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Wine and winos: the misery market; winos are a major embarrassment to big companies producing cheap wines.

Winos are a major embarrassment to big companies producing the cheap wines bought by down-and-out drunks.

In the dim light of a cold February morning, a grizzled wino shuffles into the Bowery Discount liquor store muttering, "Thunderchicken, it's good lickin'." Fumbling for some change, he says: "Gimme one bird." Raymond Caba, the store clerk, understands the argot and hands over a $1.40 pint of Thunderbird, the top seller in what he calls "the bum section."

The ritual is repeated a thousand times a day in dead-end neighborhoods across the country. Cheap wines with down-and-dirty names--and an extra measure of alcohol-are the beverage of choice among down-and-out drunks, But winos are an embarrassment to the big companies that manufacture these wines. With rare exceptions, they aren't eager to acknowledge their own products.

Thunderbird and Night Train Express are produced by the nation's largest wine company, E. & J. Gallo Winery, though you'll not learn that from reading the label on the bottle. MD 20/20 is made by Mogen David Wine Corporation, a subsidiary of Wine Group Limited, which refuses to talk about its product. Richards Wild Irish Rose Wine, the very best seller in the category, is produced by Canandaigua Wine Company. Canandaigua is volubly proud of the wine but quick to point out that it enjoys wide popularity with people who aren't alcoholics.

The Biggest Bang

People concerned about the plight of street alcoholics are critical of the purveyors of dollar-a-pint street wines made with cheap ingredients and fortified with alcohol to deliver the biggest bang for the buck. At 18 percent to 21 percent alcohol, these wines have about twice the kick of ordinary table wine, without any of the pretension.

The consumption of alcohol in the United States is declining in virtually every category, but the best-selling of the low-end brands keep growing, in large part because customers can't stop drinking. Says Paul Gillette, the publisher of the Wine Investor in Los Angeles: "Makers of skid-row wines are the dope pushers of the wine industry."

Vintners generally try hard to filter their wines through the imagery of luxury and moderation, stressing vintage, touting quality. So they are understandably reluctant to be associated in any way with what some call a $500 million misery market.

Suppliers deny that the most popular street wines sell as well as they do because they appeal to dirt-poor, hard-core drinkers. Companies contend that their clientele is not like that at all, and besides, any alcoholic beverage can be abused. The wine people say they face stiff competition from high-alcohol malt liquor and 200-milliliter bottles of cheap vodka. The future for the high-proof business, vintners say, isn't particularly rosy in any case. The wine category they call "dessert" or "fortified"-sweet wines with at least 14 percent alcohol-has lost favor with drinkers.

Markedly Profitable

Wino wines are inexpensive to produce. They come in no-frills, screw-top packaging and require little or no advertising. Although they generally aren't the major part of vintners' product lineups, they are especially profitable. All told, net profit margins are 10 percent higher than those of ordinary table wines, Canandaigua estimates. Gallo says that isn't true for its products, but it won't say what is true.

The wines are also a rock-solid business. Of all the wine brands in America, the trade newsletter Impact says, Wild Irish Rose holds the No. 6 spot, Thunderbird is 10th, and MD 20/20 is 16th. In contrast to the lackluster growth of most other wine brands, unit sales of the leading cheap labels, Wild Irish Rose and Thunderbird, are expected to be up 9.9 percent and 8.6 percent respectively this year, Jobson's Wine Marketing Handbook estimates.

So unsavory is this market that companies go to great lengths to distance themselves from their customers. If suppliers are willing to talk about the segment-and few are--they still don't acknowledge the winos' loyal patronage. Gallo and Canandaigua leave their good corporate names off the labels, thus obscuring the link between product and producer.

The "No-Name Market"

"This is the market with no name," says Clifford Adelson, a former executive director of sales at Manischewitz Wine Company, which once made low-end wines. It was recently acquired by Canandaigua. "It's lots and lots of money, but it doesn't add prestige."

