The Weird and Wavy History of Wine Coolers
The bodacious bottled drinks once saw an explosion in popularity, then a backlash, and now, a surprise comeback.
Illustrations by Adam Waito
The other day, a friend asked me to meet her for a drink at The Wing, a women-only social club in Manhattan. She ordered us both something called Ramona; it was a bubbly, pinkish concoction with a zingy, fragrant grapefruit tang, and it came from a can, like a soda. It was delicious—sophisticated, even—but I knew exactly what it was:a wine cooler, a girly throwback rarely seen since the 1980s. Yet here it was, served as a featured bar item in this exclusive feminist enclave of creative capitalism. Could the wine cooler be making a real, actual, unironic comeback?
The story of wine coolers’ rise and fall fits almost perfectly into the pocket of Reagan-era America. The first wine coolers were sold in 1981. At their peak popularity, in 1987, wine cooler sales topped a billion dollars annually, and accounted for 20 percent of all wine consumed in the US.
But by the time of Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1992, they had gone nearly extinct, replaced by malt-liquor-based surrogates like Zima and St. Ides that delivered the cloying fizzy fruitiness, but without any actual wine. What had seemed like the Next Big Thing turned out to be a passing fad.
The original wine cooler was the California Cooler, a drink born in the salt spray and endless summer vibes of Southern California’s surf beaches. “The gang would get together on the beach in Santa Cruz, and I would mix together all these tropical flavors—pineapple, grapefruit, lemon-lime, white wine, and a little bit of club soda,” Michael Crete, the cooler’s inventor, told me. Everyone loved it.
At the time, Crete was working in wine and beer sales, and he saw an opportunity. He teamed up with his high school buddy, Stuart Bewley, who had a business degree and a knack for financial wizardry. They were both in their mid 20s then, easygoing but on the make, and natural salesmen. They spent a year and a half perfecting the formula, finding the right mix of fruit juices, wine, and carbonation to produce a citrusy drink with sunny, tropical feels. They packaged it in 12-ounce green glass bottles, with gold foil tops—kind of like Beck’s beer, Crete told me—and sold it chilled, in four-packs.
In the early days, Crete and Bewley did everything themselves: mixing up batches of cooler, filling bottles, drumming up sales, delivering cases to stores in a 1953 GMC pickup. Their focus groups were pool parties at Crete’s grandparents’ house, where they made a wide variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, including their new wine cooler, free for the taking. The next morning—“once we were done taking a few aspirin to recover from the party,” Bewley laughs—they counted bottles, tallying everything the revelers drank. “We found that a substantial number of people drank the wine coolers,” Bewley says. “They drank one and then another and then another.”
California Cooler took off like a rocket. Crete and Bewley had come from nowhere to sell 10 million cases in 1984. Bewley told me they had to build the “second-fastest bottling line in the Western Hemisphere,” spinning off 1,600 bottles a minute, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to keep up with demand.
The big booze companies were desperate for a piece of the wine cooler action. “[Ernest & Julio] Gallo was hovering their company helicopter over our plant,” Bewley recalls. “They had guys in our parking lot with binoculars, photographing how many trucks were coming in and out, trying to figure out what the hell we were doing. We’d bring them coffee,” he chuckles.
"There was a lake, a lake of wine in California, in 1981," Bewley recalls. “Every single [storage] tank in the state was full.”
Crete hadn’t invented the wine cooler out of thin air, of course. There’s a long history of wine as a mixer— in sangria and spritzers—but this combination had never before been available in bottled, convenient, ready-to-drink form. The rock bottom of the 1960s was littered with cheap bottles of flavored, fortified wines, like battery-acid-esque Thunderbird and “ring-a-ding” Ripple (whatever that meant). And fruity “pop wines,” such as Annie Green Springs, which came in flavors like “Cherry Country” and “Apricot Splash,” were a 1970s fad.
The California Cooler was something different. Compared with fortified and pop wines, it had a relatively low alcohol content (6 percent ABV). According to Jon Moramarco, editor of wine industry newsletter the Gomberg-Fredrikson report, health-conscious boomers coming of age in the 1980s were turning away from the hard-drinking habits of their martini-sipping forebears and looking for lower-alcohol options. Easy-drinking wine coolers, flavored with the goodness of fruit juice, particularly appealed to women. “It was the logical alternative to beer for the gals,” explains Crete. “It was a different flavor profile, but in the same package.”
