Two objects sat upon my butcher-block kitchen island: a large black cube and a curious-looking corkscrew. At one level, they had nothing to do with each other. The cube, which was really more of a rectangle, was a carton of Black Box Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon (about $19.99 for the equivalent of three bottles), and the curious corkscrew was a normal corkscrew with a curious accessory: a circular appendage meant for grasping and removing screw-top wine-bottle caps. Boxed wine, needless to say, doesn’t require even a normal corkscrew. But here’s what the two had to do with each other: The wine box, which contained a good, balanced Cabernet, with nice fruit and moderate, integrated tannins and nothing out of place, came from a company that puts a great deal of energy into explaining that boxes are perfectly good receptacles for fine wine (which they are, as long as you don’t intend to keep the wine for long); and the screw-top corkscrew was an act of marketing whimsy by Tamás Estates, a Livermore, California, maker of modestly priced and very accessible Italian varietals, entirely bottled with screw tops. Both companies, in other words, are experimenting with modern wine packaging, both are a little nervous about customer reaction, and both are trying to preempt the customer’s skepticism by meeting it head-on.
This is peanuts-level stuff in the grand scheme of life: Who cares? Wine is wine, right? But the appearance of both objects, at once, upon my butcher block on a sunny afternoon—my kids’ beautiful-to-me drawings piled nearby, and yesterday’s newspaper fading in the recycling bin below—suggested a nagging anxiety about the old bottle and cork, and just how central they are to the sentimental side of wine drinking. Wine is not just wine, say the marketing slogans for this box and the very existence of this corkscrew: Wine is ritual and tradition and romance. And perhaps the customer actually loved using a corkscrew, and feels something missing without the corkscrew’s drama. Perhaps the customer won’t trust a wine that opens as easily as a bottle of cheap vinegar—or, in the case of the boxed wine, as easily as a cheap gallon of distilled water. Or perhaps he’ll just yearn for the bottle’s ancient, timeless curves—curves captured in a million photographs and paintings over a millennium or more—and feel in his ears the absence of that satisfying pop, as the cork pulls out.
But the fear is unfounded: We do love the curve of the bottle, and the box will never replace it. Ditto for the cork. But we also know, out here in consumer land, where the kids produce hundreds of sweet drawings that pull at our hearts even as we quietly slip them toward the trash, lest our lives be overrun—and where yesterday’s newspaper speaks already less loud about outrages and tragedies and scandals we can do nothing about—that times change and the world changes, and that some of those changes, while vaguely sad, are utterly inconsequential in any real sense. We also know that wine—the liquid itself, regardless of container or closure—has always been among the world’s best balms for the transient sense of poignancy, the tears of relief, the craving for the strength to accept the far more serious changes that visit every one of our lives. Boxes and screw tops? Sure, something may be lost, but as long as the wine’s still fine inside, the loss can’t count for much at all.