The Search for the Best Boxed Wine: Week 4

The Back Story:

We’re well into our experiment now. We’ve officially opened 15 liters of the boxed stuff and spent a little over $100 to do it. Has it been worth it so far? Well… no. Not at all. But there IS hope on the horizon.

This week, I received in the mail an industry sample from Octavin Home Wine Bar, a new boxed wine distributor. They seek out up-and-coming wine-makers who would be willing to offer their wines in a more environmentally-friendly packaging. They will begin releasing their wines in May beginning with the 2008 Monthaven Central Coast Chardonnay. Coincidentally, they will also begin distributing the Pinot Evil that I reviewed two weeks ago.

To be honest, I like the direction this company has taken. They only release their wines in these distinctive packages, and they’re staking their reputation on making boxed wines that are a step above the rest. I’ve already had the Pinot Evil, and assuming the quality persists, it’s a good addition to their line-up. How does the Monthaven Chardonnay fare, though? At the very least, it exceeded my expectations.

The Results:

The appearance of the wine is light gold with a greenish tinge. It appears to be fairly viscous.

The nose of the wine is predominately green apple, with oak, slight floral and tropical notes. It’s not terribly aromatic. Cool alcohol scent coming through the aroma.

The mouth feel of the wine is very full and tangy, with a moderately creamy texture.

The flavor of the wine is rather full-bodied. I’m getting apple first and foremost, as in the nose, but with a distinct oaky, buttery undertone. A hint of overripe bananas combined with floral characteristics round out the finish, which becomes a trifle bitter as it lingers. It’s off-dry, with a high acidity balancing with a considerable sweetness. I’m actually rather impressed with the flavor, though the acidity is a little high. The alcohol, at 13.5%, fits right in with this wine.

For the Casual Drinker:

I would wholly recommend this wine… if it weren’t for that bitterness. There’s just something off on the finish. As it stands, it’s still a heck of a bargain, and aside from the finish, it’s got a great flavor. It’s not over-oaked like many cheap Chardonnays from the West Coast, but it aged just long enough in American oak to pick up an extra dimension to its flavor. For the price, you can’t go wrong, especially if you’re looking for a more aggressively-flavored white wine to pair with a spicier meal.

The Conclusion:

Like the Pinot Evil, there’s just something slightly off on the flavor that ruins what could be a home run of a boxed wine. In the end, it suffers the fate of other boxed wines, and that’s being cursed to only reach the level of averageness. It retails at $23.99, averaging to $6 per bottle. If it weren’t for the lack of balance and the extreme bitterness on the finish, I would call this far and away the frontrunner for the best boxed wine. 5/10

Disclaimer: this box was provided by the distributor as a sample.

Current Line-up:

Monthaven Central Coast Chardonnay 2008

  • Week 0 – 5/10 – imbalanced (high) acidity, balanced alcohol, apple, tropical, oaky flavors and nose, medium, way too bitter finish.

Washington Hills Merlot NV

  • Week 0 – 3/10 – imbalanced (high) alcohol, decent acidity, red fruit, blueberry, oaky flavors and nose, short finish.
  • Week 1 – 3/10 – Still hot on the tongue, balanced acidity, flavors are all holding true. Nose hasn’t changed.

Pinot Evil Pinot Noir NV

  • Week 0 – 5/10 – slightly imbalanced acidity, balanced alcohol, earthy nose, red fruit flavor, short finish, slight metallic undertaste.
  • Week 1 – 5/10 – Still as fresh as when it was opened. Similar earthiness, red fruits, short finish, slightly imbalanced acidity.
  • Week 2 – 5/10 – Still tasting pretty fresh. Still balanced. Flavor tastes on par with previous tastings.

Bota Box Shiraz California 2006

  • Week 0 – 3/10 – imbalanced (high) acidity, imbalanced (high) alcohol, smooth texture, black fruits, very hot nose
  • Week 1 – 3/10 – imbalanced acidity and alcohol, smooth texture, no loss in flavor, hot nose, maybe a bit more bitter finish
  • Week 2 – 3/10 – Still imbalanced, same texture, flavor, and nose. Holding its meager flavor well.
  • Week 3 – 3/10 – There’s something a little off on the flavor, but it’s not enough to drop the score. Still mostly the same.

