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The Rise and Fall of Wine Coolers

Written by Vincent Rendoni

Wine Coolers were huge in the 80s – then they disappeared. What happened?

The late-age millennials here at Wine Folly are having a serious case of déjà vu right now. The eighties are alive again. Radical.

It feels like at any moment we could see our parents coming around the corner wearing neon and polyester, getting crunk (or drunk) on wine coolers like there’s no tomorrow.


The Rise and Fall of Wine Coolers

Wine coolers were the fizzy, brightly colored libations that combined the flavors of “Chablis” with fruit punch. Brands like Bartles and Jaymes, Seagram’s, and California Cooler were inescapable.

It’s not that we miss wine coolers, mind you. We really, really don’t. (Find out why below.) We just genuinely wonder how a seemingly unstoppable fad could bite the dust so quickly.

Wine Cooler production gif

The Rise of the Cooler

Originally, wine coolers were home-made from light white wines (dry Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio) and lemon-lime soda. However, in the early 1980s, they were bottled and sold commercially by some pretty heavy hitters (guys like E. & J. Gallo and Seagram’s.)

Marketed as sort of soda pop for adults, they contained pulp, artificial fruit flavors, cheap wine, and about as much alcohol as your average craft beer (4-6%).

Wondering what could possibly be the appeal of such a beverage? Well, aside from a sessional ABV, one didn’t have to open a whole bottle of Chardonnay to enjoy something on the lighter side.

Not to mention the easy twist-off cap was a convenient feature in the go-go decade. Combine that with all the flavoring and it’s no surprise wine coolers became a full-blown phenomenon–especially in an era of sluggish beverage sales.

And a full-blown phenomenon they were. According to the Chicago Tribune in 1985, they accounted for close to 10% of all wine consumption in the United States! Yeah, we know. We couldn’t believe it either.

The beer tax doubled, the wine tax quintupled… just sayin’.

Wine Cooler’s Untimely End

So where did it all go wrong?

The answer was taxes, taxes, taxes. On New Year’s Day, 1991, Congress more than quintupled the excise tax on wine from $.17/gallon to $1.07/gallon.

This made wine blending bad business and effectively ushered in the era of the malternative beverage.

Wine Coolers Spritzers Cocktails 2017 Wine Folly

And…They’re Back!

The world may be returning to the eighties, but when it comes to beverages, its moved on to bigger, better, and tastier things. Right? Well, we’re not so sure.

The Kitchn thinks wine coolers are cool again. Dang Kanye and Rhianna, you too?

Actually, it’s not too much of a surprise. (Well, the Zima is.) Wine coolers did have some things that are certainly trending now: lower ABV and sweet without feeling too sweet. (That sugar content, though… watch out!)

Combine that with a less snobby drinking culture and a wider availability of artisan ingredients (we’ve seen flavorings like yerba mate and mint), and maybe companies and mixologists can rebuild the wine cooler and make it better than it was before.

So, what do you think? Are we (as humans) ready to do wine coolers right?


Written byVincent Rendoni

I'm a spicy meatball who loves light-bodied reds, aromatic whites, video games, and for better or worse, Seattle sports teams. I was a huge fan of Wine Folly before being hired, so I guess you could say I'm living the dream.

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