Flavored fortified wines
Flavored fortified wines (sometimes called bum wines) are inexpensive fortified wines that typically have an alcohol content between 13% and 20% alcohol by volume (ABV). They are usually made of grape and citrus wine, sugar, artificial color, and artificial flavor.
An early reference to the problem of cheap and poorly made wines is in the "Report on Cheap Wines" in the 5 November 1864 issue of The Medical Times and Gazette. The author, in prescribing inexpensive wines for a number of ills, cautions against the "fortified" wines of the day, describing of one sample that he had tried:
When the cork was drawn it was scarcely tinted, and was a very bad one – a thing of no good augury for the wine. There was no smell of port wine. The liquid, when tasted, gave the palate half-a-dozen sensations instead of one. There was a hot taste of spirits, a sweet taste, a fruity taste like damsons, and an unmistakable flavor of Roussillon [an alternative name in France for wine made from the grape Grenache]. It was a strong, unwholesome liquor, purchased very dearly.
Prohibition produced the Roaring Twenties and fostered more beer and distilled-spirit drinkers than wine drinkers, because the raw materials were easier to come by. But fortified wine, or medicinal wine tonic—containing about 20 percent alcohol, which made it more like a distilled spirit than regular wine—was still available and became America's number one wine. Thunderbird and Wild Irish Rose, to name two examples, are fortified wines. American wine was soon more popular for its effect than its taste; in fact, the word wino came into use during the Depression to describe those unfortunate souls who turned to fortified wine to forget their troubles.—Kevin Zraly, Kevin Zraly's American Wine Guide (2006) p. 38.
Concerns and media attention
While overtaken somewhat in the low-end alcoholic drink market by sweetened malt beverages in recent years, the appeal of cheap fortified wines to the poor and homeless has often raised concerns:
Community groups in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland have urged makers of fortified wines such as Wild Irish Rose and E & J Gallo's Thunderbird and Night Train brands to pull their products from the shelves of liquor retailers in skid row areas. In Nashville, Tennessee, one liquor store owner told Nashville Business Journal reporter Julie Hinds that police warned him to stop selling his biggest selling product, Wild Irish Rose, because it encouraged homeless people to linger in the area.—Janice Jorgensen, Encyclopedia of Consumer Brands: Consumable Products (1993), p. 492.
In 2005, the Seattle City Council asked the Washington State Liquor Control Board to prohibit the sale of certain alcohol products in an impoverished "Alcohol Impact Area". Among the products sought to be banned were over two dozen beers, and six wines: Cisco, Gino's Premium Blend, MD 20/20, Night Train, Thunderbird, and Wild Irish Rose. The Liquor Control Board approved these restrictions on 30 August 2006. The cities of Tacoma, Washington and Spokane, Washington also followed suit in instituting "Alcohol Impact Areas" of their own following Seattle's example.
In popular culture
Flavored fortified wines have appeared in numerous songs as well as other media forms.
Night Train made an appearance in The Blues Brothers (1980), wherein it caused Jake's head to hurt. In the 1996 film 'Trainspotting,' the character Begby is seen drinking a bottle of Thunderbird on a bus.
- Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac recounted in Lonesome Traveler (1960) trading a hobo a bottle of Thunderbird wine for an interview about his experiences.
Flavored fortified wine inspired the Guns N' Roses song "Nightrain", and ZZ Top (on Fandango!), Seasick Steve, (on I Started Out with Nothin and I Still Got Most of It Left), and They Might Be Giants (on The Spine) have all recorded songs titled "Thunderbird". The latter drink has been popular since the 1950s, at which time a popular rhythm and blues lyric went: "What's the word? Thunderbird / How's it sold? Good and cold / What's the jive? Bird's alive / What's the price? Thirty twice." Additional songs in this vein include:
- "Hard Times" (1971) by Baby Huey speaks of sleeping on motel floors and drinking Thunderbird.
- The Beastie Boys song "Hold It Now, Hit It" (1986) mentions Thunderbird in the lyric, "Peter eater parking meter all of the time / If I run out of ale it's Thunderbird wine."
- In a song named after it, Teenage Fanclub describes Mad Dog 20/20 as "the best girl I ever had."
- Rock band Clutch mentions Thunderbird in their song "Worm Drink".
- The single "Sweet Gene Vincent" by Ian Dury and the Blockheads mentions Thunderbird in the line: "Shall I mourn your decline with some Thunderbird wine and a black handkerchief."
- The song "Three Rings" by Insane Clown Posse also mentions Thunderbird.
- Songwriter Elliott Smith refers to MD 2020 wine in the instrumental song "Kiwi Maddog 20/20", on his album Roman Candle. He also mentioned Night Train in the lyrics of the song "See You Later".
- The Detroit garage rock band The Gories had a song entitled "Thunderbird ESQ".
- Townes Van Zandt sings a talking blues song reflecting on his experiences with Thunderbird entitled "Talking Thunderbird Blues".
- Pirate-metal band Alestorm includes a song entitled "Buckfast Powersmash" on their third LP, referencing Buckfast Tonic Wine.
- Gangster rapper Freddie Gibbs refers to Mad Dog 2020 in his song "Knicks" from his 2014 album Piñata.
- The song "These Boots" by Eric Church mentions Wild Irish Rose.
- The TV series Sanford & Son often referred to Ripple, as it was Fred Sanford's alcoholic beverage of choice. Fred would also say he'd mix Ripple with ginger ale and make "Champipple".
- An SCTV sketch from the late 1970s had John Candy's character Johnny LaRue being served Thunderbird in a French restaurant, when he was unable to afford the more expensive French wines on the menu.
- "Report on Cheap Wines". The Medical Times and Gazette: 547. 5 November 1864.
- Hector Castro (7 December 2005). "City could soon widen alcohol impact areas". Seattle Post-Intelligencer.[dead link]
- Alcohol Impact Area Information and Updates, City of Seattle website.
- Tacoma Alcohol Impact Area Press Release
- Spokane Alcohol Impact Area Press Release
- "My Head Hurts..That Night Train's A Mean Wine". bluesbrotherscentral.com. 22 November 2006. Retrieved 7 September 2012.
- Brown, Adam (9 June 2009). "Nectar of the Broke: The World's 5 Worst Ways To Get Drunk". cracked.com. Retrieved 23 July 2010.
- Jeff Elder (6 December 2004). "The bad wine that made a `ripple' in our culture.". the Charlotte Observer. Retrieved 10 October 2007.