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Weird, White, Toxic Tonics: A Look at Urban Wine Marketing

Naa Oyo A. Kwate is an interdisciplinary scholar and writer whose latest book is White Burgers, Black Cash: Fast Food from Black Exclusion to Exploitation (University of Minnesota Press, 2023). She is at work on a new book about the impact of corner liquor stores in Black urban life.


            A May 29, 1929 advertisement in the Los Angeles newspaper Evening Express depicted a stern-looking White man wearing a suit and a stethoscope. The copy proclaimed, “Your Doctor Recommends PADRES WINE ELIXIR For general run-down condition, convalescence, impaired digestion and spring fever. Medical authorities everywhere recognize the body-building, health-giving qualities of the phosphates and proteins contained in exact proportions in Padres Wine Elixir.” This early direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical marketing was undoubtedly a Prohibition ploy designed to meet one of the remaining legal means to purchase alcohol under the Volstead Act—physician-prescribed medicinal uses. A separate ad in the Santa Ana Register recounted an incredibly dubious product endorsement. An inset letter written by a laboratory chemist, asserted, “We have examined a sample of California Padres Wine Elixir Tonic secured by our Mr. R.H. Pinker at your warehouse, 845 North Alameda Street, on October 9, 1929, and find it to be free from Strychnine.”

Fleet of trucks, California Wine Tonic Co., Los Angeles, CA, 1931, Image # UC12047565, USC Libraries.

            Quite a low bar for “the PURITY” of Padres Wine Elixir: the absence of rat poison.  But the multipurpose health tonic disappeared from newspapers after Repeal—and presumably from drugstore shelves—so the American public would have to find other ways of keeping themselves sprightly. Lest contemporary wine drinkers laugh at the gullible Padres consumers (who likely recognized the “medicine” they were swilling for the legal dodge it was), they too have been caught in a ruse. For the past several decades, Americans have been glugging red wine for its vital cardiovascular health benefits, a premise researchers now view skeptically. In the years following Repeal, Americans continued drinking non-medicinal wine, but it took decades of societal changes and persistent marketing efforts from entities like the Wine Advisory Board to provoke a shift from sweet wines to table wines made from Vitis vinifera grapes. Since then, wine’s multifaceted marketing has covered a fascinating range of product sectors and populations, many of which have troubling intersections with race.

            Some drinkers only encountered marketing at the point of purchase, where it amounted to little more than placards for “ice cold” 20% wine, announcing that refreshment (or amelioration of conditions of emergency) could be had on the cheap. This pitch was made to the “winos” of Skid Row and other impoverished communities; the derogatory name cast individuals as a toxic physical embodiment of the drink. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel chides Clementine for coming home drunk, asking, “What are you like, a wino?” She bursts into scornful laughter, asking if he’s from the 50s. Indeed, the 1950s and 1960s saw much public consternation about winos and their penchant for high-alcohol fortified wines. In Minneapolis, a researcher conducting a survey of liquor outlets in the city’s Lower Loop held that it was the only place where “one [is] likely to encounter the question, upon buying a bottle of wine, ‘Do you want it opened?’”

Pedestrians and storefronts along skid row at 200 block of E. 5th Street in Los Angeles, Calif., 1967. Photographer: Oliver, R.L. January 30, 1967. Publisher: Los Angeles Times. Rights holder: Regents of the University of California. uclalat_1429_b589_235119

            Newspaper reporting from Skid Rows in several cities highlighted the copious wine consumption that occurred on streets and in flophouses. In Chicago, tuberculosis health education consultant George Sluka defined for a reporter the area denizens’ typical libation: “Wine is probably the most popular drink. It is a sweet wine, with ‘chemicals’ added to bring the alcoholic content to 20 percent in contrast to natural wines which vary from 5 per cent to 12 percent alcohol. It is inexpensive and brings a quick ‘buzz’ or ‘glow’ that sends them into an oblivion of escape.” It’s actually brandy, not chemicals, that increase the percent alcohol by volume, though there are no shortages of other chemical additives in these drinks.

