They were huge in the 80s and 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. The music, the fashion–it’s back. Have you noticed the shoulder pads and “mom jeans” back on the streets? It feels like at any moment we could see our parents coming around the corner wearing neon and polyester, sauntering to the sounds of “Call Me,” and getting crunk (or drunk) on wine coolers like there’s no tomorrow. Then we thought of something: Whatever happened to those wine coolers? You remember them, right? They were the fizzy, brightly colored libations that combined the flavors of “Chablis” with fruit punch (back then we called it “sha-bliss”). Brands like Bartles and Jaymes, Seagram’s, and California Cooler were inescapable. We can’t be alone in having memories of two old men, downing four-packs on the porch or Bruce Willis telling us “this is where the fun starts.”
The Rise of the Cooler
OK, so maybe you’re not quite a late-age millennial or the term “wine cooler” means nothing to you. Wine coolers were a riff on the spritzer, a chilled white wine cocktail with, well, a spritz of carbonated water for easy, refreshing drinking.
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.
1991 Marked the Wine Cooler’s Untimely End
So where did it all go wrong? Was it Zima and the onslaught of alcopop brands that did coolers in? Not exactly. 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. (Thanks a lot, Congress.) Zima and Smirnoff Ice mercifully, briefly reigned supreme and our friends, Bartles & Jaymes and Seagram’s had to jump on the malted bandwagon to remain viable.
The beer tax doubled, the wine tax quintupled… just sayin’.
Why exactly did Congress raise the excise tax on wine to such an absurd amount? It was the beginning of a five-year, $490 billion deficit reduction package worked out by both the industry and President Bush. Aside from everyone feeling the tax hit on their income, gas, and smokes, they felt it in their wine. More than wine, it also affected beer and liquor, but to a much, much lesser degree. Still, as wine people, we have to wonder if there’s more of a conspiracy afoot. (We’re looking at you, beer industry.)
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. So does Travel + Leisure. Dang Kanye and Rhianna, you too? Oh, s***, even Zima is making an appearance. What is happening right now?
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.
Oddly enough, we’ve seen a few pieces of legislation asking to raise the excise tax for wine and beer yet again. Just great, right?
So, what do you think? Are we (as humans) ready to do wine coolers right?
Sources We asked this question once before on the Wine Folly blog. Chicago Tribune article from 1985 Orlando Sentinel covered coolers once, and then twice. Baltimore Sun article about the excise tax on wine from 1991. Dr. Vino talked about them too. Go doc. Illustrations and animations by Madeline Puckette.