Cheap wines typically aren't even sold in many liquor stores. For instance, Frank Gaudio, who owns the big Buy-Rite Twin Towers Wine & Spirits store in New York's World Trade Center, doesn't stock any of these brands, though many homeless alcoholics spend their days just outside his door. "We don't want that clientele in our store," he says. "We could sell [fortified wines) and probably make money, but we don't." The wines, however, are staples of the bulletproof liquor stores of low-income neighborhoods. Although you can't say the whole market for items like Thunderbird and Night Train consists of derelicts, down-and-outers do seem to be its lifeblood. Fifty current and reformed drinkers interviewed for this article claim to have lived on a gallon a day or more of the stuff.

"The industry is manufacturing this for a select population: the poor, the homeless, the skid-row individual," says Neil Goldman, the chief of the alcoholism unit at St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.

Dawn finds a small bottle gang near the Bowery, chasing away the morning shakes with a bottle of Thunderbird they pass from hand to hand. Mel Downing tugs up the pant leg of his filthy jeans to reveal an oozing infection on his knee. He is drinking, he says, to numb the pain of this "wine sore" and other ones on his back before he goes to the hospital later in the morning. "We're used to this stuff," the 39-year-old Mr. Downing quickly adds. "We like the effect. We like the price."

A cheap drunk is the main appeal of the wines that winos call "grape" or "jug," but most often just "cheap." Winos say that these wines, even when consumed in quantity, don't make them pass out as readily as hard liquor would.

Walter Single, a recovering alcoholic, recalls that on a daily diet of nine pints of Wild Irish Rose, he was still able "to function well enough to panhandle the money he needed to drink all day and still have enough left for a wake-up in the morning."

Obviating the Need to Eat

Some drinkers say the high sugar content of the wines reduces their appetite for food, so they don't have to eat much. Others say they can still drink wine even after their livers are too far gone to handle spirits. Still others appreciate the portability of pint bottles.

"I feel more secure with a pint," explains Teddy Druzinski, a former carp"It's next to me. It's in my pocket." Canandaigua estimates that low-end brands account for 13 million gallons of the dessert category's

55 million gallons and that 50 percent is purchased in pints.

Many people in the wine industry eschew producing skidrow wines. "I don't think Christian Brothers should be in a category where people are down on their luck-where some may be alcoholics," says Richard Maher, the president of Christian Brothers Winery in St. Helena, California. Mr. Maher, who once was with Gallo, says fortified wines lack "any socially redeeming values."

"The consumers are we alcoholics," agrees Patrick Gonzales, a 45 -year-old wino who is undergoing a week of detoxification at a men's shelter on New York's Lower East Side. "You don't see no one sitting at home sipping Mad Dog [MD 20/20] in a wine glass over ice."

Major producers see their customers otherwise. Robert Huntington, the vice president of strategic planning at Canandaigua, says the Canandaigua, New York, company sells 60 percent to 75 percent of its "pure grape" Wild Irish Rose in primarily black, inner-city markets. He describes customers as "not super-sophisticated," lower middle-class and low-income blue-collar workers, mostly men.

Daniel Solomon, a Gallo spokesman, maintains that Thunderbird "has lost its former popularity in the black and skid-row areas" and is quaffed mainly by "retired and older folks who don't like the taste of hard products."

According to accounts that Gallo disputes, the company revolutionized the skid-row market in the 1950s after discovering that liquor stores in Oakland, California, were catering to the tastes of certain customers by attaching packages of lemon Kool-Aid to bottles of white wine. Customers did their own mixing at home. The story goes that Gallo, borrowing the idea, created citrus-flavored Thunderbird. Other flavored high-proof wines then surged into the marketplace. Among them: Twister, Bali Hai, Hombre, Silver Satin, and Gypsy Rose. Gallo says that the Kool-Aid story is "a nice myth" but that Tunderbird was "developed by our wine makers in our laboratories."

