Monday, May 21, 2012

Box Wine Taste-Off: The Results!

Twelve pretty red wines, all in a row

As many of your know, this past weekend I hosted a box wine taste-off.  15 box wines, eighteen tasters.  Four to six of those people really know wine.  When I planned this, I imagined a funny write-up, kind of like the Rants from Mommyland version, but when I looked at the tasting notes the next day, I realized that we have some good and valuable information here! 

Tasting notes?  Yes.  That happened.  Here was the suggested rating scale I developed:

1 – I’d rather drink mouthwash. 
2 – I guess it’s better than licking hand sanitizer. Well, better than scented hand sanitizer, anyway.
3 – I’d cook with it, but not for anyone I actually like.
4 – Hmmm, not for my first glass of the night.  Maybe glass 4 or 5.
5 – Yeah, I’d drink this for free.
6 – I totally don’t hate it!
7 – Quaffable.
8 – This could be my new go-to.
9 – I would defend this wine without even a teeny bit of shame.
10 – I would proudly bring a box of this wine to a dinner party.

I also asked people to rate their level of wine snobbery on a 0-10 scale, and left a field for notes and comments on each wine.  Sure, the writing gets illegible by the end of the evening, and the notes on the first 5 or 6 wines are more detailed and sophisticated than on the last few.  But major kudos to the few of you who tasted all or almost all of the wines and had detailed notes on all of them.  You rock.

Sadly, though I rated myself a 7.5-level wine snob, I did not have sophisticated tasting notes on most of the wines.  This is perhaps explained by the fact that I started “tasting” an hour or two before the rest of the guests arrived to quell my omnipresent social anxiety.  Seriously, what kind of socially anxious person loves to throw parties?  I don’t know, but that’s me.  I panic and worry, but once the party is going, I always have so much fun that I forget about the anxiety when I get excited about the next party.  So yeah, I was already significantly softened up by the time people arrived, and then I did far more cooking than eating.  So… yeah.  I did taste all of the wines.  But my notes include some of the following gems later in the evening:  “I forget,” “Yummy,” and “Yeah, OK Eve, you win.”  (Eve is my very close friend, and she and I have different go-to box wines, but I now acknowledge, after side-by-side tasting, that her favorite is better than mine.  Eve, you win.)

In all seriousness, this was one of the more fabulous parties I’ve thrown in my day.  It was the perfect mix of theme/activity and boozy silliness.  The tasting task lent structure and provided stuff to talk about, even among people who didn’t know each other and who have almost nothing in common.  There was even a crafty component.  People made their own wine charms with paper clips and pipe cleaners.  Here are the ones I was still able to find the next morning (sadly, the fantastically jaunty moustache had already been disassembled, but happily, the pipe cleaner… um… “junk” was still available for photographing.)

OK, on to the results!  There are a lot of wines here.  If you know what you like (jammy, earthy, etc.) and are looking for recommendations based on your palette, I’m giving you all of the information to make an informed box wine choice.  But if you just want to know which wines are yummiest, you can skip to the summary at the end.  It was supposed to be a bar chart, but with 15 wines, the bar chart looked too messy.  For some things, words are better.

Before I go wine-by-wine, I need to define my terms. (This blog entry really needs a Methods section. And maybe an Appendix.) Guests were divided into “wine snobs” and “non-snobs” according to their response to the wine snobbery question.  People who rated themselves as 7 or higher were considered snobs.  The sophisticated science behind that distinction was that I asked myself, “Who are the wine snobs?” and then looked, and all of them rated themselves as 7 or higher.  Everyone else was 5 or below.  One person answered the snobbery question as follows: “Is a zero when you drink warm boxed chardonnay with ice cubes at 3PM at a kids’ playdate?  If so, I think I am a zero.”  She’s not a zero, but it’s fair to say she’s not a snob either.  Of note, snobs tasted 13 of the 15 wines on average.  Non-snobs tasted an average of 8 wines.  Three of the four snobs slept at my house after the party, and the fourth had a designated driver.  Also, obviously "snob" is relative.  We're drinking box wine and loving it.  The main difference is that we're swirling and sniffing it first and then naming fruits and random household objects after we taste it.

OK, now results for real.

Big House White (blend): average rating 5.1
Big House White is a fruit-forward blend.  It was rated almost a full point higher by non-snobs than by snobs, indicating that it might be a good introduction to wine for people who don’t like wine that much.  You know, in a Pinot Grigio-y kind of way.  Notes include:
“Pretty good for a white.”
“Eh. Not memorable.  At all.”
“Fruit forward. Pear. Awkward sharp twinge on palate.”
“Fruity, tropical”
“Clear, crisp, largely forgettable”
“Light acid, smooth, pear”

Big House “Unchained” Chardonnay (unoaked): average rating 5.8
Unchained is my go-to white.  I love it.  It’s great to cook with and great to drink on a summer day, or with seafood.  I don’t like traditional oaky chardonnays, but this unoaked one is tasty and easy to drink.  Snobs liked it better than non-snobs.   Here’s the buzz:
“Light, refreshing”
“No oak. Mild tartness. Medium body. Doesn't taste like Chardonnay.”
“Not oaky enough”
“Easy, clean”
“Sweet, wet, smooth, a little bitter acid.  Eat cheese!” [Wet? –p]
“Nutty, slightly metallic”

Black Box Riesling: average rating 5.3
Not everyone tasted this one, and I blame myself.  I think of Riesling as sweet enough for dessert, so I put it in the wrong place in the tasting order, at the end.  People were deep into the cabernets by then, and I think the subtlety was lost.  Totally my fault.  Bad wine snob.  No cookie.  I should have made samosas.  It would have gone awesome with those.  Notes at that point in the night were scarce and barely legible.  Suffice it to say that it was too sweet for most of my tasters, but at a 5, they would still drink it for free.  Because they are all boozy freaks like me.

