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Murray: Next time you pour, think in the box
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A wino friend dropped by recently and I thought he was going to have a stroke. He spotted - gasp! - a box of wine on my kitchen counter.

When, with sinful glee, I offered him a swig of the stuff from a cardboard box, he gagged and staggered off the porch and into the woods. I think a bear got him, which I think he would have preferred to being forced to drink wine from a box.

That is a typical wine snob's reaction to something sensible, and overlooks the myriad positive aspects of boxed wine.

First, there are some more-than palatable wines being poured out of cardboard. Actually, the wine never comes in contact with the box. Inside that container is a hermetically sealed foil or plastic bag. When you puncture the perforated opening for the pour spout, you'll see the bag.

When you remove that spout and push the little button to pour wine into the glass, the bag seals itself - no air enters.

Note: Make sure the spout is pointing down, otherwise you could make a mess. Worse, if the spout is inverted, air could get into the bag, and we all know that contact with air is what eventually kills a wine.

The world of wine is in the middle of a packaging revolution. Sales of box wines, especially the 3-liter size, grew 41 percent since last year and 51 percent since 2005.

Still, wine in a box - or as the Australians call them, "cask wines" - still comprise only about 1 percent of the American market. But that percentage grows every year, as folks grasp the practicality of the packaging ... and as the quality of boxed wine continues to climb.

In contrast, in Aussie-land, more than 50 percent of the wine purchased is in a cardboard cube.

Even the Italian government, very strict with its wine regulations, has relented and will permit wine to be sold in boxes, according to a recent report on National Public Radio. The Italians realized their industry would lose competitiveness without the stuff in a box.

We keep a box of 5-liter Franzia Shiraz on hand for everyday quaffing. We've tried the Franzia Chardonnay, but found we prefer the chard from Peter Vella.

The rule of thumb with boxed wines is the bigger the box, generally the lesser the quality.

You'll find some gems in 3-liter boxes, the equivalent of four standard-sized bottles of wine. Some of the best selections come from Black Box Wines. For about $22, Black Box offers vintage-dated cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and a pinot grigio from Italy. That breaks down to about $5.50 a bottle - for some very good wine.

Delicato, a long-time value winery from California, also produces some nice reds and whites in its patented 3-liter Bota Box. You probably will not find the name Delicato on what the company calls its environmentally friendly container. Delicato also does business as DFV - Delicato Family Vineyards. I've had the shiraz and chardonnay in the Bota Box, but not the merlot or cabernet sauvignon. I was impressed with the two I did sample.

Hardy's, from Australia, sells in boxes some of the same wines they sell in bottles. The box wines, which generally are quite good, are cheaper because the packaging is less expensive. Try the shiraz.

If you like good-quality wine, you likely will not want to stray below the varietally named 5-liter boxes - i.e., merlot, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and pinot grigio. Chillable Red, Chablis and Rhine White are not to be confused with table wines, although they will draw smiles from the White Zinfandel crowd.

I've discovered few really yucky boxed wines - especially since I haven't ventured into the world of Chillable Red, et. al. One I suggest you avoid is the Corbett Canyon Pinot Noir. It's a 3-liter red from Macedonia, a fact that is nicely hidden in very small type toward the bottom of the box. Corbett Canyon Chardonnay has been a nice value for many years, but the Pinot Noir is, uh, unfortunate.

A couple of hints: Even boxed wine won't last forever. Figure on its staying fresh for about four to five weeks. Don't store it in a warm area ... and don't forget to ensure the spout faces down. Keep the boxed whites in the fridge; they fit nicely in the door shelving.

And just for fun, the next time some of your wine snob friends come by, hide the box and offer them a glass of that wine - but don't tell where it came from until after they sample it. When they run screaming into the woods, advise about the bears - and enjoy your new-found bargain wine.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. E-mail him your questions about wine. His column runs on the first Wednesday of the month.