Yes, Coca-Cola is related to wine. You might even say the world’s favorite cola owes its existence to wine.

In the mid 1800s ”tonic” wines were introduced. In 1863, a Parisian chemist, Angelo Mariani, combined wine with coca, short for cocaethylene (a drug made by mixing cocaine and alcohol – whew!). He sold it under the name “Vin Mariani” and the tonic drink became extremely popular.

Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Edison, and even Queen Victoria were among the millions who indulged in the tonic beverage.  Even the chief rabbi of France is quoted to have said, “Praise be to Mariani’s wine!

Witnessing the commercial success, Dr. John Pemberton of Columbus, George, created his own version. He called it Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, and produced it in Atlanta. In 1885, local temperance legislation forced John Pemberton to produce a non-alcoholic version. He removed the cocaine, pepped it up with caffeine-rich kola nuts,  replaced the wine with non-alcoholic syrup and Coca-Cola was born.


Where was the first successful American winery located? The answer is Cincinnati, Ohio.

In the mid-1830s, Nicholas Longworth planted a vineyard of Catawba on the Mount Adams hillside and began making a sparkling wine from the grapes using the traditional method used in Champagne.

From the 1830s through the 1850s, Longworth’s still and sparkling Catawba were being distributed from California to Europe where it received numerous press accolades. In the 1850s, a journalist from The Illustrated London News noted that the still white Catawba compared favorably to the hock wines of the Rhine and the sparkling Catawba “transcends the Champagnes of France”.

Another who was impressed was the famous Ohio poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was inspired to write Ode to Catawba Wine, which begins: “Very good in its way/ Is the Verzenay,/ Or the Sillery soft and creamy;/ But Catawba wine/ Has a taste more divine,/ More dulcet, delicious and dreamy.” (source-Wine Spectator)

At it’s peak, Longworth’s winery was producing 100,000 bottles a year with distribution to Europe and across the U.S. Unfortunately, by the 1860s, black rot and downy mildew struck heavily in the Ohio Vineyards. Little by little this prompted many up and coming winemakers to move to the Fingerlakes region in New York, which continues to thrive to this day.

Missouri also had a large wine region in the mid to late 1800s and was second only to California in wine production by the end of the century.


nicholas longworth

Nicholas Longworth

Maybe this is why we love wine so much.

According to a story on NPR’s The Salt, studies by Yale Neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd show the flavor of wine “engages more of our brain than any other human behavior.” That includes such challenging tasks as hitting a baseball or solving a complex math problem. The simple act of sipping wine involves a multifaceted interplay as molecules in wine stimulate thousands of taste and odor receptors, sending a flavor signal to the brain that triggers massive cognitive computation involving pattern recognition, memory, value judgment, emotion and of course, pleasure. I don’t know about you but that made me thirsty.

Taste + odor receptors + flavor signals + cognitive brain computation = Pleasure!

In Greek Mythology Dionysus was the god of the grape harvest, wine, winemaking, grape cultivation, fertility, ritual madness, theater, and religious ecstasy. His festivals were the driving force behind the development of Greek theater. He may have been worshiped as early as 1500 BC.


Marble statue of Dionysus on display in the Louvre Museum, Paris, France

To the Romans the god of wine was known a Bacchus. He was also the Roman god of good-cheer, hilarity, ecstasy, mirth and revels. It was written that Roman festivals thrown in the name of Bacchus, Bacchanalia, got a bit out of hand becoming scandalous, extremely colorful ecstatic events. Viewing them as a religious cult the Roman Senate prohibited the festivals. It is believed that thousands of revelers were jailed and even put to death.


Michaelangelo’s Bacchus on display at Bargello, Florence, Italy

You can find all kinds of paintings and sculptures based on both Gods of Wine and Bacchanalia in museums, libraries and Google Images. Be warned, they can be graphic…enticingly so.

Young Dionysus




Blame it on Climate Change

Following last week’s heatwave in France that scorched many vineyards, Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur have approved to allow seven heartier grape varieties to be planted in the tightly controlled region.