Bota Box Malbec: average rating 6.1
I had written this wine off, but it was better than I remembered.  Or maybe I was just drunk.  But it got two “yums” from my highly sophisticated tasting panel, so I think it really is pretty good.
“Yum. Full body.  Good.”
“Nice. Sweet.”
“Dried fruit (dark) plum, black cherry. Subtle leather, smoke.”
“Simple dark fruit, light mouthfeel, mild finish with a little alcohol taste”
“Gets better as you drink more.” [Words to live by. –p]
“Yum. I would totally buy this.”
“Red fruit nose. Bold.  Cherry.”

Black Box Malbec: average rating 6.4
Wine snobs loved this one, giving it an average rating of 7.6.  It wasn’t the favorite of the group, but it was the favorite wine among snobs (tied with the Black Box Shiraz). 
“A little dusty/smoky, a little watery”
“Smooth, almost buttery”
“Dark purple.  Drier, heavier body”
“Leather and plum on nose.  Taste of dark cherry quickly fade to intense tart finish”
“Super easy drinking.  Earthy.”
“More woodsy, dry, plum, bigger body”
“Plum, black pepper”

Fish Eye Merlot: average rating 5.7
One of the lowest-rated reds, I think my brother summed this one up with the following phrase: “Forgettable chugging wine.”  A friend also gets bonus points for describing the nose as “diesel and leather and plum and balls.” 
“Fairly inoffensive”
“Easy drinking. No finish. Forgettable chugging wine. Red fruit.”
“Coffee smooth mocha chocolate”
“Nose: diesel and leather and plum and balls. Taste: Smoke, tart raspberry.”
“OK. A little bit sharp for me.”
“Plum nose. Raspberry.  Light bodied.”
“Cherry cola”

Bota Box Merlot: average rating 6.2
For some reason, two of my snobs didn’t taste this one, so the tasting notes are a bit more philosophical rather than descriptive.  Mixed reviews, but one taster, a snob, would “drink the shit out of this.”  OK, I admit, that was me.  No notes about the nose or fruit.  Some snob I am.  But apparently I would drink the shit out of it.
“Something is at the end.  Mild for a merlot.”
“I would drink the shit out of this.”
“Stiff.  A bit rigid.  A question.”
“Don't think I like it.  Or was it my douchey kid's meltdown?”
“Stewed fruit”

Bota Box Zinfandel: average rating 5.9
This divisive wine was beloved by some, and disliked by others.  (Bimodal, for the three statistics geeks reading this, but I just calculated a mean anyway because I’m a rebel like that.)  The person who said “good” below gave it a 4, so the average rating may be artificially lower than it should be.  Hey, we’re not sommeliers here.  We may be snobs, but we were pretty drunk snobs by this point in the evening. 
“Sharp, a little effervescent, lots of berries, tart/sour”
“More character and finish.  Ripened red fruit.”
“Very palatable”
“Good, chocolate, mild for a zin”
“Dried cherry, pepper”

Fish Eye Shiraz: average rating 6.5
This was the best-liked of the Fish Eye boxes, which makes sense, because it’s Shiraz and Fish eye is Australian.  FYI, for locals, Fish Eye wines are on sale for about $13/box at Kings Contrivance Liquor and Smoke Shop in Columbia, MD (the liquor store near Harris Teeter, where I grocery shop, so it gets all of my business out of pure convenience).  On sale through the end of the month… Just over $3/bottle.  Get it while it’s cheap!
“Medium tartness. Earthy.”
“Appealing nose.  Ephemeral.”
“Pretty good. I'd say ‘quaffable.’”
“I'm already a little loaded.” [A little? –p]
“Smooth.  Medium-heavy body. Dry to tart.  Taste some earth.”
“Jammy, herbs”

Black Box Shiraz: average rating 6.5
Beloved by snobs in particular, this wine was rated a point and a half higher by snobs than non-snobs, and was tied with the Black Box Malbec as the favorite wine of snobs.  If you know and like wine and appreciate plenty of jammy fruit, this would be a good one to try.
“Fruity, good, drinkable”
“Funky nose. Much more fruit on the palate.  Balanced. Surprised.”
“Slight interesting ending”
“Why did I think this tasted like warm spit? It's good.” [Better than warm spit.  Now there’s a ringing endorsement. –p]
“More fruit on nose. Smoother/less dry. Round on the mouth.”

