A Barrel Full Of Trouble

Another alcohol success story: Robert M.'s mother drank throughout her pregnancy, but he is not even slightly deformed. At 4, he was drinking watered wine with his meals, but it didn't keep him out of Stanford. Today, at the age of 77, he sits down to a three-course lunch (escolar in parchment with ginger-lime butter; grilled rack of lamb with potato and leek gratin; apple tart), each with its correct wine, and then goes about his duties as chairman of a multimillion-dollar family-owned company: the Robert Mondavi Winery.

They saw it happen to liquor, they saw it happen to cigarettes, but American wine makers believed the moderation craze could never touch them. On the contrary; for most of the 1980s wine gained sales at the expense of liquor, as the glass-of-white-wine replaced the gin-and-tonic at cocktail parties in the same way the raw mushroom supplanted the frank-in-a-jacket. In the last few years, though, wine consumption itself has dropped precipitously: from around 2.4 gallons per capita in 1986 to just 2 gallons last year, Almost all the decline came in jug wines and coolers, which are what most wine drinkers first learn to drink. Americans increasingly are making what Mondavi considers the totally unwarranted assumption that if less alcohol is good, no alcohol at all must be better.

Wine makers are not alone in feeling the effects of rampaging sobriety. Last week some of America's largest distillers and wineries announced a $40 million campaign against teenage drinking, drunk driving and alcohol abuse, responding to a fundamental shift in Americans' attitude toward alcohol. "It's my view that in '90s alcohol consumption will be targeted the way cigarettes and tobacco were in the '80s," says Dr. David Musto, a medicine at Yale. Two years ago the government began requiring doleful warning labels on wine bottles, referring to "the risk of birth defects" and "health problems"; a bill was introduced this spring to require warnings on all alcohol advertisements as well. Wine makers, unused to being lumped in the gutter with the manufacturers of cheap whisky (although some of them, like Gallo, maker of 18 percent alcohol Thunderbird, arguably belong there), feel especially abused. After the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, Chilean-born vintner Agustin Huneeus offered to donate wine to the victims, as he had done after the 1985 earthquake in Chile. American relief agencies reacted as if he had offered a stack of pornography to a high-school library. "I got absolute incomprehension," Huneeus said.

In particular, the wine makers feel themselves abused by Michael Jacobson, head of the consumer-interest group Center for Science in the Public Interest. (Although Mondavi hints darkly that it is financed by wealthy Arabs seeking to foist their way of life on gullible Americans, the group actually gets most of its budget from its 250,000 members.) Jacobson backs a proposal by former surgeon general C. Everett Koop to change the federal excise tax so that it applies equally to the alcoholic content of wine, beer or liquor. The wine makers fear this mostly because it would vastly increase federal taxes on wine, to around $7 a gallon from $1.07 now (up from just 17 cents, as of the beginning of 1991). But the proposal also institutionalizes the view that the alcohol is all that matters in an alcoholic beverage-that a 25.4-ounce bottle of wine containing 12 percent alcohol is not just chemically but morally equivalent to a half pint of 80-proof (40 percent alcohol) whisky. "The industry bears a great responsibility for the problems of drinking," Jacobson says. "They like to think that everybody has one glass and everything is fine. But until there's clear proof that some alcoholic beverages are different, let's treat them the same."

A few wine makers are experimenting with alcohol-free or reduced-alcohol wines. But for the most part, the industry has preferred to keep the alcohol, but draw attention away from it by positioning wine as a necessary adjunct to civilized life, rather than as an aid to inebriation. This was the theme of a conference in Los Angeles earlier this year in which wine makers cited data such as a 1983 Justice Department survey of jailed drunk drivers. Only 2 percent had been drinking wine before their arrests, compared with 54 percent who had been drinking beer. Most at home and most with meals; nobody, Mondavi spokesman Harvey Posert observes, "goes up to a bar and says, 'Gimme a double Chardonnay'."

To make the point even more explicitly, the big California wineries have supplemented their tasting rooms with "food programs" of an astonishing opulence. The best food is not for the public, but for visiting VIPs, hotel and restaurant executives and wine-and-food writers making the Napa-Sonoma tour (anyone with a press card anoints himself a wine writer as soon as he crosses the Marin County line). Here, behind place settings as elaborate as a $75 chemistry set, in handsome dining rooms overlooking fields of vines, is how the industry wants to be viewed, a setting as congenial to wine as a hockey arena is to beer. The competition for cooking talent is intense. Mondavi's "Great Chefs" program the likes of Paul Bocuse and Pierre Troisgros to cook in tiny Oakville, Calif. In 1989 Beringer hired the famous French chef Madeleine Kamman to establish what is now one of the country's great schools for professional cooks. In Mendocino County, Fetzer brought a well-known California chef, John Ash, to run its food program, and after a worldwide search hired award-winning organic gardener Michael Maltas to grow vegetables. Maltas now provides Ash's kitchen with the bounty of a raised bed organic fruit and vegetable garden that has produced 49 varieties of lettuce, 26 kinds of garlic, eight flavors of basil and several dozen edible flowers.

The wineries have even helped develop a distinctive cuisine, designed to show off their product to maximum advantage. A typical wine-country menu starts with a bland fish in a lemon or lime-flavored sauce, usually with Chardonnay; lamb (invariably), grilled or broiled, with a Cabernet Sauvignon, and apple tart, with whatever dessert wine the winery specializes in. The kitchens have had an interesting effect on the wine makers as well. California vintners had perfected the art of winning wine tastings, but they did it with wines so heady, rich, tannic, mouth-filling and aromatic that they clashed with any food more assertive than a cracker. In recent years all three labels have produced exceptionally good Cabernet Sauvignons (designated "reserve" or "private reserve") made to be drunk with food. Mondavi makes an extraordinary pinot noir and Fetzer and Beringer have rediscovered the potential of some of the less aristocratic varietals such as zinfandel, crisp, fruity wines that can be drunk before, during or after dinner, or, for that matter, lunch.

Which, the industry's critics say, is part of the problem. The wine makers cannot hide from their own success: they make wonderful wines, and people are going to drink them. Pat Baird, who heads an anti-drunk-driving group in Napa County, describes herself as a recovering alcoholic who got her start on wine when she moved to California in the 1960s. It was precisely wine's reputation for harmlessness, she says, that enabled her (and, she suspects, other alcoholics) to deny her drinking problem.

Is there hope for a product that (as a recent survey by The Wine Spectator concluded) is regarded by most Americans as less healthful than coffee or soft drinks? Wine is the drink of the well-off and sophisticated; per capita consumption in the District of Columbia is 10 times higher than in, say, Mississippi. But this is just the class, with the most to live for, that has been the quickest to abandon habits (like smoking and being fat) dangerous to their own highly prized hides. Mondavi says he wants people to think of wine as "liquid food." Before he goes any further with that idea, maybe he should talk to the beef people.

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