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A VISIT TO FAST-FOOD WINE HEAVEN

Lately, I've realized there are two types of people in the world. Half of them eat regularly in the finest restaurants and have gourmet meals prepared for them at home by their personal chefs. The other half eat nothing but fast food or macaroni and cheese dinners from a box.

Or perhaps I've spent too much time watching "Wife Swap." But that same peculiar view of the world shows up in a lot of writing about wine. It's great to know, as Wine & Spirits informs us, that Bollinger Champagne is a main-course Champagne, for roasted partridge stuffed with morels. Sadly, that still hasn't been added to the menu at Boston Market.

But hey, if a wood-chopping girl from New Jersey can spend two weeks filling in for the wife of a high-powered New York businessman, wine can pair up with fast food. And the proof begins at McDonald's, where legend has it they serve wine at their Paris location, though I can't confirm this, even after an extensive search of the French McDonald's Web site and repeated viewings of "Pulp Fiction." (They really

do call it a Royale With Cheese, by the way.)

Even if McDonald's won't sell you wine, there's a wine for your Royale that exemplifies the fast-food philosophy. Beaujolais Nouveau is fresh (made from the first grapes of the harvest), slapped together in a hurry (about six to eight weeks from picking to bottling), and designed to be a simple and quite forgettable wine. It hits the stores exactly one week before Thanksgiving, and the sweet, grapey flavor of its gamay grapes matches well with a beefy burger and the sweet condiments that go with it.

If you're bringing your food home in a box, why not bring your wine home the same way? Boxed wine has a near-universal reputation as swill, but a few wineries are making great strides to change that image. They're putting actual varietals in the boxes the name on the box tells you the grape that was used (chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon) instead of being a made-up name (Chablis, Rhine, Burgundy) for a wine composed of anonymous, lower-quality grapes.

The Australian giant Hardy's now offers its Stamp of Australia wines in three-liter boxes the same wine they also sell in conventional bottles (the box is even vintage-dated). Black Box Wines are also vintage-dated, and their chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon carry such prestigious California appellations as Sonoma County and Napa Valley; a shiraz from Australia's Barossa Valley is due out this fall. And the well-regarded Carmenet Winery in California has released a Vintner's Collection line of varietals in three-liter boxes.

All these wines have quality comparable to a premium wine, but when you supersize the package, you save money compared to buying the comparable amount of wine in bottles. And unlike most takeout, these boxes will stay fresh in your refrigerator for up to four weeks; the bag inside the box collapses as it's emptied, keeping excess air from spoiling the wine quickly.

With a range of varietals to choose from, these boxed wines offer something to match just about any takeout with a few exceptions. Chicken wings still defy a match with any wine (at least the hot ones; barbecued wings and zinfandel work pretty well until you hit the blue cheese). Mexican food is tough, too; then again, if you're eating at Mighty Taco, you've already had enough to drink. Fish fries taste good with a crisp, dry white, but they taste great with beer. And I'll always splurge on a good riesling with Chinese food, to get the sweetness and crispness required to handle all the spices.

And, of course, there's KFC, the fast-food chain that's tried to change to a more healthful image by using initials instead of its former name (Kash For Cardiologists). Even though buckets and boxes seem to go together, I suggest a bottle of riesling from New York's Wagner Vineyards just because it's Finger Lake'n Good.

Howard Riedel is a local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on WBFO-FM and an evolving spirits-pontificating franchise. His e-mail is hriedel@wbfo.org.

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