The varieties are Arinarnoa, a Tannat/Cabernet Sauvignon cross; Touriga Nacional, one of Portugal’s finest; Marselan and Castets, an older Bordeaux variety from the past;  and three whites, Alvarinho, Petit Manseng and Liliorila.

A Sign of the TimesBordeaux to allow seven new grape varieties

For the full story in Meininger’s Wine Business International click here.


In the past I’ve reported that grape growing and winemaking goes back approximately 6,000 years. But how many of those grapes enjoyed by the ancients still exist? Here’s new research presented by about ancient grape DNA & the history of wine.

Grape seeds dating back to medieval and Roman periods share many similarities with the wine grapes we enjoy today

Vin jaune, literally “yellow wine,” is not your typical French white. The rare wine is made in the Jura region of eastern France. It matures under a veil of yeast in a barrel for at least six years, during which time it develops a golden color and an intense, nutty aroma that apparently pairs well with Comté cheese. It also attracts hardcore wine enthusiasts. A 244-year-old bottle of the yellow stuff sold at auction last year for $121,000.

Now vin jaune has a new distinction. Scientists discovered that people have historically enjoyed the grape variety so much that it’s been cultivated for at least 900 years.

Researchers conducted DNA tests on 28 samples of grape seeds dug out of waterlogged wells, dumps and ditches at archaeological sites across France. The results, published today in the journal Nature Plants, show strong connections between modern wine grapes and those used as far back as the Roman period.

To propagate grapevines, farmers often use cuttings from a preferred plant to grow new, genetically identical vines. The practice means that, theoretically, the DNA of an ancient grape and a modern grape of the same variety should be the same. Though many wine varieties we know and love allegedly have ancient pedigrees, it’s hard to know whether the pinot noir or syrah we drink today is really the same type of wine that filled the cups of French monks or Roman magistrates.

Nathan Wales, of the University of York, and colleagues study DNA from archaeological plant remains to learn more about ancient agricultural practices. The researchers decided to look more closely at ancient grapes so they could compare the genetic information to a growing body of reference data for different varieties of modern and wild grapes.

Ancient Grape DNA & The History of WineWaterlogged Roman grape seeds like these were genetically tested to investigate grape varieties in the past. (Laurent Bouby / CNRS / ISEM)

Wales and his colleagues were able to sequence the entire nuclear genome of 28 grape seeds. One seed, pulled from a medieval cesspit in the remains of a monastery in Orléans, central France, was a perfect match with the modern savagnin blanc grape.

Not to be confused with the better-known sauvignon blanc, savagnin blanc is a white wine produced today in eastern France and parts of Germany. The same grape is also used to make vin jaune. The seed found in Orléans dates to 1050 to 1200 AD, several hundred years before savagnin blanc is even mentioned in historic texts.

“What that means is that this variety has been around for at least 900 years,” Wales says. “Genetically, it’s identical. It has been maintained through cuttings. We didn’t previously know how long different varieties were maintained.”

The researchers also found archaeological samples dating to the Roman period that were very close to modern grape varieties.

“We didn’t find [another] perfect match, but we can see that winemakers have maintained certain varieties for hundreds of years,” Wales says. “That gives us a new insight into the cultural relevance of wine and how long certain traditions can be maintained.”

For example, the team found genetically identical seeds dating to the second century in Roman wells at the sites of Horbourg-Wihr in eastern France and La Lesse-Espagnac in southern France. These seeds were just one generation removed from Mondeuse Blanche, a white grape grown today in the Savoy region. The connection means there was just one reproductive cycle in this grape lineage over the past 1,800 years.

Ancient Grape DNA & the History of Wine

The researchers also found that the Romans grew grape varieties in southern France that are closely related to the grape varieties grown today in the Swiss Alps to produce the white wines arvine, amigne and humagne blanc. The findings offer scientific evidence to support tales from folklore which hold the Romans indeed brought amigne to Switzerland.

