The word “wine” means different things to different people.
Around here, the phrase “a glass of wine” likely is about a Chardonnay, Rosé, or Sauvignon Blanc. But in other parts of the country, the same phrase may refer to something neither you nor I would even say is wine at all, even though it technically is.
In some places, “wine” may refer to something unfamiliar to most Californians – and here it gets murky. The definition of “wine” really is more complicated than most people realize. It’s usually defined as nothing more than fermented grape juice. (Oh, sure, I’ve heard of dandelion “wine” and other such concoctions, but seriously…?)
In that respect, the broad category includes such things as Concord wines. Mostly they’re so saccharine sweet, they’d be terrible with most foods. Also, alcoholic beverages made entirely of fermented concentrates are wines, kind of.
“Wine” also applies to beverages made from muscadines (a native American vine family common in the southeastern United States). Oddly scented Muscadine wines are made from Vitis rotundifolia and are flavored so strangely that there appears to be no parallel at all to the vinifera grapes of France.
Then there are wine products like Stella Rosa, semi-sweet, semi-sparkling Italian wines that are more like soda pop than table wines. They’re popular in some areas of the country. You may have seen billboard ads for them. The ads don’t mention that they are sweet.
The connection between one of these beverages and a Napa Valley Cabernet is that both may be called wine. There the resemblance ends. Abruptly.
Go into a fine wine store, one that carries a Classified-Growth Bordeaux, white Burgundies, Barolo, and ask for a bottle of Stella Rosa. The store owner might chuckle and say they don’t have a calling for such products. But those who drink it call it wine, and it is.
Indeed, a similar disparaging reaction might be heard if you asked for any of the other pop-type wines that are made for people who simply want something wet, sweet, and lacking in any distinction.
Look at some related “wines,” such as those bag-in-box generic blends that say they are made with “natural flavors,” or fruit. Is there any difference between “pop” wines and some of the bag-in-box generics that have zero food compatibility?
Another example: Sangria. Some say it is wine. I use the term “wine beverage.” And there’s no question that some of these fruit-based concoctions are tasty. But calling them wine is a bit of a stretch.
What do you call those sweet plus fortified products that are pretty much aimed at alcoholics who are mainly into cheaper “fixes,” and who can’t afford higher-alcohol products? And yes, ports (lower-case p) and muscatels are defined as wines, too.
It is obvious that there is a lot of wine out there that simply does not translate to the dinner table, wine that is sold for purposes other than what Cabernet is produced for. Some of these products are sweet enough to guzzle. And the producers don’t mind if some people do just that.
I’m not suggesting that all sweet wines are disqualified from being called wine. But it’s a little disconcerting when some people equate a bottle of a Rutherford Cabernet with a bottle of Stella Rosa Peach or Green Apple.
By not differentiating one wine from another — and how they are typically used — some people are trying to demonize all wines.
The forgoing is an introduction to a far more serious topic, which comes along in an upcoming column in which we will have an analysis of how some (I assume) well-meaning people want to demonize all wines by equating all of them with whiskey and beer.
This latest movement, using the word “wine” to refer to the multitude of products under that umbrella, signals the onset of a new Prohibitionist movement that pops up every 25 years or so here, and is little more than a pernicious attempt to prove that Prohibition still has a place in our society.
As if what we went through nearly a century ago didn’t itself prove the absurdity of the argument — that you can’t legislate morality.
That 1919-1933 dry period, which President Herbert Hoover called a “noble experiment,” was clearly one of the most misguided, ill-conceived “do-gooder” movements in American history. It ended, much to the cheers of most Americans, eight years before the start of the second World War.
Calls for its reinstatement resumed by some neo-dry fanatics in the early 1960s, but that decade was one of post-war euphoria and calls to reinstitute Prohibition were short-lived.
In 1985, proponents of a reconsideration of Prohibition got huge a boost when Joseph E. Seagram & Sons began a campaign in which it attempted to persuade consumers that “a drink is a drink is a drink.”
That campaign, aimed at increasing spirits sales, argued that the amount of alcohol in a glass of wine, a can of beer, and a jigger of whisky were equal. The campaign was opposed by many wine-industry groups as misleading.
One of those who saw new Prohibitionists as misguided and ill-informed was the late Dr. David Musto, professor of psychiatry and history of medicine at Yale University.
Musto analyzed Prohibition movements in the United States and he wrote that they came along once every generation, long enough in between for new “experts” on alcohol use and abuse to forget why similar previous campaigns were shot down.
Real science and sociological facts eventually won the day, and in the early 1990s, it was clear that the neo-dry activists had far more passion than evidence. The movement soon died.
Today, we know that the latest effort to demonize all wines has poisonous roots and is based on flawed reasoning. Such arguments often ignore wine’s health benefits.
We know that moderate wine consumers live longer than do total abstainers, and we surely know that traditional table wines are used in a manner unlike other alcoholic beverages – and other so-called wines. Mostly they’re consumed with food, where the impact on the body differs from a tossed-back shot of Scotch.
This is a key distinction that the neo-dry crowd would love to ignore as they make their scare-tactic argument.
This is but a brief backdrop to a nascent neo-Prohibition movement that today includes what sounds like a science-based argument, but which fails on several key points.
Wine of the Week: 2019 Boulder Bank Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($16): Transplanted New Zealand winemaker Nick Goldschmidt makes stellar wines in northern Sonoma County. After moving here in 1989, he finally has opened a tasting room (4792 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg). Nick also continues to make wine in several countries, and this Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc is a bright, lilting example of varietal purity. Less grassy than many, it is scented with lemon verbena, displays fresh florals alongside minerally notes.
Watch now: ACME Fine Wines
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.
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