Target Wine Cube Cab, a.k.a. the red “T-box”: average rating 5.5
The reason to buy this wine is that it is from Target, and Target is convenient and awesome.  If you like wine, though, not so much.  This was our lowest-rated red wine and was recognized by snobs and non-snobs alike as not having much cabernet character.  As one pleasingly descriptive taster suggested, it lacked body and balls.
“Mild for a cab”
“Intense nose, little flavor”
 “Doesn't taste like a cab. Fruit, but lacks body and balls.”
“Reserved small cab”
“Do I just like it because it's from Target?  Good.  Not complex at all.”
“Drinkable.  Not like a cab.”
“Herbs, dark cherry”

Fish Eye Cab: average rating 5.9
Again, another cab that wasn’t cabby enough for my discerning tasting panel.  At $13 a box (on sale, see Fish Eye Shiraz), it might still be worth a go, but only if you don’t like Shiraz.
“Full body, drinkable, goes well with food”
“Not full enough. Sour tartness.  Not dry enough.”
“Subdued low notes, shy, sneaky, if you drink it long enough it gets bright”
“They call this a cab?  Why are all my comments rhetorical questions?”
“Not dry”
“Licorice, plum”

Bota Box Cab: average rating 7.2
Now we’re talking.  One of the three top-rated wines of the night.  Scored 7 or higher on average among snobs and non-snobs alike.  All agree, eminently quaffable!
“Bland but drinkable”
“Floral fruitiness.  Not bad.”
“Subdued but delicious”
“Quaffing away”
“Cola, spice, dark cherry”

Big House “Usual Suspect” Cab: average rating 7.3
This has been my go-to red this year.  It never disappoints, and it didn’t disappoint my expert(ish) panel either.  I drink a glass or two(ish) of this wine almost every night, and somehow I never noticed that it smells like vegetables.  Some snob I am.  OK, I just went and got a glass even though it is only 1:30pm.  Yeah, they’re right.  Definite green herb smell.  I might need to turn in my wine snob membership card. 
“Chocolate, very good”
“Green vegetable nose.  Not big enough.”
“Nice bouquet, spicy”
“Smells like celery”
“Herbs and cherry”

Black Box Cab: average rating 7.2
This wine has been my friend Eve’s go-to.  The Big House Cab was mine.  After tasting them side-by-side, she wins.  This was my favorite of the night.  Of note, this is the wine that won the Rants from Mommyland taste test linked above. 
“Perfect.  Tobacco.”
“More tannin than others.  Subtly tart.”
“Blah. Not bad, just nondescript.”
“Winner! Far superior!”
“Graphite, herbs, plum”

Now for the grand conclusion!  Box red wines were more beloved than box white wines.  If you want a box white, get the Big House “Unchained” Chardonnay.  It’s unoaked, so don’t expect it to taste like traditional chardonnay.  If you don’t really like wine, get the Big House White instead.  But if you don’t like wine, why are you still reading?  If you would consider yourself a wine snob, Black Box Malbec and Black Box Shiraz are likely to please you.  If you want the cheapest box of wine that is still good, Fish Eye Shiraz is on super-sale through the end of May in Columbia (see above), and the regular price is still lower than Black Box and others.  Cabernet Sauvignon in a box seems to be the easiest to do well or maybe my people just like Cabs.  Bota Box, Black Box, and Big House all made delicious crowd-pleasing cabs that won the night. 

And now for the other conclusion, the sneaky secret conclusion.  If you throw a box wine party and ask people to bring a box of wine, you will spend a lot of money on food, but guess what?  People leave the wine with you.  Total score.  You get to have more fun with your friends than should be allowed, and after the party, you have more wine in the house than when you started.  How effing cool is that?

*Edited to add that all wines are 2010 wines with the following exceptions:  Black Box Shiraz 2009, Bota Box Malbec 2011, Fish Eye Merlot 2011, and Bota Box Cab 2011.  Yes, it matters.  My go-to changes every year.  So perhaps this is the start of the Annual Box Wine Taste-Off!


  1. Bimodal! I get that. Maybe only because I saw Kahneman tonight and was pulled briefly back into psych mode. These tasting notes are hysterical and I am SO SORRY I missed the event. It sounds like it was a blast! What are you doing this weekend? ;)

    1. Probably getting started on girlie's bedroom painting. You wanna come up and sample before I drink up all the good ones? ;) You're always welcome here!!

  2. Fun way to use those stats skills!
    Did the ratings get higher for the later boxes? Seems like a box that was rated highly early in the line-up might be a real winner!

    I always was a fan of the big house brand, but will branch out thanks to you. ;)

    1. "Stats" is perhaps an overstatement. No t-tests were harmed in the making of this blog.

      I have been re-sampling the highly rated wines, and I stand by the top 3 cabs as delicious. It was not a sheer drunkenness effect. They really are good. The Black Box Malbec was early in the tasting order, and it is definitely a winner as well. I've actually been choosing the Malbec for my own quaffing since the party if that gives you any additional info...

  3. I am so stealing this idea! I, too, have a club full of "snobs" (not really), and I would love to see their reactions! I was looking for just the right theme and this is it. Great writeup, hysterical notes. Thanks!

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