Blood Donors Union members picketing a Skid Row blood bank in Los Angeles, Calif., 1973. Photographer: Cox, Bruce H. February 27, 1973. Publisher: Los Angeles Times. Rights holder: Regents of the University of California. uclalat_1429_b711_274041

            The exploitation that took place in Skid Row areas was rarely considered. For the most part, media covered the topic in a way that denigrated winos as disgusting and unable to fit in with respectable society. In Stockton, California, tomato harvesting was said to boost the population of Skid Row. At its peak, “men stupefied with wine continually sprawl on the sidewalks and in doorways, disheveled alcoholics retch in the street, and an endless procession of filth-encrusted wrecks shuffle back and forth leaving a trail of empty bottles.” Those bottles contained “sweet, stupefying muscatel,” on which these not-quite-human men could purportedly subsist entirely: “Many local Skid Row dwellers literally have not eaten in months. They can’t afford it. Wine comes first.” First-person testimony perhaps meant to evoke empathy only made them grotesque. James R. described social support among Skid Row drinkers, but it took the form of sharing dark port with men undergoing withdrawal: “I meet a guy and I see how he’s shaking. I know just how he feels.” Some men in the community were said to drink five to six bottles (fifths) per day. Marjorie V., aged 40, a woman who had had “too many babies when she was too young” and “became the family embarrassment” turned to alcohol and found that “When you’re on wine, you just lay on a bed or in the street with a bottle. You don’t even wash yourself. Wine is the very end.” It was a remarkable way to describe wine, considering today’s connotations of prestige and affluence.

A bottle of Wild Irish Rose in a pot of Wild Bergamot, Philadelphia. Photo staged by author, August 2021.

Fortified wine eventually branched out from the debased Whiteness of Skid Row and found a home at the corner liquor store in Black communities, heavily targeting Black men with few socioeconomic resources. Where once law enforcement in the early 20th century feared the hopped up, dangerous “cocaine negro”, alcoholic beverage companies seemed willing and eager to liquor up Black men with a drink thought to transform people into “crazy” and violent drunks. Beverages like Night Train, Cisco, Thunderbird, Wild Irish Rose, and MD 20/20 are products that, like those in apartheid South Africa, are “cheap if not palatable.” Made of low-quality wine fortified with distilled spirits (often citrus brandy), they retained the 20% alcohol by volume potency found on Skid Row. According to Black frequent consumers interviewed for market research, the drinks’ only value lay in its powerful and inexpensive route to intoxication.

Photo taken by author, Philadelphia Fine Wine & Spirits (state-run store) November 2019.

Despite the insipid MD 20/20 comprising maker Mogen David’s largest source of revenues, in 1983, the company was featured in a small-town newspaper about wine tourism. The article charitably described the drink as a “low-priced, non-Kosher fruity wine.” It also cautioned readers that no tours or tastings were possible, begging the question why it was included in an article about tourism. To be sure, there was little incentive for Mogen David to offer tours. Travelers would not find a compound like that of the nearby Johnson Estate & Winery. With a small red building blowing bunting of American flags, a shaded porch bedecked with decorative wine barrels and shrubs of an upright habit, the Johnson winery beckoned visitors to discover the charming secrets of viniculture. But the Mogen David facilities (now The Wine Group) today resemble nothing so much as a petrochemical plant. Internet street views reveal a nondescript facility with trailer bays, a weed-cracked parking lot, a chain link fence topped with barbed wire, and a short grassy moat. Enormous tanks, reminiscent of toothpaste tubes that might be used by giant extra-terrestrials, loom over other buildings, and the site is opposite an autobody shop and unmarked warehouses.

            The kinds of wine that might invite oenophile visits are scarce in the spatially distinct Black consumer market defined by American racial segregation. In more recent years, wine seems to be absent altogether from outdoor advertising; in the 1980s and 1990s, when communities battled a heavy saturation of alcohol ads, the wines advertised were of the ilk that signified “the very end.” In the early 2000s, distilled spirits were marketed in abundance, some sporting the same garish and unnatural colors of fortified wines. Altogether, outdoor marketing has long negated the possibility of connoisseurship. Instead, Black neighborhoods are stigmatized with retail reputations devoid of gastronomical expertise.

Photo taken by author in Central Harlem, June, 2005. The fine print on the bottles indicate that the products (“Blue Beast,” “Green Dragon,” and “Original Citrus”) contain Seagram’s Gin, fruit juices, and colors such as FD&C Yellow 5.

