Thursday, 12 June 2014

A suitable case…


When people ask me how I open my wine, I like to be able to reply, “With a hammer and chisel.”

Which is not to propose some brutal method of attacking the neck of bottles with DIY tools in a kind of low-rent sabrage. Simply to say that I like it when wine comes in wooden cases. And I feel somehow let down when I order wine and it comes in what can only be described as a cardboard box. 

(Because that’s what it is…)

The term ‘case’ is widely abused in the wine business. It fails as a description of quantity, since no-one seems able to decide whether a ‘case’ is the traditional 12 bottles or the more contemporary 6. The number of times I have looked at a case price, thought it looked good value, and then found that it was only half a dozen bottles and was actually very expensive. It’s as if someone decided that with certain ‘pairs’ of shoes, you only got one instead of two.

And the term ‘case’ similarly fails as a description of the container. To my mind, whether 12 bottles or 6, a cardboard box is not a case – it is a cardboard box. 

A wooden case indicates a serious wine. It immediately looks as if the wine is anticipating years of laying down, properly protected. You respect a wine in a wooden case, even if the wines inside sometimes only cost a tiny bit more and sometimes even less than the wines in a cardboard box, Mrs K, honestly.

When a wine is good, it surely merits a wooden case. It should, as Webster wrote of something else entirely, be cased up like a holy relic. 

Yet there seems no simple way of telling whether, if you order wine, it will arrive in a proper case or a cardboard box. You can ask, oh yes, but you run the risk of ending up in an awkward conversation when you reveal that the case forms part of your buying decision. After all, they’ll say, it’s one thing to judge a book by its cover; another entirely to make a judgment based on the jiffy-bag in which it comes.

But if wine is being marketed as a gift, the seller will make a point of saying that it comes in a wooden case. They will even put a single bottle in a wooden box to give it prestige as a gift. So, what about giving the wine prestige for oneself?

There seems no indication of when this insidious packaging switch took hold. From Kit-Kat bars to instant coffee jars, we have seen established packaging replaced by designs distinguished only by their ugliness. You try making a traditional Blue Peter piggy bank out of a modern Fairy Liquid bottle. 

(Apologies; as all Blue Peter viewers of a certain vintage will remember, I meant to say “squeezy bottle”.)

I’m sure there are both economic and environmental arguments in favour of the cardboard box, along with the disappearance of wooden fruit crates and tea chests. But there are some of us who wish to remain with the traditional wooden options. As with coffins for example; wicker may now be the final choice for some, but I do not wish to go under myself within an oversized picnic hamper.

Apart from looking good, wooden cases are enormously practical. They can be stacked in one’s cellar, just as they are; no need to rack the bottles. The challenge of taking tools to open them discourages one from sampling them prematurely – while finally opening them is an event in itself, a suitable herald to the conclusion of years of laying down.

And when they’re empty? I bash the end off, and have an attractive souvenir and addition to my cellar wall. As for the rest of the case, well, last winter, when people were raging about energy price increases, one local wine merchant had the clever wheeze of breaking up their wooden cases and putting them in front of the shop, with a sign: Firewood – free for pensioners. It made them look generous and considerate, as they clung to a passing bandwagon.

Believe me, this cardboard business is the thin end of the wedge. It won’t be long before someone has the smart idea of packaging bottles of wine like bottles of mineral water, in that impenetrable plastic shrinkwrapping. And when wine is finally reduced to that level of commodity packaging… don’t come crying to me.

PK

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