I had to laugh the other day when a professional wine guy brought me a bottle of Ripple dressed in a sweet gift pack. We had a bet over a wine question and he lost, and the payoff was a "meaningful" bottle of wine.
This bottle of Ripple has gone from wine professional to wine professional for probably three decades as a joke gift/payoff, he told me. (You may remember "Sanford and Son," the 1970s sitcom in which junk dealer Fred Sanford celebrated big events with a bottle of Ripple and paper Dixie Cups.) It amazes me this same bottle has made the rounds for this long and not been trashed.
I thought it would make a fun wine column to talk about what distinguishes wines such as Ripple from legitimate red, rosé and white wines.
Most of the "street" screw-top wines are meant to be consumed ice cold. There's a good reason for this. The colder the drink, the less the taste appears on the palate. It's like Kool-Aid — it's nearly impossible to drink at room temperature. Tastes such as the cloying effect of sugar are constricted, the adjusted acids are not quite identified and the "wine" can be consumed in copious amounts on hot days.
Many of these wines used to say "serve ice cold with lemon" on the labels. The introduction of citrus made the wine a little more balanced against the cruel amount of sugar, and the cold kept the torrid level of alcohol from being perceived on the palate. The downside is, of course, that unperceived alcohol can cause problems for the consumer and those around him, not to mention some real grief in the headache department the next day.
Many of these cheap wines are made not just of grapes, but combinations of grape, pear and/or apple. And they often have food coloring and extracts that cause them to look and smell like cotton candy or bubble gum. The obvious conclusion, though street-wine makers will deny this, is that many of these wines are being catered to underage drinkers. I find this kind of predatory marketing to be heinous and unconscionable.
Some years ago I attended a wine seminar in San Francisco attended by one of the producers of these cheap, minor-targeted wines. His company made a pink, sweet wine cooler that was very big at the time. I talked earnestly with him about these coolers and the impact they were having on underage drinking. It was really something to hear him duck and weave around the question, citing "free marketing" and the "right to make a buck."
Here is the good news about these cheap, street beverages: They are losing their caché with many of the young folks. Here are a few reasons why:
- Wine and food education and appreciation classes — The explosion of these classes is raising a new consciousness about wine, food, wine pairing and alcohol in general among young people, who are asking educated questions and expecting more from what they are drinking. Their exploration is leading them to value in table wines, especially the less expensive wines from Chile and Argentina, not the soda pop street beverages. This is a very encouraging phenomena.
- The proliferation of local wineries — In California and the Pacific Northwest, winery investment is off the charts. Wineries are popping up like mushrooms, and with this jump in facilities and vineyards, young people are becoming aware of legitimate wine as a beverage of choice.
This was a big argument between the Europeans and Americans, especially when the pop-street wines burst on the American scene in the 1970s. The French and Italian kids never adopted these types of beverages as their New World cousins did because of the cultural aspect of good wine and "slow" food in their culture.
Any of the Old World kids could point to grape vines on every corner and a winery seemingly on every block where family and friends frequented or worked. Alcohol was never seen as taboo in the Old World but as part of the everyday scene and acceptable at just about any age.
It was about acceptance, not denial. There was no need for cheap, street, bubble gum, high-alcohol cooler junk to attract them. Now there's a good chance this will happen in the New World as well.
Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.