Tales of the Winetail

Jeffery Lindenmuth / December 2007

Thirsts for past pleasures and new mown profits are generating a lively Renaissance in vinous concoctions.

The time has come again for wine in cocktails, and again, and again. While most people think of cocktails as the domain of distilled spirits, in reality, wine has played a role in mixed drinks since their emergence. From fortified wines like vermouth, a must for any Manhattan or Martini, and Sherry, common in eggnogs, flips, and punches, to sparkling wine, whether fizzing in a Champagne cocktail or topping a French 75, and even still wine, the foundation for traditional cobblers, cups, and sangarees, wine has always supplied high caliber weaponry to the mixologist's arsenal.

To make a cobbler, for instance, 19th century barman Jerry Thomas, depending on the wine, combined between one teaspoon and one tablespoon of sugar with bits of fruit or citrus peel in a goblet filled with shaved ice, then topped it with wine. With a quick stir, the addition of a heap of fresh berries and a straw, the drink resembles an adult snow cone. According to Thomas' bartending contemporary Harry Johnson, the Sherry cobbler in particular was one of the most popular drinks of the 1880s, adored by men and women, old and young. With wine now the most preferred drink in America, still wine is appearing in ever more drink creations, lending its moderate alcohol, food affinity, and complexity of flavor to the mixing glass.

Occasionally, as at The Little Owl in New York City, wine cocktails are the mandate. "We found this great space, across the street from PS3. Within 200 feet of a school or church you can only sell wine and beer, not hard spirits. It's the law, and we have to accept it," says co-owner Gabriel Stulman, who rotates a list of three wine-based cocktails, in an effort to placate downtown Martiniphiles. "We had this great wine and beer selection, but classic cocktails were missing. Joey Campanaro [chef/co-owner] and I were thinking about it and decided we could make cocktails within the confines of our license," says Stulman. Their answer to the classic Pimm's Cup is called the Duke of Bedford, named after their West Village street. By substituting Sherry for gin, bitters and San Pellegrino Aranciata for Pimm's No. 1, then layering with sliced cucumber, fresh mint, and diced strawberries, the drink has all the refreshing quality, and much of the flavor profile, of the original. Le Petit Hiboux combines Lillet Blanc, white wine, and apple juice, shaken and served straight up. According to Stulman, wine cocktails now outsell beer at The Little Owl.

Similar to a cobbler, the sangaree, another historic sweetened wine drink, is unsimilarly shaken and strained into a highball glass, then topped with nutmeg. Like cobblers, sangarees were traditionally called for by a specific wine, whether claret, Sauternes, Sherry, America's own Catawba, or on occasion even a dark beer like porter.

Tad Carducci, who offers several wine-based cocktails at the Pluck­e­min Inn in northern New Jersey, combines sangaree with a modern classic in his Sangareeto. "This cocktail is essentially a combination of a sangaree and a Mojito. The mint and citrus lift the spirit combination and play off the wine's vibrant acidity," says Carducci, who prefers to mix the drink with a young, fruity Dolcetto or Barbera from Piedmont. He muddles a few mint leaves with one slice each of lemon, lime, and orange. Next, he adds crushed ice and 1/2 ounce each of 10 Cane Rum, Cognac, and Cointreau, then tops the glass with more crushed ice, 3 ounces of red wine, and fresh mint.

Brian Van Flandern, consulting mixologist at the legendary Bemelmans Bar in The Carlyle hotel in Manhattan, serves a similar drink called the Burgundy Mojito. Van Flandern follows basic Mojito proportions of simple syrup, lime, and mint, using 1 ounce 10 Cane Rum and 1/4 ounce Appleton spiced rum as the spirit, along with 1/4 ounce of cassis. He substitutes red Burgundy for soda to complete the drink. "The Burgundy changes the color and also ties it together. You really want a Burgundy, not a California Pinot Noir, because it offers earth and mushroom flavors. It's sort of a Mojito Sangria." At Asia de Cuba at Mondrian LA, the Portuguese Mojito, made with Stoli Vanil and garnished with a telltale Concord grape, takes on a similar hue from the addition of 1/4 ounce of Port reduction.

