Saturday, August 19, 2006

Wine Lesson Revisited

"wine, wine, wine, do yer stuff ..."
(Sampled at Wikipedia)

My old Ozark drinking buddy and wine expert Bruce Cochran read the post on my Beringer 'blush' experience and had some interesting remarks. First, he consoled me on my ignorance about the typical white zinfandel:

Jeff, we're all learning as we continue down the path of wine experience.

He then informed me of something surprising about the Boone's Farm 'wines' -- the wretched stuff that he and I used to drink on the sly, thinking we were clever:
Here's one more note about the infamous Boone's Farm "wines". Boone's Farm, technically, is no longer a wine, but beer. I mean that the alcohol is malt based rather than fruit based. There are two reasons for the change, taxes and grocery stores. Taxes are lower on beer than on wine, and grocery stores that can sell beer but not wine can sell Boone's Farm as it is made today.

I'd long ago stopped thinking of Boone's Farm products as wine, so this is ironic but welcome confirmation.

Be that as it may, for anyone who's never lived in a 'blue-law' state, the restrictions that Bruce notes about grocery stores being allowed to sell beer but not wine are probably part of the legal tangle stemming from the aftermath of prohibition's repeal. The U.S. Constitution's 18th Amendment prohibited alcohol from 1920 to 1933, an experiment in social engineering that failed miserably and encouaged widespread scofflaw attitudes because people refused to stop drinking. When the amendment was repealed in 1933, some states maintained particular restrictions -- and the counties of some states (such as my own Fulton County, Arkansas) simply outlawed alcohol altogether, aside from small amounts allowed in privately for personal consumption. Anyway, these laws restricting alcohol are informally known as "blue laws."

Thus, we have the Boone's Farm 'wine' that's not really wine -- or vodka that's not really vodka, rum that's not really rum, and various sorts of subterfuges noted by Bruce:

The same process is used for the same reasons in the category of drinks called RTD's ("Ready to Drink"). It may seem a bit cynical, but drinks like Smirnoff Ice don't contain Smirnoff or any other vodka, but beer (as with Boone's Farm they don't have that yeasty beer flavor, only the alcohol). Captain Morgan Rum made one, sans rum. This was a popular category for a while, reminiscent of the old 'pre-mixed drinks' of the 1970's. So many new things aren't new at all, just old things brought back.

Next time you're thinking that you're drinking vodka or rum in that RTD, better think again and check the label. At times, however, the alcohol base is from something better than you'd expect. Bruce notes the irony in RTDs with alcohol from unexpected sources:

And finally, because of the warmer weather in recent years, some of the alcohol in the RTD's are now coming from $100 a bottle Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Warmer weather has resulted in higher sugar levels in grapes, which means higher alcohol levels, which means wines that aren't as food friendly. So, some people remove a portion of the alcohol through a process called reverse osmosis (a membrane that allows alcohol to pass through), or with a more distrurbing method called the spinning cone. The spinning cone dissembles wine into its various components, which are reassembled in the desired proportions. I call it Frankenstein wine. It seems to work.
"Frankenstein wine." I like that -- a name that not only rhymes but also says what it means. I don't think that Bruce means that he coined this expression, merely that he uses it.

By the way, I think that Bruce is talking about two different things in this last passage, but he elides from one to the other, so let me clarify. First, he's informing us that some of the alcohol in RTDs these days comes from an excess siphoned off from very high-quality wines. That's his first point, and it occasions his explanation of two different technical processes used to remove alcohol. This technical explanation reminds him of another use for the spinning-cone technology, namely, to separate wines into their various components and then recombine the components in desired proportions -- hence the term "Frankenstein" -- which is his second point. In short, he's explaining how RTDs using excess alcohol from real wines are made but also how the original wines are put back together.

Quite a lesson I've learned ... and all from drinking that dreadful White Zinfandel.


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