Box v. Bottle

Recently, my friend Miguel challenged my notion that a boxed wine is inferior to a comparably priced wine sold in a glass bottle. Since I based my assertion solely on  anecdotal experience, I possessed no verifiable data to defend my position. We both decided that an evidence based approach would address my hypothesis. I persuaded Paul to moderate a blind tasting of four comparably priced varietals from boxes and bottles for a group of friends: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Malbec. I agreed to provide food course pairings to bring out the flavors of the wine.

Null Hypothesis

Wines served from a bottle is of higher quality and tastes better than wine from a box.

Alternative Hypothesis

Wine from a box or bottle has no effect on quality or taste.

Methods

Our friends Miguel and BJ brought three Bota Box wines for the first three varietals: a 2014 Sauvignon Blanc sourced from California (US $18.79-24.99 for 3L), a Chardonnay (year unknown) sourced from California  (US $18.79-19.99 for 3L), and a 2015 Pinot Noir from Chile (US $24.99 for 3L). Miguel also brought a Malbec from Black Box (year unknown) sourced from Argentina (US $21.99-32.29 for 3L).

Paul brought Francis Coppola Diamond Collection Yellow Label 2012 Sauvignon Blanc (US $12.99) from California, A to Z 2014 Oregon Chardonnay (US $12.99), Cooper Hill 2014 Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley in Oregon (US $14.69-19.99) and Cigar Box Reserve 2014 Malbec from Argentina (US $8.29-19.99). For the most part, we controlled for price for both boxed and bottled wines. Allowing high-end bottled wines in this experiment would have introduced an extraneous variable likely to skew the results.

I prepared chilled asparagus with lemon, honey, Dijon and olive oil dressing (Sauvignon Blanc); smoked salmon with goat cheese, capers and water crackers (Chardonnay); and a roast chicken with Pommes Anna (Pinot Noit). Miquel brought dark chocolate and caramel chocolate bars for dessert to pair with the Malbec.

The white wines chilled in the refrigerator and the red wines allowed to come to room temperature before serving. Paul poured our wine into glasses in the kitchen and brought them for us to taste in the dining room so that we could not see from where the wine was poured. Paul also mixed up the order for each varietal: sometimes he would give us the boxed wine first, the bottled second or vice versa. I created a simple review sheet for our small wine tasting group of 4 people: Miguel, BJ, Jon John and myself. While I am at least 10 years older than other members of the rest of the group and count 12 years experience drinking wine in tasting groups, I still consider myself an amateur when it comes to a palate for wine. None of us are potential sommeliers. For each varietal, we made our best guess on which wine was from a bottle or a box. None of us shared individual criteria for determining bottle or box until after the tasting.

Results

I present the results in table format below. The first table lists the number of reviewers who correctly identified each wine as boxed or bottled.

Wine Varietal IDENTIFIED MISIDENTIFIED PERCENT CORRECT
Sauvignon Blanc 3 1 75%
Chardonnay 3 1 75%
Pinot Noir 2 2 50%
Malbec 3 1 75%
SUMMARY 11 5 69%

For three wine varietals, 3 out of 4 tasters guessed box or bottle correctly. Only half of our tasters guessed correctly on the Pinot Noir. Miguel guessed each varietal correctly (Bravo!). Miguel claimed that the temperature of the wines helped him choose boxed over bottled. I am humbled to share that I only guessed correctly for the Sauvignon Blanc. I decided from the start that I would choose the best tasting wine and use that as criteria for determining that wine came from a bottle. Other tasters guessed box or bottle correctly, but did not necessarily like the bottled varietal better than the boxed.

Conclusions

So what can we say about the results? You can’t judge a book by its cover. Based on this limited experiment, our group disproved the null hypothesis. For my part in this experiment, I now know that the receptacle really doesn’t impart anything special or detrimental to wine. I presumed going into this exercise, that the best tasting wine would come from a bottle for each varietal. I was wrong. While most of the tasters guessed box or bottle correctly, they did not necessarily like the bottled wine better than the boxed for each varietal. None of these wines were stinkers. All of the wines proved drinkable, but none of them stood out as special. A cursory online search reveals that none of these wines and vintages (boxed or bottled) received  remarkable praise in critical reviews. Average wine can come in bottles or boxes.

Limitations

Four people is a rather small sample of tasters on which to base conclusions for discerning boxed v. bottled wines. Miguel and I chose varietals without discussing critical reviews of any boxed wines. Some box wines do rate higher than others. Could choosing boxed varietals that received praise in critical reviews make a difference? To truly disprove the above null hypothesis, we would have to taste wines of the same source and vintage stored in bottles and boxes. Evaluating different wines of the same varietal introduces a variable which is likely to affect the outcome. We compared wines cultivated in different terroir. I doubt that many producers distribute the same wine in bottles and boxes.

 

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