For everyday wine, it's finally ok to think inside the box...

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When I told my professional wine colleagues that I was writing about boxed wines and asked for their favorites, almost to a person they looked at me in horror and assured me they didn’t drink those kinds.

Only one slightly more charitable person, the communications director of a large Washington winery, explained that although her company didn’t make them, she had heard there were some good ones out there.

I’m happy to report, she was right.

Boxed wines, which their manufacturers prefer we refer to as “cask wines” or “premium casks,” are one of the fastest-growing segments in the wine trade. Ryan Sproule, a California vintner and founder of Black Box Wines, believed in the concept so strongly, he sold his house to finance the startup of his company.

“When we launched in 2003, my pie-in-the-sky goal for the first year was to do 8,000 cases, and we ended up selling 40,000,” Sproule says. “This year we are on target to sell about 1 million cases.”

Like many Americans, Sproule first encountered boxed wines while traveling in Europe, where consumers have long been amenable to trading bottle for box. Australia is also bonkers for boxes, with a reported 50 percent of the wines sold there in casks. In Scandinavia, the numbers stack up to 60 percent.

It’s easy to see why:

• Quality is up. Not the plonk we remember from college frat parties, today’s premium cask wines offer a tasty alternative for everyday drinking.

• Reasonable prices. Cask wines most often come in 3-liter boxes with prices ranging from $16 to $25. This translates to $4 to $6.25 per 750-milliliter bottle.

• Shatterproof, easy-to-transport packaging. For hikers, bikers or backpackers, boxed beauties offer unbreakable, relatively lightweight packing. For those in cramped quarters — boaters, campers, RVers — boxed wines are easy to stack. They’re perfect around the pool, at picnics and for tailgating, too.

• The solution for one-glass-a-day drinkers. Once opened, the anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment of the vacuum-sealed plastic bag keeps the wine fresh for about a month.

• Great for cooks. A box of wine in the pantry means good-quality cooking wine is always at hand.

• Good with food. Because they are simply made, boxed wines pair well with everyday eats such as pizza, pasta and grilled foods.

• Easy to open. No corkscrew to deal with or cork to break off.

• Good for the environment. No glass to manufacture or recycle, a totally recyclable box and a collapsible plastic bag mean less to recycle. The lighter weight saves on shipping and storage costs, too.

A couple of caveats I discovered while tasting a wide variety of cask wines:

You’re not gonna find Quilceda Creek or Screaming Eagle in a box, and lots of insipid wines are still out there. Generally, the higher-quality boxed wines are vintage-dated and made from a specific varietal (or blend of specific varietals) from a particular grape-growing region. The 1.5-liter and 3-liter wines are usually better quality than the old 4-liter boxes. And, I preferred the red wines to the whites.

Drink it now. These wines are best consumed within one year of production. Some sport a “Drink By” date or date of production on the bottom of the box.

Also, give your glass a couple of good, deep swirls to oxygenate the wine. Better still, pour several glasses’ worth into a wide-mouthed decanter and surprise family and friends when they discover that the sassy shiraz they’re raving about is actually one of those wines!

For wine lovers concerned about value and the environment, it’s nice to know it’s finally hip to be square.

Braiden Rex-Johnson is the author of seven books, including “Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining” and is a columnist for Wine Press Northwest magazine. Visit her at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.