Ask for cask
A very Australian invention turns 50

Image by Tama Leaver (Flickr)

Earlier this week, a cabal of linen-suited winemakers converged on Nielsen Park in Vaucluse, Sydney’s leafy suburban peninsula. They were there to celebrate the 50th birthday of cask wine, and – in the process – to rehabilitate the image of the humble goon sack. The silver polyethylene bag, they argue, is not just the sacred object of libidinal teenagers. Long prized for its convenience, long shelf life and low cost, it can also contain top-shelf vino.

In the grand pantheon of Australian inventions – the Hills hoist, medical penicillin, the tank – boxed wine occupies a particularly vaulted position. It is embedded in our cultural imagination, its acceptance widespread in a country that prided itself as a beer nation above all else.

The bag in a box was conceived by South Australian Tom Angove in 1965, and by the 1990s around 60% of all wine in Australia was consumed by the cask. I remember my grandfather, a crusty Liberal who certainly would have considered himself a man of fine calibre, always had two or three boxes vegetating in his fridge. It evolved into an icon of Australian suburban existence: its corrugated cardboard form as in its element on the edge of a plastic lawn table as on a linoleum kitchen benchtop.

However, as time marched on and we embraced bottled wine, the goon sack became an item of ridicule: the totem of an uncouth working class looking to get sloshed at lowest possible expense. And the expense was indeed low, with labels prominently displayed to show exactly how much bang you’re getting for your nine bucks. The development of the teen ritual of Goon of Fortune, in which sacks are hung from a Hills hoist and spun around like a prize wheel, cemented its new cultural value. It became unapologetically utilitarian: wine as a means to an end. The fact that the inflated bladder could be used as a pillow after a night on the piss was, of course, essential.

Nothing represents the anti-elitist heft of goon better than the wine box designed to look like a woman’s handbag. Ostensibly created to emulate some European vision of class, it nonetheless accedes to goon’s true purpose – getting cheap wine into alcohol-free events with minimal fuss. This rough, gaudy couture, developed in Sweden, embodies the Australian spirit.

Now, only about a third of wine consumed in Australia comes out of boxes. So the Ask for Cask campaign, spearheaded by a confederacy of winemakers, feels like a military reclamation of lost territory. Cask wine – never to be referred to as “goon” – should be a stately pleasure for the leisure class. It should be delicately poured from petite boxes into elegant glasses, not squeezed crudely from a Hills hoist into the mouth of a lout. And so it is: they’re marketing a new line of cask wines, in smaller boxes, containing top-quality labels never before delivered via swollen silver bag.

The 50th birthday celebrations in Vaucluse culminated in an industry panel, where vintners and winemakers guided their answers carefully, treating boxed wine with painful sincerity. Somebody at the back of the crowd, clearly having taken a few too many complimentary glasses of vin du ordinaire, loudly asked whether the panellists had ever played Goon of Fortune. They claimed not to know what it was.

J.R. Hennessy

J.R. is a writer in Sydney. He has written at The Guardian, blogs media politics at www.jrhennessy.com and tweets at @jrhennessy.

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