In 1983, my idea of a perfect party involved Air Supply, Boone's Farm strawberry wine and my next door neighbor Doug. My best friend's more liberal mom would buy us a bottle of "wine" and set us loose for a few hours of drinking and making out. Within a year or two, Bartles & Jaymes strawberry wine coolers had hit the market and became the drink du jour for us trendy social girls. After that, Boone's Farm looked like, well, MD 20/20.
Wine coolers, in those days, came in just a few fruity flavors -- the most popular being strawberry daiquiri -- and they were a natural progression for us kids weaned on Slurpees and Kool-Aid. Coolers were as accessible as cola (sold in small packs of four individual bottles), fancier than beer (which only the stoner girls would actually drink) and gave you a buzz (it's still alcohol, after all).
I obviously wasn't alone in my love of the lowbrow concoction.
"Wine coolers," reports Gladys Horiuchi, communications director of the Wine Institute, "were the shooting stars of the 1980s." They reached their popularity in 1986 -- the year America drank 122 million gallons of the stuff. Sales have been decreasing ever since. A 13 percent drop in sales each of the last few years has left the current consumption of wine coolers at around 16 million gallons annually.
But if you think the beverages dubbed wine coolers -- a misnomer as they aren't always actually made with wine -- are out, think again. On a recent Internet poll of alcohol consumption, women under 21 chose Boone's Farm as their top choice, while Bartles & Jaymes coolers weren't too far down the list. Of course, this under-21 set might not have had enough time to develop a taste for real unadulterated wine, but continuing sales of coolers and growth in similar markets might mean that Americans -- particularly women -- are simply finding their cooler desires fulfilled in other, no-less-lowbrow, ways.
Take for instance Arizona Beverage Company's virgin coolers. Brought to us by the makers of Arizona Tea, Arizona's Pina Colada Virgin Coolers have been tasted by half the kids in America. Arizona Beverage even sponsors soccer teams and posts photos of Colada Cooler art on its Web site. And except for the negligible amount of alcohol -- 3.2 percent to be exact -- in Seagram's coolers, these are essentially the same products.
As Arizona's Virgin Coolers' popularity has grown, so too has interest in specialty drinks like cherry - flavored beer, fruit-tinged microbrews, alcoholic honey cider and homebrew wine cooler kits. Zima, the malt beverage meant to steal the beer crown from Bud, is really only stealing sales from traditional bottled coolers. Some small companies, like B.Y.O.B., have even begun making specialty wine coolers hand in hand with consumers.
"The wine coolers made at B.Y.O.B aren't from a prefabricated kit," says owner Daryl Radovich." It's been my experience that such kits provide a poor representation of a commercial cooler product, so we developed our own recipes. Using blends of real fruits and juices, combined with equal parts of wine, all of which is put through an in-line carbonation system, you get a 5.5 percent alcohol product relatively easily."
Radovich adds that the fresh fruit helps provide great aromas and keeps costs reasonable.
Even though sales of coolers have declined since 1986, the variety of coolers has actually increased. Seagram's unleashed a line of malt coolers, offering consumers "wild untamed flavor" and urging them to "let the fruit loose" and partake in the "boldest, most delicious taste you'll ever experience in a cooler." Indeed, the Wild line -- which includes Strawberry Banana, Watermelon, Fuzzy Navel, Kiwi Strawberry and Margarita flavored coolers -- offers up the richest, sweetest taste among modern coolers. I drank four last night. But, just like in 1986, I still think nothing can beat the thirst-quenching taste of a Bartles & Jaymes' simple strawberry daiquiri cooler.