Thursday 19 September 2013

Turning on the box

In the past, I’ve been scathing about wine in boxes. Wine in a box? Is that like cigars in a bottle?

So it’s ironic that, just a week after CJ returned from France with three wines in boxes, I found myself buying one from Sainsbury's. This is Caja Roja, and the first thing to say is that it’s not a Rioja. An easy mistake to make, given its name.

An even easier mistake would be to think that it is the almost identical Carta Roja, a rather good Jumilla Monastrell/Syrah which has picked up a couple of awards, and which is frequently “offered” by Sainsbury for just under a fiver.

These two bafflingly similar products are shown in the picture. The boxed Caja Roja – and yes, caja does translate as ‘box’ – is, in fact, a completely different, Monastrell/Tempranillo blend. Its perfectly drinkable, bright, slightly spicy product does not have the added weight and warmth (and, therefore, awards) of the bottled Carta Roja. With its virtually identical labelling, lettering, colouring…

It’s surely hard to imagine that the two could be confused by a shopper, used to dealing in their supermarket dash with the contest between too much choice and too little time.

But believe me, lured by the prospect of a bargain, they can.

In a special offer, this box had been reduced by Sainsbury’s from £16 to £12. That’s 2.25 litres, or three bottles’ worth, for £12. It’s the cheapest drinkable wine I have encountered in the UK. It’s not the rather superior Carta Roja – but it’s £4 a bottle. An irresistible bargain. Only it’s in a box.

Now on the whole, I have resisted wine in a box. It is, as they say, convenient. It is also, as they say, uncouth. And I do so wish to be couth.

Like many purchasers, I argued to myself that a wine box would be a convenient way of drinking the odd glass, and cooking with the odd squirt, while keeping the rest fresh. The key word here being ‘convenient’.

Just a splash of wine in these lentils? Here it is, with its own ‘convenient’ tap, just as if red wine has been plumbed into the kitchen. A little glass of something with supper? Here again. Pour just as much as you like, and the box will stay fresh. It’s so ‘convenient’.

But is convenience necessarily a good thing? Velcro is more convenient than buttons, but you don’t see much of it on Savile Row.

Wine boxes are not designed for the dining table. They may well offer ‘convenience’, but you wouldn’t serve convenience food to your guests.

You also have to hoist wine boxes above glass height, always an ungainly maneouvre. It’s reminiscent of lifting dumbbells, something else not recommended over a laden dining table.

So unlike a magnum of wine, which everyone assumes you are sharing with friends, a box is something people assume you are drinking in privacy. A box is like announcing personal profligate consumption, the equivalent of the giant airport bar of Toblerone.

Yes, you can use your extensive collection of pichets and carafes to disguise your embarrassing secret. But that’s not ‘convenient’, is it. Soon you find yourself tiptoeing back into the kitchen between courses or during ad breaks, directly refilling glass after glass. With no visible record of your consumption.

How long before you’re just passing through the kitchen, work to do, clock ticking, stressed out like a cat passing Crufts. Can you be bothered to make a mid-morning coffee? Here, over here, calls the little box on the worktop. Who’s to know? And hey, if we’re talking convenience, why bother dirtying a glass? We’ve all drunk water directly from a tap…

It’s a downward path. In its worse case, I recall drinking with someone who, when the flow began to falter, pulled the box apart and, determined to get every last drop, actually wrung out the foil bag inside.

And in the end, the box goes into the recycling, where it is far more troublesome than a straightforward glass bottle, because who’s prepared to break it down into its constituent elements of cardboard, foil and plastic? It sits there whole, like a squat badge of shame, announcing to the neighbours your consumption, your poverty and your convenience-driven laziness.

A single bottle of cheap wine might be considered desperation. An entire box of it suggests destitution.

And ask yourself this. If boxes are so good, how come it’s only cheap wines which are in them?

So, swings and roundabouts. On the swings, it’s astonishingly cheap, perfectly drinkable, and with the added ‘convenience’ of staying fresh. On the roundabouts, it’s clumsy, ugly and suggests something dubious about your drinking.

Me? I’m on the climbing frame.


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