Remember wine coolers? Bartles & Jaymes, those two old guys, one in suspenders, sitting on a front porch or flying a biplane while thanking us for our support? Bruce Willis strutting through a bar singing about Seagram’s wine coolers — “It’s wet and it’s dry”? Those ads were all over the airwaves during the 1980s.
The ads may be relegated to YouTube, but the flavored wine beverages are still with us. Bartles & Jaymes, produced by E & J Gallo, remains a malt beverage “wine cooler” with a wide variety of flavors. Seagram’s now sells Seagram’s Escapes, with fanciful flavors like Calypso Colada and Bahama Mama.
The rising popularity of cans for wine over the past few years has given a boost to flavored wines. Cans are fun and casual, and they bend the rules that say wine should be in glass under cork. (Those rules have been bent by corkscrews, boxes and Tetra Paks as well.) The lines between wine, beer and cocktails have blurred even more. Infinite Monkey Theorem, a winery based in Denver, markets a sauvignon blanc infused with hops. It tastes rather like an India Pale Ale, with the lighter body and higher acidity of wine. It’s an identity crisis in a can.
A popular line of “sparkling wine cocktails” is Pampelonne, a brand started in 2013. “The inspiration came from our enthusiasm for the sparkling wine cocktails like Aperol Spritz we enjoyed in France and Italy, and a desire to make them accessible to everyone back home,” says Wyatt Carder, co-owner along with Erik Weller. Pampelonne taps into the current vogue for craft cocktails, bringing the bar home in a can, with a straw.
Pampelonne uses white wine imported from France as its base. In early years, it used Melon de Bourgogne (the grape of Muscadet) from the Loire Valley, switching in 2017 to ugni blanc, a grape widely grown in Gascony. Both are fairly neutral whites, without much inherent flavor but with good acidity to make a refreshing base for a blended drink. At the company facility in Modesto, Calif., the base wine is blended with sparkling wine and natural flavorings. The Negroni Sbagliato resembles its namesake cocktail with flavors of bitter orange, if not gin. (The can lists Italian bitters and orgeat to mimic the botanicals in gin.) Rosé Lime is another refreshing flavor, and the company has introduced a Harvest Pear Palmetto blend for fall.
Pampelonne, marketed in packs of four 250-milliliter cans, with straws, is a fun, tasty drink for picnics, patios, pools or aperitifs. At 6 percent alcohol, it doesn’t pack much of a punch. With 7 grams added sugar per can, as disclosed on the nutritional label, it resembles a soda almost as much as a cocktail. So, brunch, picnic, feel-good quaff before dinner? Yeah.
A reader recently complained that my recommendations seem to discriminate against Virginia consumers, because the stores that carry the wines I like tend to be in the District and Maryland, not Virginia. I’ve heard this lament several times over the years, and have addressed it here before. But because the complaints persist, I’d like to address the issue again.
The simple answer is, well, it’s not really simple. The 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition but gave the states authority to regulate beverage alcohol as they see fit. So across the country we have 51 different jurisdictions with laws and regulations that are not standardized. I deal with three of those every week when trying to do a reader service by listing Washington-area stores.
Virginia’s regulations are more cumbersome than the District’s or Maryland’s. For that reason, many smaller distributors (and even some larger ones) don’t bother to deal with Virginia at all. I like to spotlight small, local distributors to demonstrate the diversity of wines available, and unfortunately some of these distributors don’t have the administrative staff and legal teams to deal with label approvals and other regulatory requirements in multiple jurisdictions. Because Maryland and the District are easier, they may choose just to serve those two markets.
This market inequality is a relic of Prohibition. The constitutional amendment that repealed a federal ban on booze left regulation to the states, resulting in a hodgepodge of laws and regulations across the country. Unfortunately, we have to live with them.