California Cooler also benefited from dirt cheap wine prices. US wine sales had surged in the 1970s, but dropped in the go-get-‘em 80s, when a strong dollar made imports more competitive. That left American winemakers with a huge surplus. “There was a lake, a lake of wine in California, in 1981,” Bewley recalls. “Every single [storage] tank in the state was full.”
The cooler craze drained the lake of surplus wine, and is widely credited with stabilizing the California wine industry during a rough patch. Coolers, of course, didn’t require premium Napa vintages. They used Central Valley white wines—made from Thompson seedless, Tokay, and other miscellaneous grapes. “Basically, this was inexpensive bulk white wine that, if it didn’t go to us, would’ve gone into Gallo’s Chablis or someone else’s generic white blend,” Crete explains. He remembers their tagline—“the finest of California wines and natural fruit juices” — and laughs. “It wasn’t the finest of California wines, but it was pretty darn good.” In any case, “California Cooler was not for the swirlers and the sniffers.”
What California Cooler offered was a vision of life as an endless beach party. Now-classic TV ads, created by the legendary firm Chiat/Day, presented a dizzying montage of SoCal surf culture—buff hunks in swimming trunks with zinc-oxide-white noses, oscillating blondes in bikinis, dogs wearing sunglasses—to the deranged eephing breakdown from the Trashmen’s 1963 hit “Surfin’ Bird”: The message was that it didn’t matter if you were in Newark, Des Moines, Boise, wherever—you could drink up your little piece of the California lifestyle, spend your days getting gently buzzed on wine coolers, working on your tan, and waiting for that perfect wave.
In August 1985, four years after they launched California Cooler, Crete and Bewley sold the company to Brown-Forman, owner of Jack Daniels, Southern Comfort, and other spirits brands. A $140,000 initial investment had blossomed into a more than $200 million payout.
When Crete and Bewley cashed in, California Cooler was the top wine cooler on the market. But they were no longer the only game in town. There were now more than 100 different coolers out there, including dozens of local and regional brands. Just as wine coolers had bailed out the growers in California’s Central Valley, coolers also boosted winemakers in America’s less celebrated wine-growing regions, places like Silverton, Ohio (near Cincinnati), and Canandaigua, New York.
But it was the giant wine and spirits companies that came to dominate, flooding primetime TV with their ads. In 1985, Ernest & Julio Gallo launched Bartles & Jaymes with a series of ubiquitous TV spots featuring two endearing, elderly yokels, Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes, purported creators of the eponymous wine cooler. (They were played by David Rufkahr, an Oregon cattle rancher, and Dick Maugg, a California contractor. Crete told me that Frank and Ed were parody versions of him and Bewley. “There’s no doubt about it.”) They soon took over the top spot from California Cooler.
Seagram’s was a close second. Their pitchman was Bruce Willis, in his Moonlighting days, pre- Die Hard, back when he still had most of his hair and was basically a testosterone popsicle. He prances across neon New York in a white suit to a subterranean wine cooler club; he puts the moves on Sharon Stone, who coolly rebuffs him; he sings the white guy blues on a porch with a shaggy dog. “It’s wet and it’s dry”— that was Seagram’s tagline. Then there was Sun Country Wine Coolers, which recruited a truly primo roster of celebrities—Ringo Starr, Grace Jones, Charo, sometimes wearing polar bear costumes—for its bizarre yet compelling ads.
This is where the arc of wine coolers’ rise reaches its inflection point, and begins to describe the parabola of a jump over the shark. The first sign of trouble were the flavors. Crete’s vision for California Cooler was one “classic” flavor. “We wanted to be Coca Cola,” Crete told me, “not Baskin-Robbins.” But as competition heated up, wine coolers began throwing out new flavors: citrus, peach, apple-cranberry, mixed berry, passionfruit, strawberry, cherry. Were these new flavors the logical outcome of brand expansion, or the frenzied spasms of a dying category, spawning mutant varieties in the hopes that one would find its niche?
When the end came for wine coolers, it came fast. After 1987’s peak year, cooler sales fell by double digit percentages in 1988, 1989, and 1990. There was a mass die-off among the regional brands; there were even casualties among the big guys. Anheuser-Busch pulled Dewey Forman from the market two years after launch; Miller killed its ill-fated Matilda Bay cooler in 1989. Brown Forman wound down California Cooler in the early 1990s.
