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A Fad, Fad, Fad, Fad World

Wine editor Lettie Teague attempts to relive the days when Mateus and Lancers ruled and everyone preferred drinking wine to thinking about it.

I was born too late for all the great wine fads--the days of Mateus, Lancers and Riunite, when, my friends tell me, wine drinking was more fun than a barrique of monkeys. Now, I don't necessarily trust everything my aging friends say. In fact, sometimes they sound a little like those Woodstock types who sat all week in the rain and remember it as the best time of their lives. Still, I tried to pay attention when they told me how they missed these wines, which were so famous they went by only one name. Say what you will about these bottles (and after finally tasting them a few weeks ago I can't say a lot), they united our nation as few (wine) movements ever have.

These wines were so popular at one time that virtually everyone in America was buying them. They were poured everywhere. They were boffo with backyard barbecues. They were fabulous with fondues. All that they ever promised was pleasure, and their ad campaigns seemed content to leave it pretty much at that:

"Enjoy the flavor that made Lancers a legend."

"Riunite on ice. That's nice."

What a carefree time it must have been. Everyone drank the same wine and was happy to do so. Nobody worried that someone else had a better bottle on the shelf over their avocado-green stove. No one lost sleep wishing they were higher on some winery mailing list. Nobody discussed the appellation contrôlée of Mateus (somewhere in Portugal) or gave much thought to whether Blue Nun was a Riesling (after tasting it, I'd be surprised if it was). Maybe this wasn't a wine drinker's utopia but it was definitely a wine drinker's democracy.

Back in the old days, which turn out to be the '60s and '70s, wine stores stocked bottles from only a handful of countries. Now grapes are grown in places most of us couldn't find even if we had one of those navigational devices on our SUVs. This particular development, I might add, has been a boon to my map-reading skills. For example, I could now pass sixth-grade geography (which I failed in sixth grade). I also find it laughably simple to one-up my neighbor, who may mention having tasted a lovely New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, to which I can respond, "Marlborough or Hawkes Bay?" And if they foil me by actually having an answer, I can always refer to the superiority of a Sauvignon from Sardinia, something they couldn't possibly have tried.

After all, today almost any wine worth having seems to be the one you can't get. I have a friend I'll call "The Collector" whose favorite conversational device is a recitation of all the wines that he has in his cellar that others do not. He rarely leaves his house without a few, and he never dines out without informing everyone in the vicinity about them. Should he encounter someone he knows, he'll say, "Look what I brought." He won't be referring to me--he'll be introducing them to his wines.

Don't get me wrong. I don't mind that my friend cares so much about wine, particularly since he shares his great bottles with me. Nor does it concern me that he has spent more money amassing his collection than I'll make in my lifetime. (I am not exaggerating.) What troubles me is how wine has become so terribly serious, so very upper crust, so very, well, English. That's how I came to find myself longing for the days when wine was nothing more than fun.

I know I can't be the only one with this populist hankering. After all, in countries like Italy and France, where there is a long wine-drinking history (not to mention much-improved wines), the people are drinking about half of what they once did. To this comes the wine industry's collective reply: "We may be drinking less, but we're drinking better." This is a concept I admit I do not understand--since when is a loss of customers something to celebrate?

For one brief, shining moment, I thought the answer might be a return to the fad wines of old. I envisioned Americans everywhere retreating to the more innocent times when wines were fruity, simple and good. I decided the best way to find out whether this dream could become reality was to round up a few bottles and invite a few friends (including The Collector) over for a tasting.

For the sake of expediency I limited my selections to the four biggest fad wines: Blue Nun, Lancers, Riunite and Mateus. I began by visiting a wine shop in Larchmont, a tony town in Westchester County, New York. The store's proprietor laughed knowingly when I asked for these wines, then suggested I'd be "better off looking in an ethnic neighborhood." She turned out to be right (although perhaps not politically correct). I drove to two less affluent towns, where I eventually located all four of the wines I wanted to taste. One shop, in Peekskill, New York, even accorded Blue Nun its own alcove (complete with a ceramic statuette of the Blue Nun herself).

I wish I could say that I loved every one of these wines, but I have to admit I only loved what they represented. I suppose that's something else I can blame on The Collector, who has corrupted my palate with all the great wines he's enticed me to drink. Lancers and Mateus were chemically sweet. The Riunite tasted like sparkling grape juice; no one could believe it actually contained alcohol (8 percent). The bouquet of the Blue Nun was a dead ringer for pungent (read: cat-pee aroma) Sauvignon Blanc, but its flavor was like a sachet from a sock drawer. Our favorite was the Mateus White, which The Collector compared to a Vinho Verde. He claimed he'd be happy to gulp it while he was sautéing his foie gras.

I did, however, admire the way that the wines looked. Mateus resembles an oversize perfume bottle, Lancers a squat ceramic vase. Come to think of it, I'd be proud to put a carnation or a candle in either one of them.

Maybe returning to the old days isn't the answer. I've considered the possibility that what this country needs is a brand-new fad wine--Grenache is one grape that came to mind--but I suspect what's really required is a return to sanity. Perhaps we just need to be reminded every now and then that wine is just a beverage: a worthy topic of conversation, to be sure, but not a perpetual intellectual challenge.

I'm planning to do my part by returning to a more informal style of service. The next time The Collector comes over for dinner, lugging his best wines, I'll bring him a glass of red accompanied by this cheerful maxim: "Pétrus on ice. That's nice!"

Published June 2001
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