The wine industry has a clear interest in assembling DNA data for grapes. Genetic testing helps root out misnomers and put to bed longstanding wine mysteries. For example, DNA tests of zinfandel show that this American favorite is genetically identical to Italian primitivo and that both are also identical to an obscure Croatian grape called crljenak kaštelanski. (For more details on this topic click to my post Carole Meredith Solves the Zinfandel Mystery)

Ancient Grape DNA & the History of Wine

The DNA data of ancient grapes is harder to come by, so the researchers collaborate with archaeologists in France working to excavate sites like monasteries, farms and Roman settlements where there is evidence of grape cultivation and winemaking. When the archaeologists find grape seeds, they freeze the organic material as soon as possible to preserve the DNA.

“This is a phenomenal dataset that they’ve been able to put together,” says Logan Kistler, curator of archaeobotany and archaeogenomics at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, who wasn’t involved in the study. “You can sequence all the genomes in the world, but unless you know what questions to ask, it just might not make sense. They were able to ask specific questions and get really cool, ‘smoking gun’ answers.”

It’s hard to know what the ancient and medieval wines would have tasted like, even if the grapes were genetically identical or similar to modern grape varieties. A host of environmental conditions can affect the final product, and winemakers have historically added other ingredients, like pine resin, to wine.

Wales and his colleagues also found some grape seeds that were not closely connected to any known varieties. Would it be possible for future scientists to resurrect a lost grape? “It’s ethically less complicated than bringing back the mammoth,” Wales says, “but I think you’d still have to have a good reason to do so.”

For now, we will just have to imagine what the wine of ancient emperors and abbots tasted like, perhaps while enjoying something of similar, if more modern, stock.

This story is by Megan Gannon

Compliments of SMITHSONIAN.COM 

Header photo by Jeff Davis

To get to the other coast? He’d be the first to do so? Madness? There could be a number of reasons, but it happened. Which leads me to wonder, why didn’t I hear about the wine barrel boat on the news? This is a major feat!

The Story

On May 2, French adventurer Jean-Jacques Savin became the first (known) person to cross the Atlantic without the aid of sail, motor, or human power. His vessel of choice? A giant, three-meter long “wine” barrel.

Savin’s voyage was sponsored by a number of French tonnelleries (coopers, barrel makers), along with other companies. The 72-year-old set off from the Canary Islands on December 26, 2018, and spent 127 days crossing the ocean in his craft Le Vagabond. The 3,125-nautical-mile voyage took slightly longer than expected after strong winds delayed progress as he crossed the west meridian and entered the Carribean.

For the final leg of his journey, Savin was aided by a Dutch oil tanker, which took him to the island of Saint Eustatius. Following two days’ rest, a tug boat then towed him to the shore of the French Carribean island Martinique, where Savin was met by his partner Josyane, and Dr. Pierre Galzot, the man who helped him organize the voyage.

During calm days, Savin passed the time reading, fishing, and playing the mandolin. He also enjoyed the occasional glass of Sauternes.

A Brief Celebration

In January, to celebrate his birthday, the Frenchman savored a special meal that would make many of his compatriots proud: foie gras washed down with a bottle of St. Emilion. Some might argue that Sauternes would have been the better pairing here, but it sounds like a great birthday meal, regardless.


photo: Jean-Jacques Savin /

For other images visit The Times.

Story Compliments of Tim McKirdy

Just off the southwest coast of Britain, 100 meters below sea level, lies a First World War merchant ship holding an extremely rare and valuable cargo.

Codenamed “Mercury,” the ship has laid on the seabed undisturbed for over a century, according to luxury adventure tourism company Cookson Adventures. Torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1918, Mercury was making her way to the U.K. from Bordeaux, carrying a precious cargo of Champagne, brandy, fine wine, and Benedictine.

The ship’s location was only discovered recently, and a team of divers has just completed an initial exploration of part of the vessel. According to Cornwall Live, the dive revealed “hundreds of intact bottles of vintage alcohol including Champagne, wine, and brandy.”

Though they’ve spent more than a century underwater, wine experts believe the darkness and constant cool temperatures will have helped preserve the cargo, and the wine should be drinkable upon its return to the surface.

That’s incredible news but it gets better…if you have enough $$$

Cookson Adventures is partnering with a team of marine scientists and wine experts to salvage the historical artifacts, and they’re allowing (paying) members of the public to join them for the adventure.

The next stage of the expedition will see submarines and remotely-operated underwater vehicles dive to the seabed to complete a further survey of the area and recover a few bottles.

Cookson Adventures hasn’t disclosed how much this is all going to cost, but private chefs and helicopter rides don’t come cheap. On the other hand, century-old Champagne…

The story is courtesy of Cornwall Live, and Written by McKirdy  Photo by Cookson Adventures.

Drinking with your dog

I saw a post recently that said “If I’m by myself enjoying wine and my dog is with me, does it mean I’m not drinking alone?” Well, get some Cat and Dog Wine and the answer is a definitive “No.”

Apollo Peak is making Cat and Dog wine with names such as Catbernet, Pinot Meow, MosCato, CharDognay, Malbark & ZinfanTail. It doesn’t contain alcohol but the cat wine does contain cat nip. Which means your feline can now join you with a tingly buzz.

I know you animal lovers enjoy pampering your loved ones so this is certainly something to consider if you don’t like to drink alone. It also makes for an hilarious gift for those feline and canine loving friends of yours. You can find them at

The post photo is compliments of Pinterest. The Cat photo comes from Apollo Peak. 

Drinking with your cat

Drinking with your dogDrinking with your dog


Saint Junipero Serra

In early America the indigenous grapes on the east coast didn’t make good wine. As a result, the early colonists imported European vitis vinifera vines, like Cabernet Sauvignon. They were so determined to make wine a 1619 Virginia law required every male in Jamestown to plant and tend at least 10 vines. However, the lack of experience, new vine diseases, and that troublesome Phylloxera pest led to the experiment ending in failure. Interest in winemaking faded and cider, beer and whiskey became a favorite.

But, alas, the first wine appeared in California less than a hundred years later.  Roman Catholic priest, now a Saint, Junípero Serra and his padres brought wine and the vines to San Diego California in 1769. The grape brought is known to us as the Mission Grape. It is a varietal of the desired vitis vinifera that the colonists found to be a challenge to grow. Spanish Missionaries used the grapes for making sacramental, table, and fortified wines. It was the only grape grown in California until the 1830s when European settlers in Los Angeles added some classic European varietals to their vineyards.

Saint Junipero Serra

Saint Junipero Serra

Madeira Wine, which hails from a Portuguese island off the African coast, has a rich history here in the United States.

When it came time to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, this is the wine that filled the Founding Fathers’ glasses, and it is believed that George Washington celebrated the British leaving New York City with the fortified wine.

Workers at the Liberty Hall Museum in New Jersey recently discovered three cases of the stuff dating from 1796 — too young to be the wine that Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams raised for their toast, but old enough that they might have sipped it a few years later.

There was a time you could find it prominently displayed on the top shelf of any reputable drinks shop, it was that popular. That’s not the case anymore. Aside from the competition of Port and the growing dessert wine category, the other reason is there’s not a lot of Madeira wine produced. Vineyard land is not plentiful on Madeira, about 500 hectares in total cling to the steep mountainsides, astonishingly just enough to provide raw material to eight producers. To me, that makes it a very good reason to have some on hand to raise your guest’s eyebrows. But don’t let its reputation for sweetness steer you wrong. Drier Madeira, like a sherry, is pretty versatile and might surprise you.


Madeira Wine

If you listen to my radio show or podcasts you’ve heard me mention wine regions as AVAs. American Viticultural Areas are federally designated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (the TTB).

Would you believe the first official wine region designated as an AVA was in Missouri?  Yep, on June 20th, 1980. The Augusta AVA encompasses 15 square miles around the city of Augusta near the intersection of St. Charles County, Warren County and Franklin County. I find this of particular interest as I grew up outside of St. Louis, about 45 minutes from Augusta.

What prompted that decision?

In 1859, Georg and Friedrich Muench founded one of the earliest wineries in the area, Mount Pleasant Winery. Flooding in the Missouri River valley caused the river to change course in 1872, drying up the area’s riverboat landing leaving behind a distinct soil type between the town and the river. You guessed it, that made for ideal conditions to grow grapes for wine.

America's first official wine region

You may be surprised to hear that Missouri also had some of the earliest winemaking successes, dating back to 1837. By 1848 winemakers there produced 10,000 US gallons per year, expanding to 100,000 US gallons per year by 1856.

In case you’re wondering, Napa Valley received the second AVA distinction just eight months later.


Most of the world’s well-known wine varietals derive their name from the location where they were discovered or made famous. Not Merlot.

The name traces its meaning to a word of the dialect of Occitan called Gascon. This relatively obscure Romance language is closely related to Catalan and still spoken in a few regions of France. The Gascon word merlau refers to a ‘little blackbird.’ Whether this refers to the color of the Merlot grape or its popularity while on the vine with small birds is an open question.  Be sure to bring that up the next time your sharing a bottle with friends.

The Origin of the Name "Merlot"

Compliments to for the following story.

As WWII drew to a close, and Adolph Hitler committed suicide, American and French armed forces closed in on the Führer’s compound in the Bavarian Alps. The American 3rd Infantry Division and the French 2nd Armored Division raced to the resort town of Berchtesgaden. The alpine village was home to vacation villas belonging to high-ranking Nazi officials, Hitler’s residence, The Berghof, and the Eagle’s Nest (Kehlsteinhaus), which was furthest up the mountain.

The allure of capturing Hitler’s personal hideaway was only part of the reason the Americans and the French each maneuvered to make it there first. As the Nazis rolled over Europe they carted all sorts of war spoils back to Berchtesgaden – fine art, jewelry, gold, currency, and a lot of wine. Berchtesgaden was believed to be home to hundreds of thousands of bottles of wine, including the best of the pilfered bottles. To the French, reclaiming the wine was a matter of particular pride, so as both armies closed in on Berchtesgaden, orders were overlooked; first the French and then the Americans attempted to sprint ahead of or around each other.

It’s believed that the French reached the final prize, the Eagle’s Nest, before the Americans (though the American’s may have let that occur according to some sources). After an arduous climb to the top, the French discovered roughly half a million bottles of wine, some of the finest vintages of Bordeaux and Burgundy, rare ports and cognacs, and massive quantities of Champagne.

The Eagle’s Nest was connected to the complex below by a 407-foot car-sized elevator shaft, which had been blasted out of the mountain itself. Fleeing German troops had destroyed the elevator – which led to an interesting question: How do you get hundreds of thousands of bottles of wine down a steep mountain. According to Wine & War, Donald & Petie Kladstrup’s fascinating history of wine and WWII, the answer was a convoy of medical stretchers.

With help from the Alpine team, the stretchers were carefully lowered a few hundred meters from the peak to where pairs of stretcher-bearers waited below. The stretchers were then carried slowly down the mountain to where tanks, trucks and other military vehicles were waiting.

Soldiers stripped their tanks and trucks of everything that was not essential, tossing out clothes, tools, even extra ammunition, to make room for the new cargo. Some of the men emptied their canteens and refilled them with such legendary greats as Latour ’29, Mouton ’34 and Lafite ’37.

The race to hitler's wine

Enjoying the sweet taste of victory at the Eagle’s Nest

In the ancient world wine was carried in what were known as wineskins. These handy liquid vessels, similar today’s bota bag pictured above, were made of animal skin, especially pig skin. The skin was thoroughly cleaned, tanned, and finally turned inside out so that the hairy side remained inside. Wine was then stored in it with the animal hair staying in contact with the wine. I imagine the ancient people were constantly pulling hair out of their mouth. But hey, at least they had wine.


What is a vintage wine?  It’s the wine made out of the single year’s harvest, the date on the label is the vintage. It does not indicate the year the wine was bottled.

Non-vintage wines are those produced by mixing harvests of two years or more. On occasion you’ll see NV on the label marking the distinction.  This is a common practice with Champagne and sparkling wine producers as winemakers provide a continuous house style through the blending of various vintages, to create the yearly non-vintage Champagne.

It’s not uncommon to see vintage year sparkling wines in California. However, in the Champagne region of France, vintages are generally produced three or four times a decade. This represents less than 5% of total Champagne production.

Vintage and Non-Vintage Wine

As you see, the vintage of this Lanson Champagne is 1998

Vintage and Non-Vintage Wine

This label does not indicate a year which would suggest a non-vintage Champagne

I should note, often a vintage date may appear on the foil of the bottle or on an attached tag,
especially these days with screen printed wine labels.

As you see here, Lanson does put their vintage dates on the label so it is likely the Black Label is a
non-vintage Champagne. As it turns out, Black Label was chosen to indicate a specific non-vintage Champagne they bottle to honor the long relationship it has with the British Court.

For centuries the French monk Dom Perignon was thought to have invented champagne in the late 1600s. However, the facts are as grounded as the bubbles in the wine itself.  Dom Perignon he was cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvilliers but there is no evidence that he was the first person to taste sparkling wine. Additionally, his famous quote, “I am drinking the stars!” also is false, with the first documented mention of that line appearing in an advertisement in the late 19th century. But to give credit where credit is due, it is said he was the first to use cork as a bottle closure.

Interestingly, the first sparkling wine is considered by some wine historians to have been invented by Benedictine Monks in the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, near Limoux, in Languedoc in 1531, almost a hundred years before Dom Perignon was born. Research has been unable to unearth any exact date of the creation of sparkling wine using, what is referred to today as méthode Champenoise…with one exception.

An English scientist, physician, naturalist and metallurgist is said to be the first to document “How to put the fizz into sparkling wine” in 1662.  The scientist, Christopher Merrett of Winchcombe was the first person to describe the second fermentation process and use the word “sparkling” when referring to the end product, says Winchcombe historian Jean Bray. The fine English residents of Winchcombe in the Cotswolds, U.K. are so convinced Dr. Merrett was the first to create sparkling wine they have installed a plaque in his honour. (Yes, that’s honor with a “u” out of respect for the locals)


Did you know that King Tut’s journey into the afterlife included wine?

When King Tutankhamun’s tomb was sealed in 1322 B.C. there were approximately 26 amphora, or jars, of wine included. These were found when the tomb was opened in 1922. Following a study by Spanish scientists in 2004 it was determined they contained both red and white wine. This predates Egyptian white wine references by about 1500 years. It was presumed only red wine was made in the region. Surprisingly, the amphora were labeled with the year, the name of the winemaker, and vineyard, even comments such as “very good wine.”


How It Works

The world’s oldest wine bottle is believed to date back to the year 325. It was found near the town of Speyer, Germany, in 1867.  Believe it or not, it is unopened and contains 1.5 liters of liquid, which is the exact same amount as Magnum in today’s world. The bottle was discovered during an excavation of a 4th-century Roman nobleman’s tomb which contained the bodies of a man and a woman. The man, believed to be a Roman Legionnaire, was holding the bottle. No doubt a treasured wine he chose to take with him on his journey to the after world. The bottle is on display at the Historical Museum of Pfalz, Germany. If I had the chance to taste it, would I?  Mmmm…no.

Oldest Bottle of Wine

I came across this fascinating story from John Capone via Quartz Media ( It answers a question I never thought to ask.

That unsold bottle of Merlot is probably winding up in your gas tank

The first thing you notice is the smell. An acrid eau-de-wet-garbage mixed with electrical fire and burning diesel. Mad Max meets scratch and sniff.