Retired Line-up:

Black Box Chardonnay Monterey 2008

  • Week 0 – 4/10 – imbalanced (high) acidity, balanced alcohol, briny, weak texture, slightly sour, fruit-forward, weak nose
  • Week 1 – 3/10 – lost nothing on the nose, lost some flavor, still very imbalanced acidity, similar mouth feel, texture, increased sourness
  • Week 2 – 2/10 – Nose and flavor are starting to get musty, still overly acidic, beginning to taste flat, metallic, alcohol flavor still balanced
  • Week 3 – 1/10 – Nose and flavor lost distinguishing characteristics. Taste mostly of acid and alcohol. Flavor is officially wince-inducing. Consider this guy retired.
  • Average score: 2.5/10. Length of stay = 3 weeks. Final score is 2/10. Started off all right, but deteriorated too quickly to make it a contender for the best boxed wine.

Hunting for Red Wine Bargains at Trader Joe’s

The Back Story:

So, even though I’ve recently been exploring the over $30 fare in wines, I felt like revisiting an experiment I conducted weeks ago. I went bargain hunting for wine, trying to spend less than $60 for 10 bottles of wine. This was all too easy, of course, with Trader Joe’s in town. Though they carry some fare up to and over $20, by and large their focus is on the sub $10 market. They’ve got several brands in the $4 to $6 range, roughly the price per bottle of a boxed wine.

While the cost of manufacturing a bottle of wine can vary greatly, if we assume they’re at least breaking even on the wine they’re selling, then they’re probably quickening or cheapening the wine-making process, not getting the most out of their grapes. This means they’re more at the mercy of the quality of the grapes themselves, so the quality will vary more from region to region and from year to year. No salvaging wine through reverse-osmosis, no cherry-picking (or grape-picking, I guess) the best fruit, no limiting yields.

The moral of the story? If you find a bargain wine you like, make sure you try it every year before you invest heavily in the next vintage. On the slate for today? 2007 Il Valore Sangiovese and 2009 La Finca Malbec.

The Results:

2007 Il Valore Sangiovese, from the Puglia region in Italy

The appearance of the wine is a very dark purplish-red, barely translucent. Appears fairly viscous.

The nose of the wine is very fruity, ripe red-fruits, with slight floral notes. It’s rather spicy, and the alcohol comes through a little hot at 12.5%.

The mouth feel of the wine is nothing special. It’s rather smooth, rather light-bodied, a little lacking in tannins and acidity but not terribly weak. Honestly, for $4, I’m satisfied if it has any character at all.

The flavor of the wine is rather soft, subdued. It’s red fruit forward, primarily cherries, with an herbal, peppery finish that’s shorter than average but not a complete disappointment. The sweetness of the wine comes through more than I would have liked, but with the simple flavor it’s not really an issue.

6/10

2009 La Finca Malbec, from the Uco Valley in Argentina

Finca La Celia has (thankfully) much more than just this wine

The appearance of this wine is a deep-purple with a reddish tinge at the edge of the glass. The depth of red increases greatly directly in the light.

The nose of the wine is unimpressive, to say the least. There’s a slight aroma of blackberry and vanilla, but by and large, even away from the glass, all I could get from this wine was an overwhelming scent of alcohol, much higher than you would expect at 13% alc.

The mouth feel of the wine is probably the best part. It’s very smooth and doesn’t feel too heavy compared to its lighter flavor.

The flavor of the wine was an utter disappointment. The nose portends the weak flavor, which has notes of red fruit and pepper but mostly just tastes of alcohol. The wine is a little harsh due to an imbalance in acidity, tannins, and alcohol, all of which are, sadly, too high for this wine’s meager flavor. You’ll taste more of the imbalanced aspects of this wine jousting than you will the wine itself.

2/10

For the Casual Drinker:

These guys are on two ends of the bargain medium-bodied red quality spectrum: the Sangiovese is a smooth drinker with great flavor and many pairing possibilities. You’d do well to pair it with tomato and cheese fare such as ravioli or pizza, so long as the sauce isn’t too spicy. The red fruit flavors are a definite crowd-pleaser, and the balance of the wine ensures that even the more experienced wine drinkers won’t have much to complain about. The Malbec, with its harsh flavor and heavy alcohol presence, is best left alone entirely. There’s little you can do to salvage this wine.

