. It is far too easy to overstep your limits and wake up on the floor, fully dressed, drooling and achy.

Nevertheless, my highest recommendation goes to those looking for quality wines at affordable prices. Excellent grapes like Killer Juice’s, well-blended, well-fermented, fashionably packaged, will do the work of removing the stigma from boxed wine – at least among those in the know. I can only hope we move fast enough to save the industry from the shillers of shit.


Kelly said...

Since no one has commented about this I will.
I prefer the box...that is the kind with juice in it.

The Critic said...


Kelly said...

That is a discussion for another day.

alley cat said...

Sorry. I'm a teetotaler. Loved your review, though!

Kelly, I peeked at your website. I wish I could do more than sew buttons, hems and Girl Scout patches. Good for you!