Food by VICE

These Weird Booze-Knockoff Flavored Wines Are Showing Up in Gas Stations

Despite the products’ deceptive packaging, they don’t contain any vodka, bourbon, tequila, or gin.

by Jelisa Castrodale
Mar 5 2019, 11:21pm

Screenshot via WTVR

Last week, Melissa Marchionna, a digital marketer for Major League Soccer, tweeted some pictures of the player rosters in the Active Soccer game that is available on United Airlines’ inflight entertainment system. The game includes some all-star, trademark sidestepping knockoffs, which means that your team can be built around Lianel Messu, Wayni Roaney, or my personal fave, Clunt Dempsiy.

Meanwhile, the Sazerac Company has released the booze equivalent of Clunt Dempsiy, a line of “fortified wine beverages” that look like assorted liquors, without the flavor or… liquor of those real spirits. The labels on each of those bottles imitate the iconography and typefaces of more familiar brands of booze, which is why they’re causing double-takes in states where hard liquor is only sold in ABC stores.

WTVR explains that, despite the products’ sort of devious packaging, they don’t contain any vodka, bourbon, tequila, or gin. Each one is 21 percent ABV (42 proof), which is the state’s maximum for wine products. That means that this stuff can be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores, wedged between bottles of Cupcake Chardonnay and Johnny Bootlegger’s Sing Sing Sour Grape. "Everybody who comes over here is surprised. 'Oh, you guys start selling liquor?' I say, well, this is not liquor, it’s wine,” Trolley Market owner Shashi Zota told the station. “We're not so expert on wine, so the distributor brought it over here.”

And just like its ABV percentage, it seems like Sazerac’s packaging is toeing the line of what is and isn’t acceptable. Virginia law says that companies can’t intentionally mislead customers about what they’re drinking, which is why they all contain the words “grape wine with natural flavor and color” on their labels as well. But those words are under, say, a Russian-inspired eagle, or a drawing of an agave plant, or the very gin-centric words “London Style Extra Dry.”

Sazerac also seems to have instructed its copywriters to be as vague-but-legal as possible when writing the “notes” for each one of these products. “Named after a small town in the state of Jalisco, tequila is a Mexican staple that has been enjoyed around the world for generations,” it says of its Vera Cruz Reserva Especial Grape Wine, for example. “The beverage has undergone many changes since then, but tequila's distinct flavor has been central to Mexican culture for over a thousand years. Vera Cruz Reserva Especial embodies the unique taste that made tequila famous, and the essence of old Mexico itself.”

But—and this is a very, very important but—Vera Cruz does not contain any actual tequila, and since tequila has an ultra-specific designation of origin, Sazerac couldn’t use the word tequila unless it was made with blue agave and produced in one of five permitted Mexican states. (Sazerac knows this, because it owns Corazón, a legit brand of tequila.)

“[These types of beverages] are not new, they have actually been on the market for 40+ years,” Amy Preske, a Sazerac spokesperson, told MUNCHIES in an email. “Consumers are increasingly seeking out a variety of different beverages and packages in non-traditional retail outlets [...]These products can be enjoyed neat plus they also make a fantastic array of mixed drinks including screwdrivers, bloody Mary, with tonic, margaritas, colada, and with Coke.”

Well, questionable branding aside, how do they taste? Probably about like you’d expect. “[The whiskey-style grape wine is] very weak and artificially flavored,” one chef-turned-booze tester told the Virginia Mercury. “It’s never seen any wood or a barrel or anything like that. It tastes like caramel coloring and whiskey extract.”

But if caramel coloring and 21 percent ABV are all you need, get to the gas station of your choice. There’s probably a bottle of Old Westbury London Style Extra Dry Grape Wine with your name on it, especially if your name is actually Clunt Dempsiy.