Recent reports indicate that beer and wine consumption in the United States fell for the third consecutive year. Experts attribute the decline to many factors, including health and lifestyle choices, particularly among millennials. However, one group that is not changing its consumption habits are the over 55 demographic: boomers.
Mister Boomer found the story of boomers’ connection, particularly to wine, vast and interesting. Alcohol of all types was manufactured in the U.S. from its inception. Indeed, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned distilleries. The European connection to booze runs deep. So it was a fatal shock to the alcohol manufacturing industry when Prohibition became the law of the land in 1920. For the next 13 years, it was illegal to manufacture and sell alcoholic beverages. Nonetheless, where there is a will, there is a way. People began getting doctors’ prescriptions for beer and brandy. Mister Boomer’s grandmother used to say, “For medicinal purposes,” every time she took the first sip of her brandy. He now knows this was a connection to her living through Prohibition. Then, organized crime stepped in to provide all types of alcohol to anyone looking to ignore the law.
When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the alcohol industry had to, in many instances, grow their businesses all over again. This was particularly true of the wine makers in the U.S. Vineyards that did not convert to becoming grape juice makers had to gro wine grapes from scratch. It took a couple of decades for the wine industry, then composed primarily of companies that were family owned, to get back on its feet. More than 800 wineries began the same year Prohibition ended. Among them was a company that was started by two brothers — Ernest and Julio Gallo. This company would play a major role in the consumption of wine by boomers in the coming decades.
Boomers showed a strong interest, and even reverence, for wine as reflected in the music of the era. From the early days of rock & roll, the topic of wine appears again and again. Take, for example:
Drinkin’ Wine Spo-dee-o-dee — Stick McGhee, 1949
An R& B guitarist, Stick McGhee adapted a chant he heard at Army boot camp into a boisterous song about getting drunk on wine. Written in 1947, it became a hit for McGhee when he recorded it in 1947. Jerry Lee Lewis was among the many musicians who professed a liking of the song, and recorded it. Lewis performed the song in his very first live appearance in 1949.
Kisses Sweeter than Wine — The Weavers, 1951
Though a love song, and not about wine per se, it exemplifies the comparison of kissing a love’s lips to drinking wine that became a repeated theme in boomer music. Written by The Weavers in 1950, it was a hit for the band in 1951. Later recordings became hits for Jimmy Rogers in 1957 and Frankie Vaughn in 1958. Peter, Paul and Mary released their version of the song in 1966, on The Peter, Paul and Mary Album.
Bottle of Wine — The Fireballs, 1967
Written by Tom Paxton and originally released in 1965, it’s another wine song that was recorded many times in subsequent years. This one, however, pointed to the dark side of wine consumption:
Bottle of wine, fruit of the vine
When you gonna let me get sober
Leave me along, let me go home
Let me go home and start over
Sweet Cherry Wine — Tommy James & the Shondells, 1969
This song became a drinking anthem of sorts for some boomers, despite Tommy James saying the song was about his Christian faith.
Sweet cherry wine, so very fine
Drink it right down
Pass it all around
So stimulating, so intoxicating
Sweet cherry wine
Spill the Wine — Eric Burdon & War, 1970
The song describes a sex dream in near hallucinogenic terms, where a naked man, surrounded by women of all types, is approached by a woman with a bottle of wine.
In her hand was a bottle of wine
In the other a glass
She poured some of the wine from the bottle into the glass
And raised it to her lips
And just before she drank it, she said
Spill the wine, take that pearl
Meanwhile, consumption of wine in the U.S grew exponentially with the Boomer Generation. By some accounts this rise directly corresponded with the majority of boomers coming of age, increasing more than 14 percent every year between 1969 and 1975. Vineyards noticed this boomer predilection for wine and produced products targeting the boomer demographic.
Ernest & Julio Gallo, already the largest supplier of table wine in the U.S. by the early ’60s, released Boone’s Farm Apple Wine in 1961. Within a few years, other flavors, including grape and strawberry, joined the product line. Many boomers will recall Boone’s Farm as the gateway to their underage drinking. Mister Boomer was not among them. He tasted Boone’s Farm Apple Wine only once, and he was of legal age at the time. Mister B was headed to an outdoor concert, and stopped for provisions at a store on the way. His date ran straight to the alcohol and grabbed a bottle of Boone’s Farm Apple Wine. “What are you having?” she asked as the two strode to the checkout counter. Then, as today, females drive sales of wine in the U.S. One taste at the concert was enough for Mister B; it reminded him of apple-flavored cough syrup.
Mister Boomer’s relationship with wine began with his grandfather, who made his own wine from the fruit of the grape vines that grew on a pergola in his yard. When the family got together for dinner on Sunday afternoons, his grandfather would dole out a half of a shot glass of his wine for each of his grandchildren, in keeping with the European tradition. Mister Boomer recalls sipping the wine through his dinner, an introduction to drinking wine at dinner by the age of seven. Mister Boomer was fortunate enough to have a sip of the final remaining bottle of his grandfather’s wine, ten years after his death. His grandmother had saved the remaining stock and distributed it sparingly among her children and grandchildren, one sip at a time for a decade. One of his grandfather’s shot glasses now has a place of honor in Mister B’s collection of family memorabilia.
What was your relationship to wine like in your early days, boomers? Did you ever drink Boone’s Farm Apple Wine?