We Asked Australia's Best Sommelier to Find the Nicest, Cheapest Goon

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We Asked Australia's Best Sommelier to Find the Nicest, Cheapest Goon

Melbourne-based Banjo Harris Plane was named Sommelier of the Year by twice in 2014. We wasted his talents on six terrible wines.
May 11, 2016, 5:36am

Bonjo and some goon bags. All images by the author.

Goon is what Australians call boxed wine. In a country where a six-pack of beer costs $20, goon is popular for its affordable cost-to-size ratio (generally one gallon for $7 USD), as well as for its superb alcoholic content (around 12 percent). Because of these numbers, goon's bad flavor and all-round shitty format inspires some devotion. To drink goon is to throw status to the wind and yell, I'm a fun person!

These are the reasons I wanted a sommelier to help me select the best. Also, despite drinking my fair share of goons, I realized I knew basically nothing about the stuff—history, regions, cocktail ideas—and was struck by an urge to treat it seriously.

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Banjo Harris Plane is a Melbourne-based sommelier, service director, wine importer, and the restaurant manager at Attica. In 2014, he was named sommelier of the year by both Sommeliers Australia, and The Age Good Food Guide Awards. This made him highly overqualified for the job, but also perfect.

The idea was to do a blind test. We lined up six unboxed bags, and let Banjo test. Then I'd have a taste, because Wednesdays can be slow.

Tangled Vine Estate, Cabernet Merlot

"Smells a bit sweaty," said Banjo, swirling the wine around in his glass. "It's also a bit sweet, like candied raspberries or old plums. But that's about it, maybe just a hint of plastic."

He then had a slug and did his sommelier slurping thing. "Wow, that sweetness! It's actually kind of insulting." He then talked about how it was lacking acidity that would otherwise counterbalance the sugar and would have freshened it all up. To Banjo this soft, fruity red tasted like a packet of Haribo candy. He gave it 7/10.

To me Goon A was one hell of a short ride. It was the sort of wine that hits your mouth with alcohol and red flavor, only to whimper away into nothing. 6/10.

Berri Estates, Fresh Dry White

"Well, it's greeny-gold and smells like Tropicana juice, or passion fruit. Actually, it smells a bit like Passion Pop." Banjo then had a slurp and decided it wasn't as bad as Passion Pop. Again, it was sweet but with a bit of acidity that lent a welcome grassy flavor. "It's just that heavy glycerol flavor in the middle of the palate that makes these wines hard to drink." Banjo gave it 6/10.

I thought six out of ten was generous. For me it was more like a five, because it tasted like waking up in a hot tent with a dry mouth. It was just a whole bunch of generic hangovers, rolled into one crap, sugary mess. What's with the sugar? Why do boxed wine manufacturers insist on making everything so sweet?

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I asked Banjo about this and he pointed out that I might not be the goon target market. "They're possibly made for younger people who have just started drinking wine. Also people generally like a bit of sugar. These wines are about trying to cater to average tastes." 5/10

De Bortoli, Premium Cabernet Merlot

This one sat thick in the glass—a syrupy red. "Smells like rubber and hot asphalt," Banjo reported before taking a sip and deciding that it wasn't so bad. As he explained, red wine people often talk about tannins, which is what causes that mouth-puckering dryness. "A wine with a lot of tannins can cut through a fatty meal, like steak, and bring out its best. This wine has a bit of that, which the others haven't." On the other hand it had some overcooked fruit flavors that brought it down. Flavors like old prunes and partially fermented blueberries. 7/10.

I didn't mind this one. My pallet tends to classify wines as either goon or not goon. For a wine that was indisputably goon, it tasted slightly like wine. Actually, red goons are a bit like that. It's only white goon that can't escape itself. 7/10.

Yalumba, Classic Dry White

As you might know, Goon of Fortune is a game that involves taping a goon bag to a Hills Hoist. Everyone stands around as the line as it spins, until it stops on someone and they drink. It's a simple game but, as Banjo pointed out, it's a game with a lot of moving parts. Gallon goon bags fall off washing lines, which is where the more portable half-gallon Yalumba Classic Dry White comes in. But durable doesn't mean delicious.

"It smells like jasmine, honey suckle, and has a subtle soapy edge," Banjo said, taking a drink. "Yeah, it starts well but then the flavor fans out and goes all floppy. It's a shame because it's otherwise quite nice." 7/10.

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I thought it tasted like wine-scented water, which could be a good thing. Also it wasn't so sweet but Banjo nailed it with his "floppy fan-out" statement. Its flavor started sharp but then went flabby, before it disappeared altogether. I gave it a 6.5/10.

Coolabah, Sweet fruity white

Of all the wines we tried, this was the worst. Banjo described its smell as "old lady's perfume" which meant it was floral and so sweet you wanted to die. "The texture is just liquid sugar," he noted, scrunching up his face. "There's no acidity and it sits on your tongue like something fat and gross." After observing a few notes of "musk sticks, honeysuckle, and dried roses," he spat it out and rinsed his mouth. 3/10.

For me, fruity lexia is everything wrong with goon, and adolescent taste buds in general. I just couldn't believe something like that existed. It tasted like a mixture of high-fructose corn syrup and liquid from an Ambi Pur room freshener. It also came with an automatic sensation of hatred, like my body couldn't understand why I'd just tried to get diabetes. No juice or soft drink would ever be able to help mask its flavour. Maybe a few litres of Dimetapp, but then you probably wouldn't need the wine. 1/10.

Daybreak Estate, Soft Fruity Red

Again with the sugar. "It's quite light on the palate," Banjo reported, "but the sugar lets it down." Aside from this there were a few hints of all the usual Fruit Loop berries—blueberries, raspberries, snozzberries. Banjo described it as "generous with the berries." 6/10.

He was right about the berries but I was getting something else too. Cinnamon? And then, like basically every wine before it went all soft and sugary and I spat it out. 7.5/10.

Banjo, me, and some boxes

By the end we both agreed the problem with goon isn't its packaging or two-dimensional complexity. It's that they're all mutilated by sugar. "I've had boxed wines overseas that are amazing," Banjo explained, shaking his head. "I don't know what Australian wine producers are doing wrong." To overcome this problem Banjo recommended drinking them with a few iceblocks, a shot of soda water, or even a hit of vodka. Just anything to take off that sweetness.

For this reason his favourites were the ones with less sugar. De Bortoli Premium Cabernet Merlot because "you could actually taste what sort of grapes they'd used." The other was Yalumba Classic Dry White, just because it wasn't that bad. "You know, you could probably put that one in a bottle and people would be none the wiser."

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Watch the video of Banjo sampling goon. This appears as part of our series exclusive to Facebook, From the Pages of VICE: