Poured with Pleasure

Bill Marsano’s blog on wine and spirits and cocktails: "If it’s good in a glass, I’m pouring it."

Category: French Wine

Robo-Wine and Can-Can


Pennsylvania’s Liquor Control Board has installed experimental vending machines in a Wegmans store in Mechanicsburg and a Giant in Harrisburg, and could approve nearly 100 more this year.

Created at Prohibition’s end, the LCB was intended by then-Gov. Gifford Pinchot to ‘discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible.’ Credit Pinchot with a resounding success. The LCB offers legendary inconvenience, and prices? Don’t ask me. Ask the geographically privileged Pennsylvanians
filling trunks at loading docks in Jersey and D.C.

Thus the machines, which the LCB calls kiosks, are a consumer-friendly surprise, even shock.

The machine scans your driver’s license, passport or military ID to confirm legal age; if has a face-recognition feature, too. Then it asks are you blotto? Even a little? If its breathalyzer reads below .02, cheers! Swipe a credit card and pay the same price as in a state store. (The LCB says a ‘convenience surcharge’ may be added some day. Why are you looking so surprised?)

PAKioskFullView  Pennsylvania’s shiny new high-tech Garden of Earthly Delights: a vending machine for wine

International varietals dominate the 52 selections. Brands include Blackstone, Mouton Cadet, Clos Du Bois, Ravenswood, Campo Viejo, Ménage à Trois, Barefoot, Ruffino, J. Lohr, Francis Coppola, Concha y Toro, Kendall-Jackson,  Santa Margherita, Robert Mondavi, Cavit, Nobilo, Gnarly Head, Sutter Home, Woodbridge and Yellowtail.

Unlike the hair-tearing lunacy of LCB stores, whose operating hours seem to be all different all the time, the machines are consistent: 9AM-9PM Mon.-Sat., and some may eventually operate Sundays, too. Saints preserve us.

Problem? A HELP button connects you, live, to sentient carbon-based lifeforms—actual human beings. Say the breathalyzer bounces you: LCB Press Secretary Stacy Witalec says a state employee might then ask whether you’ve just rinsed with Listerine. If so, he’ll suggest trying again in 20 or 30 minutes. Turn-downs can easily occur because of the zero-tolerance .02 standard (PA’s DUI standard is .08). Jeez Louise! You could hit .02 after one beer, glass of wine or shot of whiskey. Or passing within a hundred yards of Lindsay Lohan.


Vending machines could also sell canned wine, were there enough to sell. In 1999 Francis Coppola introduced a sparkler named for his daughter Sofia, first in standard bottles, later in splits (straws attached), for casual sipping. Pommery Pop, Perrier-Jouët, Korbel, Piper-Heidsieck, Nicolas Feuillatte and others offered splits too, but in wee bottles. Sofia’s splits were actually in cans, which added a nice dose of publicity and shock value while expanding sales opportunities to poolside parties and other no-glass zones.

Still, consumers haven’t fallen like lodgepole pines for cans. Which are hardly new: Allan Green, owner-winemaker of Mendocino County’s Greenwood Ridge Vineyards, has collected hundreds of them. Some (e.g. those for the recent Aussie Wines brand) are new. One oldie recalls the Cold Duck Era or Dark Ages of American wine-drinking. Especially notable are the cone-top cans for Mother Goldstein’s ‘sacra-mental [kosher] wine,’ a Prohibition favorite.

WineCans  You doubted my word on canned Cold Duck? On Mother Goldstein’s, too? This photographic proof comes courtesy of Greenwood Ridge’s Al- lan Green, who is a prince. A prince, I tell you. 

The French Army of World War I was an entrenched can fan, so to speak. (As for World War II, I’m not sure. Did the French fight in that war?) Its poilus or G.I. Joes received rations of canned wine, rough-and-ready red (pinard) and white (vin blanc). They’re still with us, in a way: I’m told that British Tommies who were lubricated by generous French pals combined the words, and maybe even the wines, resulting in plonk. (It wouldn’t have been the first time for outre blends: Queen Victoria dosed her claret with malt whiskey.) At least the cans meant that no plonk was ever refused for being corked.

À votre santé by the liter: A French Army wine can, drab in color with a decidedly dusty robe. Photo from John and Beth, thedonovan.com|

Never mind wine. Mark Kirkland, president of Mark One Foods in Salt Lake City, is pushing his sandwich-in-a-can idea—the Candwich. His main problem is that he can’t catch a break. Does anyone acknowledge that his canned PB&Js offer both traditional grape and far-out strawberry? Give his BBQ Chicken Candwich a respectful nod? Applaud their shelf life, which he calls ‘excellent’? No sir. About the only ink he’s got thus far connects him unfortunately and innocently with an accused scam artist name of Travis L. Wright.

Wright’s wrong was to take $145 million from 175 or so investors and sink it not into real estate for a promised 24% return but in internet wristwatch sales, rose-petal greeting cards and—the Candwich. The deals seemed unduly fragrant, and in July the SEC, awakened from its dream of peace (i.e., decades of Rip Van Winkling past Bernie Madoff), filed a complaint. You can see their thinking, no? “Wright stole $145 million and owns a stuffed wildebeest. Madoff stole $68 billion but is our friend. GET WRIGHT!” Clearly the SEC has priorities.

So get this: Kirkland, entrepreneur and gourmet visionary, is beavering toward his destiny, seeking funding in complete innocence and honesty, when one day he wakes up to find his name connected with the dread phrase ‘film at 11.’

And the investors are branded as low-wattage types. Naïfs. Dolts. Blockheads. Or as one reporter delicately put it, ‘Utah has long endured a reputation as a place where many people are naïve or trusting to the point of losing their shirts.’ Less politely, Fools–fools in the Chief, in the Chevron and in the Quarter Fess. Indeed, Utah’s Division of Securities says scammers who some years ago promised $50 million payouts on $5000 investments recruited Utah investors not with gala dinners or fancy offices full of luxe furniture on one-week rentals but by sticking flyers on car windshields. Most of the money wound up in some Third Worldish country that begins with L and ends with a. (How many can you name?)

Nevertheless, as Kate Hepburn once said, Kirkland perseveres. He told me that he hopes to have the Candwich before an adoring public in a year. I wish him luck and you should too. The Candwich is an ornament of American inventiveness, like cheese-flavored dogfood and salad-in-a-cup. Besides: the beauty part, says my neighbor Basil Coulis, the grand dam builder and pastry chef, ‘is that it’s both sandwich-in-a-can and not sandwich-in-a-can. A paradox. A contradiction in tin.’ Exactly! Each Candwich contains sandwich makings. The PB&J provides individual bags containing a baked, bun-like object plus two squeezer bags, one of PB, one of J. And for lagniappe there’s dessert–the Candy Surprise Inside promised on the label. Spoiler alert: it’s a piece of Nestlé Laffy Taffy like the one pictured, which is made with genuine artificial banana-like flavoring. End spoiler alert.PBJcandwich_2 So here’s
my apocalyptic vision: Kirkland + LCB + saltines + cheese = Canape Candwiches. Yes. One day you’ll go off to an LCB vending 
machine and buy yourself a bottle or two of the Lumberyard Chardonnay, which has so much wood in it you could use it to kill vampires.

Then you’ll press the HELP button and ask the omniscient LCB staffer ’Which canned canape will pair best, do you think, the brie or the camembert?’ and receive the reply ‘Bor-r-r-r-inggggg! Either will do, but who cares? Ordinarily I’d recommend Adelegger from Baden-Württemberg or Swiss Tomme Vaudoise, but you’re such a pussy.’

Zut Alors! Etc. Ad Nauseam

Historically, no one is half so good at clobbering the French as the French themselves. Only recall the Terror and the Paris Commune—or the current pummeling of and in the wine sector.

France is beset by an outbreak of Puritanism, of all things. Health loons want the government to treat wine treated as if it were a drug and ban all wine advertising. In a show of strength, the loons sued a publication that had published a wine review, charging that it thus had encouraged drinking—and they won, too. The National Cancer Institute last year advised teetotal abstinence, saying even very moderate consumption greatly increases the risk of cancer–for some types, by up to 168%. (The High Council for Public Health later officially rejected that recommendation.)

Meanwhile, France’s wine industry is in CTD Mode—as in Circling the Drain. Exports are down 30% over the past 30 years. Domestic consumption is plummeting, especially among the young, and some of the elders who still drink wine are buying imports. That raises the hackles of the CRAV (Comité Régional d’Action Viticole), a league of vinterrorists as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel and just as shadowy, too. (But not overly so, though: they are on Facebook.)

CRAV members are free with their fists and explosives both. They dynamite stores, vandalize rail lines, intimidate shopkeepers, and burn vehicles and warehouses. And by the time les flics arrive they’re gone, safe on the far side of the Gadroon border. (When the cops are in time, they don’t actually do anything except watch, as they are unwilling to interfere with what they call ‘social protest.’) CRAV’s ‘protests’ emphasize their demand that Sarkozy save their hides. They want subsidies and price hikes. They want high tariffs that will bully their fellow citoyens into buying French instead of foreign. And if they don’t get the relief they want? The CRAV does not shrink from saying that there may be blood—and if so, that it will be the government that is to blame. Naturellement: to the nanny-state mind, government relief at someone else’s expense is always the answer.

CRAV fire  A CRAV house-warming in the south of  France: the Tea Party was never like this.


And now like a coup de foudre (bolt from the blue) comes the heresy of Valérie Pajotin, top cork of Anivin, France’s new international marketing arm. Export success, she advises/warns the vignerons, means wine must be made like Coca-Cola. And soon, too. What she means is that it’ll have to be a] an industrial product and b] a crowd-pleaser. In short, enough already with the art of wine-making; with the sanctity of terroir; with the magic of the cellar; with the old attitude ‘We make wine as we wish and you’re lucky if we let you buy any’. Pajotin was clear: To offset spiraling decline at home and abroad, get off ton keisters and make the kind of wine the customers want.

The elite producers—makers of the famous and legendary wines we love so well and can’t afford—will be immune of course, as will probably most of the mid-price crowd. They’re not the ones who can’t shift their goods. But the many who make low-priced stuff that people aren’t buying any more—and there are thousands of them—will be urged, persuaded, encouraged (and some fear forced) to sell their grapes to gigantic wine factories. The factories will then bung them together indiscriminately and produce tsunamic quantities of market-friendly wines priced to delight the glad consumer.

Vindustrial wines, in short, is what they’ll be. They’ll feature varietal labeling, consistent quality and value for money. Nothing fancy, nothing schmancy. Adieu, château names (probably including most of the 50+ that contain the name Figeac); appellations likewise. Instead, under the Vin de France umbrella (itself a replacement for Vin de Table), there are to be just a few readily recognized standard brands. Some will be blends from a single region—but a very large one, not some 500-cases-a-year plot beloved of those in the know. Others will blend fruit from all over France. ‘Assembling wines in this way ensures a consistency of quality which will retain consumer loyalty by offering a constant taste from 1 January to 31 December,’ Ms Pajotin said. ‘It is what happens with consumer brands, such as Coca-Cola.’

This is un coup en traître or stab in the back, some say; they decry the ‘dumbing down’ and even destruction of the AOC system. On the other hand, the legitimacy of not a few appellations is open to doubt. (Recently six on Bordeaux’s Right Bank applied for a new shared appellation that would make it easier to sell their wine. As one member explained, ‘we all make basically the same wine.’ So what were those six appellations all about?)

‘An end to AOC?’ says ‘Stretch’ Léotard, the noted ballet dancer and knuckleball artist. ‘Tant pis! No one even knows how many appellations there are, and yet they are always making new ones, like Bordeaux Premier Cru and Reconnaissance de Cru Bourgeois. They have resuscitated the old Cru Artisans and are about to give new names to four old ones. I wonder will it affect the prices, don’t you?’

Despite the howls, it looks as if Anivin will get its way. French governments are past masters of bureaucratic bullying. The only time they come up short is when the opposition includes labor unions.

Just as well, says my friend and stevedore Gros Tonnage, the rotund and orotund King of the Marseilles Piers: ‘Here in France, the idea of pleasing the customer is a novelty at the best of times and anathema the rest, so quite a few producers are going to get what les rosbifs call the “short, sharp shock.” It will do them good. Since it took them this long to recognize Coca-Cola, I can’t wait till they discover Deux-Buck Chuck.’

Maybe it will all come down to this:


Here endeth the lesson.

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