The Conclusion:

The Il Valore Sangiovese is a fantastic bargain wine at $4, and it would be worth pretty much any price under $10. It’s far too simple to warrant a higher score than 6/10, though. The La Finca Malbec, however, just doesn’t cut it, and I’d be hard-pressed, even at only $4, to award it higher than a 2/10. I’d be interested to try another vintage to see if perhaps the Uco Valley simply had an overly wet year during this wine’s production, as from what I gather, Finca La Celia usually has much better output than this wine. For 2009, though, I can only recommend leaving it on the shelf.

(Don’t) Spin the Wheel: Nostalgic Music Wine Pairings

This week I overrode the randomizer and chose two songs myself as a way to reacquaint myself (and acquaint you all) with two bands that I’ve spent some time away from. The first, Atom and His Package, I haven’t listened to at all since high school. The second, The Besnard Lakes, I’ve only listened to sporadically since last summer. Shame on me on both counts.

Atom and His Package – I Am Downright Amazed at What I Can Destroy with Just a Hammer

This song is one that you listen to and just grin the whole time. The lyrics are absurd, chronicling a trio of college-age kids who buy a fixer-upper and realize only one of them knows how to repair things while another is marginally useful. The other one, bored with the process and with being utterly unhelpful, roams about the house indulging in destructive fantasies with his trusty hammer.

The instrumentation for this song is all provided by Atom (Adam Goren), who plays a guitar and a synthesizer, and his “Package,” a sequencer, a hardware music device that allows him to play multiple recorded or generated instrument sequences simultaneously while focusing on his live guitar-work and keyboarding. He snaps back and forth between chorus and verse with nary a pause in some sort of ADD stream-of-consciousness flood, the synthesizer barely keeping up with the manic output. The synth drums maintain a ridiculously quick 4/4 time signature, sounding more like an overexcited metronome than an actual instrument.

This song is giddy, simple, and short. It seems to me like it would pair very well with a late harvest Riesling. A late harvest Riesling stands well on its own, is enjoyable by even casual drinkers, and works when you don’t want a wine that commands focus and attention. The flavors are generally safe, harmonious flavors that match the higher sweetness and acidity levels: floral, light fruits, minerals. It’s almost syrupy sweet, though just acidic enough to give the wine some depth. Atom and His Package is assuredly irreverent, but there is enough substance, social and political commentary, there to keep it from being overindulgent nonsense.

Other songs by Atom and His Package include “The Palestinians Are Not The Same Thing As The Rebel Alliance, Jackass,” “(Lord It’s Hard to Be Happy When You’re Not) Using the Metric System,” and “People In This Computer Lab Should Shut the Hell Up.” If you need a good dose of angry, harmless, funny, nerdy punk, well, I think you’ve pigeon-holed yourself very nicely. Enjoy!

The Besnard Lakes – And You Lied to Me

Wine first. Considering I’ve only had dry Tokaji before, it would be dishonest of me to pair this with an Aszu. That’s fine, because I think a dry Tokaji goes very nicely with this music. Its acidity and residual sugar, though both generally fairly standard at around 6.5 g/l, are paired with a higher alcohol level (typically 14% and up). Higher alcohol, within reason, tends to enhance the flavors inherent in a wine, so long as the acidity and sugar aren’t overwhelmed.

Everything about a good Tokaji would be described as sumptuous. The acidity is very active, providing a nuanced mouth feel that I would liken to the feeling of ball bearings rolling across skin. The sugar and alcohol balances with the acidity well, giving the wine a very full, sensual flavor. The complexities in this wine persist through a long finish, many different aspects of fruits, minerals, and herbs constantly jostling for attention. The wine is simply chill-inducing.

Chill-inducing describes this song perfectly. There are few bands that warrant headphones, closed eyes, and focused listening. For me, The Besnard Lakes always command that dedication of my time. This song in particular makes me stop and listen no matter what I’m doing at the time.

