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The Illustrious History of Australian Wine’s Greatest Invention

“Just spin the Hills Hoist and if the goon bag lands above you, you’ve gotta skull it,” a bare-chested man wearing an Australian flag as a cape tells me. It’s January 26th, my inaugural Australia Day, and I’m about to play my very first game of Goon of Fortune, an unofficial initiation into Australian society.

Its name may be a spinoff of the iconic Wheel of Fortune, but Goon of Fortune takes full advantage of two very Aussie inventions: the goon bag (also known as bag-in-box, cask or boxed wine) and the Hills Hoist (rotating clothes line). No Australia Day would be complete without it. Like Spin the Bottle, it involves pinning a wine box’s bladder to a clothesline and spinning it until it lands above a player’s head, who must in turn “skull,” or take a generous gulp, from the goon bag.

The story of Australia’s favorite drinking game is inextricably linked to the tale of the goon bag, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.

In the 1960s, most Aussies drank wine solely on special occasions. But in April 1965, South Australian winemaker Thomas Angove patented the first ever bag-in-box, intending to create a modern-day half-gallon wine jug, or flagon (from which it has been suggested the term “goon” is derived).

Within a decade of its release, wine consumption in Australia doubled, and during its heyday of the 1980s and ’90s, two out of every three glasses of wine consumed Down Under came from the lovingly nicknamed “Chateau Cardboard.”

No one knows exactly when or by whom the game Goon of Fortune was invented, but it’s not hard to imagine how a sun-worshipping, barbecue-loving nation of boxed wine drinkers discovered such a creative way to enjoy their booze. The empty, inflatable bag can also double as a post-party pillow or flotation device.

Today many cask producers, including the Angove family themselves, have shifted their focus to the premium sector, making wines solely in bottle. And the goon bag struggles to shake its low brow reputation.

Ross Pamment, senior winemaker of Houghton in Western Australia, says that his winery felt backlash when it briefly offered its “Classic” range as a boxed wine.

“There was a degree of negativity in the trade that we had taken Houghton to the lowest common denominator, and that we were butchering an iconic wine,” says Pamment. “Interestingly, our Cellar Door at one stage was giving away a cask with every six pack purchased, and quite often [customers] declined the cask offer.”

Others, however, say the bag-in-box deserves a second chance.

“Goon is largely misunderstood,” says Aussie wine journalist Mike Bennie. “I recently did a tasting of 90 Australian cask wines, and though some were lacking freshness, many were of higher drinkability than equivalent wines in bottle, often eschewing fake oak and various other flavorants, and instead championing fruity, fresher styles.”

Norton Flavel’s sculptural goon.

Goons also leave a much smaller carbon footprint than glass-bottled wines, and increasingly, trendy bars are pouring wines from a box. In Australia, however, it’s unlikely that the bag-in-box’s reputation will be elevated such great heights.

Despite this, the goon bag and the drinking game in which it stars have achieved icon status of late. In 2014, at Western Australia’s popular annual Sculpture by the Sea exhibition, a 49-foot inflatable goon bag sculpture by artist Norton Flavel was far and away the most beloved and photographed exhibit.

On my first Australia Day, I watched the rotating Hills Hoist clothesline sputter to a creaky halt, the silvery goon bag dangling directly above my head. And as my new flag-ensconced friend twisted open the plastic valve, I crouched awkwardly—head tilted and mouth gaping, in preparation for a fountain of wine that will land as much down the sides of my face as in my mouth. I realized that I was part of something distinctly Australian. It may not be posh, but as long as this oh-so-Aussie game sticks around, the goon bag will keep spinning.