Flash in the Pan 

Drinking outside the box

Food and wine have a storied history together. But as a food writer I rarely cross the line. I can rarely detect the gooseberries, duck butter, Spanish leather and other flavors that are so apparent to others. White wine only recently became interesting to me, when I finally tried the good stuff and realized you really can taste flowers.

Luckily for my purposes, fussing about wine isn't necessary. Most of what I know about wine I've learned with my mouth full. A sip, without a bite to chew it with, is a sip gone to waste. This understanding exists at the level of common sense, and has little to do with expertise. If there's a bite of steak in my mouth, I'll grab the closest glass of red and be quite happy with it.

Despite being uneducated in wine, I'm more than capable of observing a key distinction in the wine world that usually flies under the radars of those who most need to know about it: the folks who don't have the money to flush down the toilet in the crapshoot that is fine-wine selection. Like other crapshoots, the house usually wins.

Cheaper wines are often made from blends of grapes, and there is a good reason for this: a skilled blender can coax good wine from mediocre grapes. Most prestigious and expensive vintages of wine are varietals, which means they're made from just one variety of grape. Those who can afford it will often keep track of which years were good for which types of grape from which areas, and will pay good money for excellent wines. But if they aren't careful, and lucky, they'll also end up paying silly prices for mediocre wines.

In contests, blended wines don't usually compete against varietals, because that would be unfair. And some skilled mixers have put their skills to use in more profitable ways, infiltrating the wine market with counterfeit vintages, carefully packaged in old bottles with oxidized labels. A recent article in The New Yorker documented how easily a good mixer can fool a top-level wine expert into authenticating counterfeits priced in the five figures.

But don't take my word for it. Go buy a box of Franzia Cabernet (not the Merlot or Chianti), which I consider a decent yardstick of value in a good cheap blend. The box costs $15 for five liters. A standard wine bottle has 750 ml, so the Franzia works out to about $2.25 a bottle—about what they pay in Europe for a bottle of good, cheap wine, usually blended.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

Do a taste test comparing that Franzia to any comparably priced bottle on the shelf. Unless you choose well or get lucky, the Franzia easily wins at least half the time. And even when it loses, ask yourself: Was the bottle seven times better than the box? That's a personal question, of course, one that's directly linked to your wallet.

Boxed wine has a bad rap largely because once upon a time notoriously bad wine was often sold that way. Sometimes it still is, but so what? That's not a reflection of the packaging.

In fact, sealing wine inside a plastic bag inside a box is less expensive, and more environmentally friendly, than in a bottle, especially when it's done with large quantities of wine. And unlike the contents of a bottle, which will go south soon after opening, boxed wine can easily last for weeks after opening, because the valve doesn't allow air in.

In a column last year I briefly noted the superiority of bag-in-box packaging over bottles, and soon after the column was published I received a Facebook friend request from a reader who said he wanted to send me some good boxes of wine. I friended him, of course, and gave him my mailing address. Soon a box arrived. A few weeks later, another. Then another.

Each time the FedEx guy drove up and handed me another octagon-shaped box, my surprise and glee boiled over. I would feel compelled to explain, "This guy I met on Facebook...sends me wine."

I eventually figured out that my new Facebook friend is a wine merchant, and he's particularly psyched about a line of boxed wines he's marketing: the Octavian Home Wine Bar series.

The series includes both blends and varietals, packaged in pretty, 3-liter boxes. My two favorites of the lot, not surprisingly, are blends. But what is surprising is that one of those blends is a white. The Big House White is a blend of Mediterranean varietals, some of which were harvested at night, supposedly to preserve floral and fruity aromas. The mixer, a Romanian named Georgetta Dane, reports "nose candy" of melon, pear and lychee fruit and flavors of summer peach, dried apricot and tropical fruit. I guess that's why I'm not a wine expert, though I admit it's as close to drinking flowers while wearing a summer dress in a breezy field as I'll probably ever get.

My favorite red in the series, Seven, is a blend of seven Spanish red grapes. That box was a spicy, zesty ride, absolutely joyous with mouthfuls of meat, and I savored every drop. Interestingly, a close second in the red department was a varietal, Boho Vineyards 2008 California Old Vine zinfandel. At $24 for three liters, it was one of the most expensive boxes in the series, but still works out to only $6 a bottle. That makes it not only a steal, but a rare example of a varietal that beats the pants off of the Franzia blend, at only triple the price. Did I detect any of the plum jam and dried herbs advertised in the flier it came with? No, I did not. But it was really good, refreshingly smooth and dangerously drinkable—and luckily, its low alcohol content allowed me to drink more without getting plastered, as usually happens when I cook meat.

Ask Ari: No more questions

Well folks, there's no easy way to say this: I'm sorry to announce that the Q&A portion of my column will be suspended after this week. If the word "suspended" doesn't tell you enough, that makes it an appropriate choice of words, because nobody knows if or when the Q&A will return. The reasons for this range from the Indy hiring a new editor (and any corresponding changes to the food section) to the occasional dry spells in questions sent my way.

One idea is that the space will reopen as less of a traditional Q&A and more of a community forum, a place where I can print some of the many fun, interesting and wacko letters that I often receive. These missives far outnumber the actual questions that I can answer in this spot, and include announcements about things like a new CSA in town, or a local food club, or free compost. Sometimes they feature an artistic piece of sarcastic contrarianism, like the poem that Tim Torkildson sent in to offer his two-cents on school gardens.

Children in the garden look so innocent and cute,

As they squash nasturtiums and yank on the red beet root.

Their energy's amazing and their guile is great indeed,

As they figure out some ways to never pull a weed.

They nibble on the carrots and play soccer with the squash,

And if you ask them to behave they'll likely holler "Bosh!"

I wouldn't want them near my artichokes or young zucchini;

I wish they'd disappear like that old Vaudeville guy Houdini.

Children in the garden, playing marbles with chickpea,

Would give a case of fantods even to Mister Burpee!

By all means, keep sending me mail, including the usual mix of questions, comments, announcements and food porn. And please feel free to chime in on what you think the future of this little space should be. While we figure out what to do, I'll answer any food related questions one-on-one, forward any pertinent information and opinion to the appropriate powers that be, and chuckle at most attempts at humor.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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