The ominous vocals, sung both solo by Jace Lasek (also the guitarist and keyboardist) and in chants with his wife Olga Goreas (also the bassist), cast a surreal pall over the ornate instrumentation, pumping wave after wave of distraught emotion into the rising, triumphant guitar riffs to maintain a continual dissonance, a sense of unease. They fill empty spaces between verses with subdued distortion and wavering vocal harmonies, barely holding the song together and making the anticipation for each resurgence palpable. Like a dry Tokaji, the sweetness is tempered by a subtle mordancy; the song embraces dichotomy.

And, like any good wine, the complexity persists through a long finish. Generally, after the final verse of a song, a repetition of the verse or chorus riff or a guitar solo ends abruptly or fades out. The Besnard Lakes instead begin a second guitarist’s distorted guitar interlude before the final repetition of the chorus, replacing the chorus riff. As the chorus ends, another guitar solo begins, with a third guitarist and guitar bringing in a cleaner, slower sound. The original guitarist, Lasek, playing a subdued version of the chorus riff underneath of the solos, suddenly comes forward with a hammer-on solo as the third guitarist fades away, providing the most complex guitar-work seen thus far before one final choral riff finishes the song.

I would have a hard time finding a more appropriate metaphor for the progression of the flavors of wine from the attack to the mid-palate to the finish than this song.

The Search for the Best Boxed Wine: Week 3

The Back Story:

My first wine love

For this week’s search for the best boxed wine, I’m returning to the roots of my wine snobbery. As I was growing up, I always had the impression of wine as that inky stuff my parents would drink that smelled like Easter egg dye and cost as much as a fifth of bourbon or a case of beer. In other words, it wasn’t an investment that was high on my list. That all changed when, as I moved into yet another college apartment, my parents sent, along with a truckload of pack-rat resultant clutter, a few bottles of Washington Hills Late Harvest Riesling. As a sort of celebration for my hard work in hanging a few tattered posters, I popped the cork on one of the bottles. I couldn’t believe the sensations! So this is what wine tastes like when you’re all grown up and avoiding Sutter Home!

Ever since then, I’ve looked at wine not as a weak sauce, expensive option when you’re drinking to get drunk but as the journey that it should be. It changed my perceptions of what consuming alcohol should be. I know, I know, it’s a sub-$10, rather simple Riesling, but damn if it didn’t taste like heaven to a college scamp weaned on bargain schlock. With this experience in mind, when I saw that Washington Hills was now selling wine in a cask, I absolutely had to add it to my queue.

I want to make note of a difference between the cask Merlot and the bottled variety: They’re two completely different wines. The bottled Merlot has a vintage (the recent ’06 non-reserve for a fairer comparison), breaks down 76% Merlot, 14% Syrah, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 3% Cabernet Franc, and has a higher acidity with a pH at 3.32. The cask wine is non-vintage, breaks down 75% Merlot, 20% Sangiovese, and 5% Cab Franc, and has a pH of 3.68. If you’ve had either that ’06 non-reserve or the ’07 Reserve, which is 100% Merlot, be aware that you’re getting a different wine.

The Results:

The appearance of the wine is a deep cherry red, just a hint of violet, translucent, and has a medium viscosity.

The nose of the wine is a combination of blueberry, oak, vanilla, and cherry. It smells an awful lot like blueberry yogurt, to be perfectly frank. For 13.5% alcohol, the nose isn’t too terribly hot, but it’s carrying the aroma very well.

The mouth feel of the wine is rather thin for a Merlot, though it’s a little tangy, and there’s enough substance there to keep it from being flat-out flabby.

The flavor of the wine is utterly unimpressive. It’s just all-around weak with a red-fruit base. Very oaky, a little spicy, with a slightly short finish of blueberry. The finish is the only part where the flavor truly stands out. The alcohol comes through too much, very hot. The wine is off-dry with a palatable sweetness that comes through more because of the lower acidity.