One group, however, did not give up wine coolers: underage drinkers. From the outset, public health officials had fretted that coolers—with the buzz of beer, but the taste of soda pop—were gateway booze for teens and preteens. “We think wine coolers are like training bras,” said the executive director of a national anti-drug nonprofit, in 1988. “It’s an introductory way to get kids involved with drinking alcohol.” Wine coolers soon became the drink of choice for prom pre-gaming and illicit teenage house parties. A 1991 government report estimated that 35 percent of all coolers sold in the US were chugged by high school juniors and seniors.
All this contributed to wine coolers’ declining reputation. They were no longer fruity summertime refreshments for fun-loving adults; they were starter booze that you’d better learn to outgrow, or accept that you had bad taste. Kate Baggott, a Canadian writer and author of the short story collection Love from Planet Wine Cooler, agrees. “For me, Planet Wine Cooler was a place between childhood and adulthood,” she explained in an email. “I am not sure if it was a good place or not.”
Taxes rang the death-knell for wine coolers. Due in part to increased demand for coolers, wine prices had begun to rise in the late 1980s, cutting into coolers’ profits. When the federal government increased excise taxes on alcohol in 1991—spiking the tax on wine from 17 cents to $1.07 a gallon—wine-based coolers became a losing proposition. Seagram’s and Bartles & Jaymes abandoned wine for cheaper malt liquor; other malt beverages, like Zima, Smirnoff Ice, and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, proliferated on liquor store shelves.
One index of gentrification may be the ease with which you can locate a four-pack of Bartles & Jaymes. I live on the same Brooklyn block where Biggie grew up, but the wine and liquor stores closest to me are precious, carefully curated jewel-boxes. I have to wander further afield, to a store with plexiglass around the register, to find Piña Colada- and Sangria-flavored Bartles & Jaymes, as well as a highlighter-pink 12-ounce bottle of Seagram’s Escapes, in a flavor called “Jamaican Me Happy.” Malt-based coolers inherited the baroque decadence of late wine cooler flavors, with their Day-Glo take on the tropics, and their strenuous invocations of other, more desirable drinks.
The new generation of wine coolers, however, would be perfectly at home in a bougie boutique wine store. The rising class of wine coolers—from brands like St. Mayhem, Hoxie, Pampelonne, and Blossom Brothers—cultivate an artisanal image, tracing their origins to vineyards and fine dining, rather than beach party blowouts.
In this weird recap of the 1980s that we’re living through—demented Republican president, rising economic inequality, Cold War-style tensions, the looming possibility of nuclear armageddon—is it any surprise that wine coolers are back?
Jordan Salcito, the creator of Ramona (“wine, but cooler,” is its tagline) has impeccable oenophile credentials. She has worked as a sommelier at NYC’s tony Eleven Madison Park, been the wine and beverage director at Momofuku, put in time in vineyards in Burgundy and Tuscany. She remembers chugging a cooler in high school—“it was the first time I saw Pulp Fiction,” she recalls of the night—but the real inspiration for Ramona was an Aperol spritz that she drank after a disastrous, sweaty harvest in Montalcino. She wanted to make that experience of an “oasis of delight” widely available, in ready-to-drink cans.
Ramona—yes, named after Beverly Cleary’s indomitable heroine—is kind of the Hegelian synthesis of lowbrow day-drinking hooch and highbrow cocktail culture. It goes down easy like pilfered white zinfandel at a teenage house party, but with a pithy bitterness and a sour-acid grapefruit kick; it’s made with organic Zibibbo grapes from Sicily. Salcito recently signed a deal with Whole Foods, which will begin carrying Ramona in its stores this summer.
The flavors of today’s bougie wine coolers tend toward the herbal, botanical, and bittersweet, catnip for the sophisticated, discerning palate. These wine coolers may not have that much in common, taste-wise, with the syrupy tropical citrus, peach, and wildberry flavored coolers of yore. But they share a similar sensibility with their precursors—a commitment to a good time, a refusal to take anything too seriously, an allegiance to chill.
History repeats itself. In this weird recap of the 1980s that we’re living through—demented Republican president, rising economic inequality, Cold War-style tensions, the looming possibility of nuclear armageddon—is it any surprise that wine coolers are back? Wine coolers celebrate the irreverent mixture; the lazy, afternoon buzz; the unapologetically femme.
All hail their second coming.