Perhaps nowhere is the line between wine and cocktails blurred with such joyful abandon as it is near to wine country. At Duggan McDonnell's San Francisco culinary cocktail destination Cantina, Cabernet Sauvignon, Vouvray, Muscat, and Sherry all mingle freely with ice and spirits. McDonnell looks to the pre-Prohibition golden age of drinking for inspiration. "Cocktails were lighter and brighter then, made up of more fortified wines and apéritifs, compared to the heavy booze-laden Martini bombs of today. These drinks demand a more sophisticated palate. If the modern cocktail trend is going toward an increased awareness of the past, using wine in cocktails is the future," says McDonnell. Indeed, while the dry Martini used to include as much vermouth as it did gin, over the decades the spirit component slowly pushed out the fortified wine, leaving vermouth as mere fodder for dry Martini grandstanding.

McDonnell's creations include several takes on the classic Caip­i­rinha, including a Blackberry/Cabernet Caipirinha, using Caber­net/Malbec wine, served by the pitcher, and a Cucumber Caipirinha. For the last, he muddles four slices of cucumber in a mixing glass with 1 teaspoon sugar, then adds 2 ounces cachaça, 1 ounce Orange Muscat, and the juice of one lemon. The drink is shaken and served in a highball glass with a stick of cucumber. "Wine can provide nuance, tannin, increased aroma, and inherent acid to a cocktail," says McDonnell.

Some wine companies are making cocktails a formal part of their marketing, a trend last seen in the 1960s and early '70s, when California wineries, eager to break into the nation's highball culture, produced brochures like "How to Make Punches and Other Mixed Drinks with California Wine." Beam Wine Estates contracted H. Jose­ph Ehrmann, proprietor of Elixir, a neighborhood saloon in San Fran­­cisco's Mission district, to create cocktails using their R.H. Phillips brand. Ehrmann created five drinks, one for each varietal wine, in most cases married to a season. The Red White and Night combines 1 ounce simple syrup, 1 ounce fresh lemon juice, 2 ounces Night Harvest Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2 ounces vodka in a highball glass with ice. The drink, garnished with summer berries coated in confectioners' sugar, is intended as a Fourth of July observation.

Ehrmann uses spirits in collaboration with wine in all of his wine cocktails, like the Yuletide Moon, a combination of 1 1/2 ounces R.H. Phillips Night Harvest Merlot, 1 ounce Bourbon, 6 muddled Bing cherries, and 1/4 ounce simple syrup in an old-fashioned glass with ice, garnished with nutmeg and a lemon wheel to play off the wine's inherent ripe cherry flavors. "Without a spirit, I don't think it's really a cocktail. It might be punch, but it's still just a wine," says Ehrmann. I have at least an ounce or two of wine in each drink, to try to make it the main flavor, but I feel you still need spirit in there."

In a similar project for Ecco Domani, Alex Ott, a master mixologist with over 120 cocktail programs to his credit, takes a contradictory tack. "I feel that when you mix with a spirit you destroy the concept. For me, in wine cocktails, wine should be the only alcohol. It enables you to maintain the characteristics of the wine," says Ott, who further dilutes the alcohol and plays off each wine's flavors by using muddled fresh fruit and juices in abundance.

By using only wine, "winetails" are food-friendly and enjoyable in greater quantity than either wine or cocktails, explains Ott. This might partly explain the popularity of the Ecco Sidro, made with 1 teaspoon muddled ginger, 1 1/2 ounces apple cider, 1/4 teaspoon chai tea powder, and 2 ounces Ecco Domani Chianti. Last winter, the Ecco Sidro was the top-selling drink at trendy Buddha Bar New York, demonstrating that more than a few wine drinkers are willing to swap their Bordeaux goblet for a Martini glass. "This is wine, but glamorized. And people are eating it up," says Ott.