            This is not to say that fancy table wines are never marketed to Black consumers. But at least in some cases, such wine is packaged under Black celebrity, presumably a requisite cue of quality for the assumed ignorance of Black drinkers. Boyz II Men launched a line of wines with a Bordeaux domaine in 2020. Group member Nathan Morris believed that the rosé was the best seller by far, because the group’s audience is predominantly women; and women like the sweet taste of the rosé “flavor” (Rosé is not inherently sweet). As well, Morris opined that the rosé bottle was the prettiest of the three, showcasing tones of pink and gold; so if nothing else, it looked good on a shelf. Whether women are the primary buyers is unclear; but a fairly upscale liquor store in Brooklyn apparently believed that whoever else they might be, consumers of Boyz II Men’s wine were likely to be thieves—and therefore alarmed the bottle cap.

Photo taken by author in a Brooklyn liquor store, August 2021.

           Meanwhile, other winemakers have made criminality a product selling point. The label on The Criminal (Cabernet Sauvignon) from Alexander Valley, Sonoma County announces, “PROHIBITION: US VOTED DRY! Behind every law is a criminal ready to break it. Similarly, winemakers must push the boundaries of winemaking to produce wine so good it’s almost criminal. They thrive in a dark speakeasy and are interrogated by the light.” After describing the wine’s tasting notes, the copy concludes, “Not every rule creates a lawbreaker, but any law threatening wine this good will certainly create a criminal.” Couched within the frame of the rugged White outlaw, crime adds an attractively gritty essence to a beverage that is otherwise bourgeois.

Photo taken by author in a Philadelphia supermarket, June 2021.

Upping the ante is the 19 Crimes company, which deploys criminality in multiple ways, asking consumers to relate both to White outlaws and tropes of the criminalblackman. The product line includes varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, “The Warden,” and “The Banished.” Sommelier André Mack tasted the “CALI Red” and had this to say: “Ah ha! It’s a little bit of sulphur, it’s like a hair salon action going on here…” Mack later noted that the wine’s purple color was unnatural and nonexistent in grapes. Also, the wine tasted like cupcakes. CALI Red was one of two for which the brand used Snoop Dogg as the marketing lead. The other was CALI Rosé. Naming Snoop Dogg as an innovator and creator who “embodies the timeless values of the 19 Crimes rogues who came before him,” the marketing cheered, “Glasses up!” Interestingly, the website did not launch with age checks for legal alcohol consumption, as other companies do.

Photos taken by author in a Philadelphia supermarket, June 2021.

Other products at 19 Crimes are literally a world apart from gangsta rap-keeping-it-real Black criminality. Instead, they herald the British convict population that settled in Australia. Apparently celebrating the dispossession, desecration of land, disruption of culture, and death that colonizers visited upon indigenous populations, the brand describes its genesis as follows: “Nineteen crimes turned convicts into colonists. Upon conviction British rogues guilty of at least one of the 19 crimes were sentenced to live in Australia, rather than death…For the rough-hewn prisoners who made it to shore, a new world awaited. As pioneers in a frontier penal colony, they forged a new country and new lives, brick by brick. This wine celebrates the rules they broke and the culture they built.” While the brand seems to revel in the colonists’ masculine break with authority, the reality is that the British politicians who ejected the convicts sent along with them grapevine cuttings. Wine could be a profitable plantation crop in which the convicts could toil for the empire. Not only that, it would be part of a civilizing mission for working-class, law-breaking drunks who were tossing back too much gin and other spirits. The thinking went, “If we can get all these reprobates who we’ve sent to Australia to start making wine and drinking it themselves, a lot of the social problems that they were part of back in Britain will go away. They will become different people through the consumption of wine.”

Photo taken by author in a Philadelphia supermarket, June 2021.

For winemakers disinclined to embrace lawlessness, it remains possible to court a wide constituency of wine drinkers with the most anodyne, cheerfully bland projection of Whiteness. In February of 2024, Bon Appetit reported on a viral internet meme that deployed images of an unremarkable, mass-produced wine from Josh Cellars. Reportedly the biggest US wine brand priced higher than $10, its ubiquity as well as its presentation—“You just don’t expect to see a normie dude name in the wine aisles”—made it an easy target for jokes. Still, a “broadly appealing flavor profile” and a “delightfully common name” have made it an “everyman” wine.

            Would the same hold true if it were called “Jamal"?


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