Breweries and distilleries have a distinct aroma, like moist bread. The backrooms of gin distilleries can fill with the scent of cardamom and juniper and smell like a Silk Road spice cart. During harvest season in Napa, the work of yeast fermenting wine permeates the whole valley.

Despite the presence of fermentation tanks and mega stills, this place smells like somewhere all those things would go to die. It is. It’s where the dregs of every vodka still and every 9-year-old barrel-aged small batch bourbon expire. It’s where all the watery beer that didn’t end up at frat parties does its final keg stand. And it’s the fate that awaits the wine Robert Parker spits and finds not up to snuff, and where cases upon cases of merlot likely were sent after the pinot-pocalypse that was Sideways.

The life of a California wine starts with such promise.

From a vineyard in Napa, a bottle of red can travel to a five-star restaurant in Manhattan, or a well-heeled dinner party in Tokyo. But for some unlucky vintages, it’s a quiet drive more than 400 miles south down the coast of California, to Parallel Products, where, in a facility surrounded by scrub brush, scrap heaps and festering waste ponds, a bottle of fermented grape juice can be dumped into modified stills and converted into fuel-grade ethanol.

Commercial distilleries have been churning out ethanol as far back as World War II, but ones that turn our waste alcohol into fuel are relatively new.

Those forlorn wines turn east at Los Angeles and head 40 miles more down the San Bernardino Freeway ending up in Rancho Cucamonga, on the outskirts of the suburban sprawl that extends basically unabated from where Malibu hits the water. Palm tree-lined shopping developments full of In-N-Out Burgers, tanning salons and Sam’s Clubs, punctuated only by massive car dealerships (five or six at a stretch) and the occasional meth lab, quickly give way to scrub brush, scrap heaps, and festering waste ponds and the end of the line for the cast offs of the beer, spirits and wine industry.

How I ended up here standing on the roof of a rented Dodge in the dark, damp, Rancho Cucamonga night amid car-eating steel separators and monolithic humming electrical towers pointing a camera at rusted fermentation tanks in a junkyard speaks to the very reason for the facility’s existence—the last stop in a side of the wine world nobody ever thinks much about.

This is the home of a company that might not manage the trick of turning water into wine, but turns wine into fuel-grade ethanol on a large scale. At the gate, you’d be forgiven for worrying your lungs might be seared by whatever noxious odors assault your olfactory senses, next to the sign warning you of the presence of detectable amounts of chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects and other reproductive harm.

With a guard standing behind him, a manager declines my request to tour the grounds. He’s sorry, he tells me, but “we destroy some products here that the brands don’t want people to know about.” Then adds, “Believe it or not.”

It is one of two ethanol recovery facilities operated by 30-year-old Parallel Products and where it turns the West Coast’s distillery waste and unsellable (or “distressed,” in industry parlance) wine, as well as beer and corn syrup-rich soft drinks into fuel. A similar company, MXI Environmental, took large shipments of Four Loko, the banned alcoholic energy drink, at its Virginia facility a few years ago.

These companies portray themselves as greenwashing saviors producing “waste-derived renewable fuels.” An ad for Parallel’s services in Beverage Industry News asks, “What’s important to you? Security… Brand Protection … Tax Recovery… The Environment?” over a backdrop of green grass, a tree and the sky. This is a face of the energy industry to which we’ve become used. But Parallel isn’t quite an energy company, is it?

The company purchased the facility in Rancho Cucamonga in 1979 from E.J. Gallo—this area of scorched earth was once a wine producing region. Parallel modified and added to the existing fermentation tanks and stills on the property, which dates back to the 1800s as a winery. It’s now fitted with the means for destroying the products it once created.

Parallel Products

Not exactly water into wine. (John Capone)

Not far from Parallel’s smoking skyline, wedged between power generators and warehouses for big box retailers, are the remnants of an old vineyard. Gnarled Zinfandel vines twist only a couple of feet off the ground just down some abandoned railroad tracks from Parallel’s clanging work.