For the Casual Drinker:

It’s pretty much a cheap, drinkable red wine. I can’t say that it’ll knock anyone’s socks off, and I definitely would recommend putting off serving this wine until after a good, hearty red has, shall we say, dulled the senses of those involved. It’s a back-up wine through and through. The flavors certainly won’t overwhelm anyone, and the alcohol flavor is muted enough to keep it from offending sensitive palates. The acidity is relatively low as well, keeping it from reaching heartburn-inducing levels.

The Conclusion:

I should have researched this wine before I purchased it. If I’d known it wasn’t the same Merlot that Washington Hills has been bottling, I probably would have tried a different box. For $20, it’s a solid 3/10, if you can call that solid.

Current Line-up:

Washington Hills Merlot NV

  • Week 0 – 3/10 – imbalanced (high) alcohol, decent acidity, red fruit, blueberry, oaky flavors and nose, short finish.

Pinot Evil Pinot Noir NV

  • Week 0 – 5/10 – slightly imbalanced acidity, balanced alcohol, earthy nose, red fruit flavor, short finish, slight metallic undertaste.
  • Week 1 – 5/10 – Still as fresh as when it was opened. Similar earthiness, red fruits, short finish, slightly imbalanced acidity.

Bota Box Shiraz California 2006:

  • Week 0 – 3/10 – imbalanced (high) acidity, imbalanced (high) alcohol, smooth texture, black fruits, very hot nose
  • Week 1 – 3/10 – imbalanced acidity and alcohol, smooth texture, no loss in flavor, hot nose, maybe a bit more bitter finish
  • Week 2 – 3/10 – Still imbalanced, same texture, flavor, and nose. Holding its meager flavor well.

Retired Line-up:

Black Box Chardonnay Monterey 2008:

  • Week 0 – 4/10 – imbalanced (high) acidity, balanced alcohol, briny, weak texture, slightly sour, fruit-forward, weak nose
  • Week 1 – 3/10 – lost nothing on the nose, lost some flavor, still very imbalanced acidity, similar mouth feel, texture, increased sourness
  • Week 2 – 2/10 – Nose and flavor are starting to get musty, still overly acidic, beginning to taste flat, metallic, alcohol flavor still balanced
  • Week 3 – 1/10 – Nose and flavor lost distinguishing characteristics. Taste mostly of acid and alcohol. Flavor is officially wince-inducing. Consider this guy retired.
  • Average score: 2.5/10. Length of stay = 3 weeks. Final score is 2/10. Started off all right, but deteriorated too quickly to make it a contender for the best boxed wine.

The 2010 Texas – Virginia Wine Summit Part 4: Eye on the Future

Looking for the rest of our series? You can find it here:
Part 1: The Dawn of Cooperation – opening arguments of Texas vs. Virginia on Vinotology
Part 2: The Great Tasting – the Texas / Virginia wine swap on Wine(Explored)
Part 3: Independent Research – Texas hyping up Virginia and vice-versa on Vinotology

Chairman: Ladies and Gentlemen, we have reached the finale of the 2010 Texas / Virginia Wine Summit. So far we’ve made cases for each on the basis of history, provided wines, and independent research. Today, we ask our participants to make a case for the futures of their respective states’ wine industries. We’ll begin with the gentleman from Virginia, Mr. Joshua Sweeney of Wine(Explored).

Josh: Thank you, Chairman. I would like to begin my statement with a few eye-opening stats. First, I would like to highlight the rapid growth of wineries in Virginia. We had only 64 registered wineries in 2000. As of this year, there are over 160 wineries, and they’re opening at an average of two a month. We currently have 260 independent vineyards farming over 2400 acres of land dedicated to growing the grape.

Virginia Wine Is for Lovers

Second, if I asked you to estimate where Virginia fell in terms of total volume of wine produced in the US, what would you guess? 5th, 6th? As much noise as Virginia is making in the wine scene, in 2008, we were merely the 9th highest producer of wine with 3.7 million liters, or a little under 1 million gallons, crushed from Virginia grapes. Surprisingly enough, Ohio, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Florida produced more wine, while North Carolina was narrowly edged out at 3.5 million liters. Virginia is making noise in the industry while producing .17% as much wine as California, 3.46% as much as New York, 4.84% as much Washington state, and 23.72% as much as Oregon.