"Thunderbird Princess"

Vintners advertised heavily and sought to induce skid row's opinion leaders--nick-named "bell cows"--to switch brands by plying them with free samples. According to Arthur Palombo, the chairman of Cannon Wines Limited and one of Gallo's marketing men in the 1950s and '60s, "These were clandestine promotions." He doesn't say which companies engaged in the practice.

Today, such practices and most brands have long since died out. Companies now resort to standard point-of-sale promotions and, in the case of Canandaigua, some radio and TV advertising. There is still an occasional bit of hoopla. In New Jersey,Gallo recently named a Thunderbird Princess, and Canandaigua is currently holding a Miss Wild Irish Rose contest. But to hear distributors tell it word of mouth remains the main marketing tool.

The market is hard to reach through conventional media. Winos will drink anything if need be, but when they have the money to buy what they want they tend to hew to the familiar. (Sales resistance may be explain why the handful of low-end products that companies have tried to launch in the past 20 years have mostly bombed.) Besides, "it would be difficult to come up with an advertising campaign that says this will go down smoother, get you drunker, and help you panhandle better," says Robert Williams, a reformed alcoholic and a counselor at the Manhattan Bowery Corporation's Project Renewal, a halfway house for Bowery alcoholics.

Companies see no reason to spend a lot of money promoting brands they don't want to be identified with. "Gallo and ourselves have been trying to convey the image of a company that makes fine products," says Hal Riney, the president of Hal Riney & Partners, which created the TV characters Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes for Gallo's wine cooler. "It would be counterproductive to the advertise products like this."

Richards Wild Irish Rose purports to be made by Richards Wine Company. The label on a bottle of Gallo's Night Train reads, "Vinted & bottled by Night Train Limited, Modesto, Ca." Gallo's spokesman, Mr. Solomon, says, "The Gallo name is reserved for traditional [table] wines."

Industry people chime in that it isn't at all uncommon for companies to do business under a variety of monikers. But they also agree with Cannon's Mr. Palombo: "Major wine producers don't want to be associated with a segment of the industry that is determined to be lo-end and alcoholic."

Winos have their own names for what they buy, Gallo's appellations notwithstanding. When they go to buy Night Train, they might say, "Gimme a ticket." They call Thunderbird "pluck," "T-Bird," or Wild Irish Rose is known as "Red Lady," and MD 20/20 is "Mad Dog."

Getting Through Sundays

If skid-row wines are cheap to market, they are even cheaper to make. They are generally concocted by adding flavors, sugar, and high-proof grape-based neutral spirits to a base wine. The wine part is produced from the cheapest grapes available. Needless to say, the stuff never sees the inside of an oak barrel.

"They dip a grape in it so they can say it's made of wine," says Dickie Gronan, a 67-year-old who describes himself as a bum. "But it's laced with something to make you thirstier." Sugar probably. In any event, customers keep on swigging. Some are so hooked that they immediately turn to an underground distribution system on Sundays and at other times when liquor stores are closed. "Bootleggers," often other alcoholics, buy cheap brands at retail and resell them at twice the price. The street shorthand for such round-the-clock consumption is "24-7."

At nightfall, Mel Downing, the member of the bottle gang with the leg infection, is panhandling off the Bowery "to make me another jug," as he puts it. As his shredded parka attests, he got into a fight earlier in the day with his buddy, Teddy Druzinski, who then disappeared. Mr. Downing also got too drunk to make it that day, as planned, to the hospital for treatment of his "wine sores."

A short while later, Mr. Druzinski emerges from the shadows. He has a bloodied face because he "took another header," which is to say he fell on his head. Nevertheless, in the freezing darkness, he joins his partner at begging once again.

"I'm feeling sick to my stomach, dizzy, and mokus," Mr. Downing says. "But I still want another pint." He scans the deserted street and adds: "Another bottle is the biggest worry on our minds."
COPYRIGHT 1988 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Freedman, Alix M.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1988
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