Box vs. Bottle: Can a chef tell the difference?

Box vs. bottle vs. jug: Can you really tell the difference


No matter how you spin it, box wines are still the red-headed stepchild of the swirl and sniff crowd. The mere mention sends most serious wine drinkers into fits of laughter. Or disgust.

Which isn’t totally fair. Drinkers in Australia and Europe have embraced the box. There are serious French, Italian and Australian wines being sold and drunk in this highly practical format — high-tech sealed plastic bags that keep wine fresh for up to a month after opening.

In the US, we’re still a little shy. Low-end bulk wines still dominate the box market –the pink stuff your grandpa used to foist on you at parties. But there are a few forward-thinkers, most notably Black Box (which has won numerous awards), putting some reasonably tasty wine inside cardboard boxes.

Which brings me to the big question: Are we just being snobs about the whole thing? Is the packaging influencing us more than what’s actually in it? But most importantly, could trained chefs actually tell the difference between a boxed wine and a comparably-priced bottled wine in a blind test?

The answer is yes. And no.

BiteClub asked several chefs and a certified sommelier to take on the challenge. The results of this very informal, not-totally-scientific survey went something like this. Five chefs politely declined*. Two agreed. The sommelier was my ringer. And I got a couple friends who know a thing or two about wine to round out the survey.

We tasted four box wines (two whites, two reds), two Sonoma County value-priced bottle wines (white, red) and a jug wine (just to make it interesting).

What become immediately clear was that most folks who know anything about wine could tell right off that the wines were “bulk wines” — or wines that aren’t from a particular appellation or vineyard and are blended with grapes from different regions. In other words, they knew these weren’t cult wines with big pricetags.

The tasters also nailed the box wines at least half the time. There’s a clean, almost sterile quality to them, some said. The sommelier described it as “oxygen starved”. The two lower end box wines were dismissed outright, but the Black Box wines faired remarkably well.

The shocker: Almost unanimously, we liked the Black Boxes better than the bottles. Yup.

There was an approachability and a consistency of flavor. Relative complexity. A sort of grape-ish Napoleon complex, you might say — as the underdog they tried a whole lot harder.

The next favorite (though not unanimously) was the Rhone Blend jug wine from Wine Garage in Calistoga. There’s a rough, earthy quality to this wine. They fill up the jugs right in the store from pumps. It’s just fun and drinkable.

Didn’t show well: A value-priced (about $9.99) Sonoma County Chardonnay. Ouch. Now before you send out a vineyard lynch mob for me, consider that we were comparing apples to apples — the bottled wines weren’t some of the county’s most finely crafted wines. These were value-priced, large production “grocery store” wines with blended grapes. The one I grabbed happened to be a surprise stinker.

Least favorite: Target’s wine cubes. Unlike the often-quaffable $2 Chuck, these were not.

Oddly enough: Duskie Estes of Zazu suggested we try the wines in both Riedel stemware and in “rocks” glasses (bicchieri) — a sort of casual bistro glass. It actually made a difference in mouth-feel for several of the wines. We loved the jug wine in the bicchieri, giving it a bigger, meatier quality.

So what’s the take-away? Chefs tend to know their shiznit. You’re not going to fool most of them with a box wine. And, uh don’t lug one to their restaurants anytime soon (though if you do, they’ll still charge you corkage and probably snicker at you).

But we all agreed there’s a time and a place for some good box or jug wine — everyday sips for barbecues, parties and casual get-togethers. So stop being such a snob and just drink already.

We won’t judge if you hide the box though.


* Why? Chefs are notoriously difficult to cat-herd.They’re busy folks. Even one of my favorite chefs stood me up. But I also suspect there was a bit of “Seriously? Box wine?” going on. 

Huge thanks to: Duskie Estes of Zazu, Master Sommelier Robert Ryan of Wine Spectrum and Rick Bruno of Bruno’s on Fourth – -and everyone else who played along.

Want to taste the wines?
– Black Box Sonoma County Reserve Merlot, Black Box Monterey County Chardonnay. Both around $20 (equal to four bottles).Available through Bevmo.
– Jug wines (Rhone and Bordeaux) from Calistoga’s Wine Garage, $35 (equal to about 2.75 bottles). 1020 Foothill Blvd., Calistoga, (707) 942-5332
– Another great jug wine from Sonoma County (but only available on Sundays at the winery), Guadagni from Preston winery. (9282 W Dry Creek Rd, Healdsburg).
Boisset Family Estates (owner of DeLoach) French Rabbit wines in earthquake-quit friendly packs!

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5 thoughts on “Box vs. Bottle: Can a chef tell the difference?

  1. I have found the the Pinot Gris and Chards tend to taste better than the reds (Merlot & Cabs) that I have tried from boxes. The format is not an issue for a weekday glass of wine… I doubt that I would every “break out the box” for a dinner party though…

  2. Great work! I completely agree that the boxed wine is actually not that bad and a much better deal as an “everyday” wine.
    I haven’t tried aerating boxed wine yet, but I am sure it would be much better.

  3. Hey Donna, I realized that maybe I wasn’t totally clear about the details (though I suspect most people may not care). Here’s how I set it up (again, not totally scientific)…
    1. Chard bottle vs. Chard box.
    2. Merlot box vs. merlot bottle (both Sonoma County) vs. the jug (a Rhone Blend)
    I tried to make it as close to apples to apples as I could, though in honesty, you’re right at some level that there are many differences between wine styles even within varietal. My sommelier pretty much nailed the varietals blind. Impressive. He also even got some of the regions correct (again blind).
    The takeaway was just to see if folks could suss out a box wine at any level. I’m sure a wine person could do this a bit more logically than I did.
    As to the chefs issue, that just happens to be my genre and I think Brent (at KZST, who issued this challenge) thought it would be entertaining to see if folks who work with wine/food for a living can actually taste the difference. A ‘real world’ panel would be fascinating too! Best!

  4. If I understand this you compared Wine A [box] against Wine B [bottle] in both red/s and white/s. I see a big problem with this– that is the biggest variable was that the wines were different from each other. That doesn’t test out Box versus Bottle but one wine against another different wine. Yes it is likely impossible to get the same wine in a box and a bottle but your panel was more likely comparing wine styles and quality and Not Box vs. Bottle. That would have interested me a lot more. Your experiment was interesting but does not reveal much.
    Also why use chefs as they do not know about wine as much as wine drinkers? I think the panel should have been wine drinkers.
    Thanks for listening and I will try some Black Box.

  5. Excellent, thanks for the info Heather. Any camper/boater/etc worth their weight knows that box wines are a boon. Quality ones are even better.

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