Also, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, Virginia has approximately 8.5 million acres of farmable land. Viticulture currently occupies roughly .028% of Virginia’s farmable land. To put it another way, for every acre of vines planted, there are 7000 acres of other farmable land. Industry saturation is not an issue in Virginia.

These facts point to a few important conclusions in my mind: The lack of total production combined with a growing reputation in the country suggests an overall high quality of wines being grown, and wine-makers are quickly figuring this out. And it’s not some specialized grape that’s found its niche here; traditional varietals are making an appearance. Our top four varietals produced in 2009 were Chardonnay (18.4% of total volume), Cabernet Franc (13.2%), Merlot (11.8%), and Cabernet Sauvignon (7.5%).

Other white varietals that vintners are having success with in Virginia include Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Seyval Blanc, Viognier, Vidal Blanc and Petit Manseng. Red varietals becoming popular in the area include Norton, Petit Verdot, and Chambourcin. Petit Manseng and Chambourcin especially are developing into regional specialties.

Because of the popularity of our most commonly produced varietals and the development of a few marketable specialties, our growth potential, and the rate of new wineries opening in the state, we could very well see our output beginning to match our reputation and triple by 2020. While I don’t currently foresee us taking over Oregon by then, at the very least we should be able to close the gap in total production by at least half. At the very least, the future is looking very bright for the wine industry in my state.

Chairman: Thank you, Virginia. We will now hear from the honorable gentleman of Texas, Ben Simons of Vinotology.

Texas Wine Resources

Handy resources at gotexanwine.org

Ben: Thank you Mr. Chairman.  It has been a pleasure to be able to participate in this event and to represent my state before you all.  Both of the great states represented in this event have demonstrated that they deserve to be thought of as of quality wine regions.  We have tasted some great wines, and have learned much about each state.  Today I would like to talk about the Texas wine industry, past, present, and future.

Like my colleague’s home state of Virginia, Texas also has experienced rapid growth in the number of wineries around the state.  As recently as 2003 there were only 54 wineries in the state, but that number has ballooned to over 160 wineries today.  There are roughly 3600 acres of wine grapes planted in Texas right now, which is not nearly enough acreage to produce the grapes for the wineries operating in the state.  This is both a curse and an opportunity.  The fact that Texas is producing an ever increasing amount of wine, while still having to import so much fruit, seems to indicate that there is a good deal of growth potential in both the quantity and quality of Texas wines.  Currently Texas is producing roughly 2 million gallons of wine a year, but less than 500,000 gallons are made from Texas fruit.

For most of the history of the Texas wine industry, French Bordeaux varieties have dominated the wine production in Texas, with Cabernet Sauvignon making up nearly 25% of the grape production, followed by Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Merlot.  In recent years there has been a growth in the production of more Mediterranean varieties, such as Tempranillo, Sangiovese, and Rhone varieties like Syrah, Mourvedre, and Viognier.  The challenges of the Texas growing season have lead many growers to seek out varieties more amenable to our conditions.  The result is a Texas wine industry that shows the potential to differentiate itself with some unique varieties.

Much of the wine being produced in Texas is also being consumed in Texas.  Texas consumers seem to be increasingly interested in the new varieties that are becoming more common in the state.  With the shortages in grape production that Texas faces, the likelihood of Texas wine being distributed out of state is very slim.  The single factor that will most impact Texas’ ability to become recognized as a premier wine producing region is probably grape production.  Unless more acreage is planted in grapes, thereby leading to more genuine Texas wines, Texas will not be able to develop a reputation on a national stage.  Given the wines that I have presented, I feel confident in saying that an increase in production could easily send Texas into the list of elite wine producing states.  Texas has only been seriously producing wine for the last 30 years, and the industry has come a long way in that time.  One thing seems to be clear, the best days of the Texas wine industry are still ahead of us.  Thank you.

Chairman: We’ve now reached the end of our summit. I would like to thank both participants for taking much time in the recent weeks to advocate for their respective states. It has been grueling, taxing, even bloody. Incidentally, we hope that the stenographer recovers from his nasty fall. But I digress. The chamber has reached a verdict. In my humble opinion, the state that has secured the right to be come the next big wine region is…

—END TRANSCRIPT—

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