The main products destroyed at Parallel are either waste from the distilling process (commonly known as the “heads” and “tails” of each batch—this is the part you throw away unless you want to go blind), or “distressed surplus” beverages. According to its website “Each year, Parallel Products receives and recycles over 13 million cases and 3 million bulk liquid gallons of unsaleable beverage products.”

So just how does a wine become “distressed?”

Despite idyllic visions you may have of Peter Mayle lounging in verdant idylls in Provence, winemaking is a tough business and its consumer a constantly moving target.

In the wine industry, when your product outweighs your demand, there are few ways to legally dispose of it. With permission from the state, pouring it down the drain at specially equipped public facilities is one method, but when it’s already bottled and labeled, there are prohibitive labor costs and headaches involved. And somebody might see you do it.

In another industry, a producer might just slash its prices, but in the wine market, if last year’s $20 Merlot is selling for $10 this year, brand reputations can suffer irreparable damage and affect the value of future vintages. In some instances, the discovery that you’ve been dumping product can be just as damaging. When nobody wants you, the last thing you want is for the market to find out that nobody wants you. And so Parallel, a place that processes skunked beer, tainted liquors and flat colas into gasoline additives, becomes an attractive option for a perfectly palatable Pinot.

Overproduction, due to the long lead time involved, is a notorious problem in the wine industry, according to Robin Goldstein, author of The Wine Trials and Principal Economic Counselor at the University of California Agricultural Issues Center, who has long studied wine economics and trends. According to Goldstein, “It’s always been a risk factor and cost of doing business,” and it’s becoming more difficult all the time. The problem, he says, is that producers tend to overreact to short-term trends. Even under the best of circumstances the wine market is unpredictable, with a huge amount of guesswork involved and the years it takes for newly planted vines to come to maturity.

Not least of the contributing exigencies of managing inventory is factoring in the pronouncements of a few influential critics and scorers, such as Robert Parker or Wine Spectator.

In France, Beaujolais nouveau producers actually successfully sued a critic from a French magazine who anointed their wine “vin de merde” (or “shit wine”).

On this side of the Atlantic things are a little different (as are libel laws), with a few powerful critics more or less having their ways with domestic producers. “The undue influence of wine critics and 100-point scores has a really negative effect on producers in general, but especially on producers’ ability to manage inventory from year-to-year and to not overproduce.” says Goldstein. The problem arises, “when you have scores that are being assigned fairly arbitrarily in an unscientific way—as has been shown again and again by economists and neuroscientists,” including in work done by Goldstein himself.

“The human palate is so fickle,” he says, “and critics are influenced by extrinsic factors and often don’t taste blind, so the evaluation of the wines is an unfair process, but can have a huge influence on the market.”

Demand and large orders can skyrocket for a wine that gets a Parker score over 90. Dramatically increased production for the next crop, of course, follows. When Parker goes to taste the next year’s vintage, let’s say, he gets stuck in traffic on the way or has a toothache, and gives it an 88. Overage—faster than you say “ton merde.”

“The most notorious example is known as ‘The Sideways Effect,’” Goldstein says, referring to the fervor for pinot noir and disdain for merlot immediately following the Paul Giamatti movie. How did Hollywood throw the market into a tizzy? There have been serious academic dissertations written about this.

In the Oscar-winning 2004 film, Giamatti’s character, Miles, famously has a penchant for Pinot Noir, and is emphatic that he is “NOT drinking any fucking Merlot.”

Winemakers were blindsided. While stock in Pinot suddenly skyrocketed, demand for Merlot plummeted. By the time the wines came to market, the demand was, of course, no longer what it had been.

“It took years to adjust,” said Goldstein.

Parallel Products, however, you can be sure, churned out plenty of ethanol made from Merlot in the following years. And for years after, when the demand for Pinot came back to earth, Parallel Products surely had a whole new source of raw material, making Pinot-fuel for your Prius.

Follow John on Instagram at @startedoutonburgundy

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