For most of my adult life, I've kept it a secret. Only a few family members and close friends knew the truth. I suppose I was ashamed. But after celebrating my 50th birthday last spring, I decided it was time to come out of the closet. Or rather, out of the box.
I am ready to admit that I regularly drink cheap red wine from a box. What's worse is that I like my red wine chilled, so I keep the box in the refrigerator at all times.
For years, I kept my box hidden from guests when we hosted a dinner party. In this age of enlightened wine drinking, when everyone is a sommelier-in-training and the extensive wine list in every restaurant is bound in fine leather, it's rather embarrassing to prefer it out of the box.
But there's a certain brand, made in Ontario, that I have been drinking regularly for close to three decades. I'm not going to mention the brand because I don't want everyone making a mad dash to their local liquor store and depleting the stock. I know I'm not alone because there are plenty of times they are out of stock of my preferred box. But I won't settle for a cheap(er) substitute.
It's an acquired taste to be sure, but both my husband and I happen to prefer it to any expensive wine we've ever tried. In college, I used to enjoy the occasional six-pack of Lonesome Charlie, the original pink wine cooler. In my 20s, my palate matured and I moved to Baby Duck, a rosé of sorts. By my 30s, I switched to red wine because it seemed a rebellious thing to do when everyone was drinking dry chardonnay. I've never looked back.
I don't enjoy the taste of beer, and I always get a headache from white wine, but at the end of a hard day, I always look forward to opening the fridge door, pushing that spigot and filling my (stemless) wineglass with that full-bodied, frothy, ice-cold red. I must come by my passion honestly - my mother drinks her red wine with ice. But that's because she spends her winters living on a boat in south Florida with a small refrigerator. Back home, like me, she turns to the box in the fridge.
I admit it can be awkward when you have wine experts over for a drink or dinner. We always keep several bottles of good red and white wine for guests. But then I wait until their heads are turned before I slink away to fill my own glass from the fridge. Most people have never noticed, but I'm sure many have wondered why my glass is always filled without depleting the bottle on the table.
I'm fascinated by people who can take a sip and tell what type of grape a wine was made with, what kind of soil it was grown in - and what year. I'm just not one of them. It's not that I haven't tried to acquire a taste for fine wine. My job has allowed me to tour the vineyards of Napa Valley in California. I once spent a week in Paris with my mother and we drank so many glasses of red sitting in sidewalk cafés that our teeth actually turned a pale shade of purple. Though it wasn't for lack of trying, I never did find a wine I liked as much as the box back home.
I've taken courses in food and wine pairing and interviewed dozens of wine experts over the years. Last fall our close friends, who are members of a wine-of-the-month club, took us to Ontario's Niagara region for an afternoon of wine tastings at two popular vineyards. The setting was beautiful. The wine, not so much. There wasn't one sample that was anywhere near as enjoyable to me as that first sip from my favourite brand (which also happens to be produced in the Niagara region, so I am supporting a domestic industry - another benefit.)
My habit is even more embarrassing because I happen to publish a magazine for housewares retailers. Decanters, corkscrews, stemware and other wine accessories are a big part of my industry. I have easy access to some of the finest aerators and wine thermometers available, but I have no need for them. I'm not even picky about the receptacle. I fully understand how the shape of the glass bowl can alter the flavour of the wine, but I'm quite happy to drink it from a tumbler. Now there are a few minor problems with the box design. For one, it drips constantly, leaving a permanent blood-red trail down the front of the produce crispers at the bottom of my fridge. And occasionally we'll get a bad box from the liquor store, which is always willing to exchange it for a fresher box - even if you've already drank most of it.
On the upside, the box is convenient to store and transport, and flattens easily for recycling after you remove the plastic liner. One-litre Tetra Paks - another wonderful step forward in wine packaging design - offer almost as many perks as the box and seem to be much more palatable to the wine connoisseur. For travel, they roll up nicely in a pair of jeans and are more compact than a full-sized box in your suitcase.
With all these benefits, I realized it was time to stop hiding. Last year, at home and at the cottage, during holiday meals and casual dinners, I opened the fridge door wide as I refilled my glass. Some friends laughed. Some were shocked. Most were accepting. It was such a huge relief. And the best part is, last Christmas we received several boxes of our favourite wine. Family members and friends who always felt we were so difficult to buy for have finally found the perfect gift.
Laurie O'Halloran lives in Oakville, Ont.
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