Wine punch

The economics of selling the "wine fooler" to Dallas' minority community

Canandaigua is the largest public wine company in the United States. In 1988, when it bought Cisco from Guild Cooperative, Canandaigua was losing money in a battle for the wine cooler market against heavies like Bartles & Jaymes and Seagram.

But in a year, Cisco helped change all that. The cheap wine had tremendous success, especially in poor black communities and with teenagers. Canandaigua started showing a profit again in 1989. In 1994, Canandaigua reported gross sales of $618 million.

Glazer Wholesale Distributors is the sole distributor of Cisco products in Dallas. Larry La Batt, a Glazer executive, says the Dallas distributing company is bound to the agreements made by Canandaigua, but that he believes Canandaigua has met the terms of the agreements with the federal government.

Cisco is positioned in the same refrigerated area as other fortified wines like Thunderbird, Boones Farm and Midnight Train Express, he says.

"I didn't think there was any lingering controversy. I was under the impression that (Canandaigua) conformed to what was required of them."

Allen Johnson, an agent of the Texas Alcoholic Beverages Commission, says Canandaigua is not violating any Texas laws by placing Cisco so close to wines with lower alcohol contents, but that Texas does not offer the company any relief from agreements made with the federal government.

Novello says the apparent changes in Cisco's marketing show a marked disregard for the consent agreement and Dallas' inner-city neighborhoods.

"The sad thing is that the consumers who they market it to are not terribly sophisticated to 40 proof," Novello says. "I think it is disrespectful. We have enough problems in the inner city without a drink that can cause death in the consumer. They (Canandaigua) believe that the people of Dallas are not aware of the ruling of Washington. I find it appalling."

When the Observer contacted 10 South Dallas liquor and grocery store owners who carried the drink next to other lighter wine products, none had heard of the agreement, even though the distributor, Glazer's Wholesale Distributors, had.

"I didn't get a letter from the city," says one store owner who identified himself as Lee. "I don't know about this."

But Cisco's reputation may have moved by word of mouth faster than any government advisory. "People were afraid of (Cisco) for a little while," says William Davis, owner of the Con-Bil's liquor store on Hatcher Street. "But no, I hadn't heard about (the agreement)."

Davis says that after 1990-91 reports that Cisco was blamed for alcohol poisoning in teenagers across the country, Cisco sales in his store dropped off. He kept a few bottles in the back of the cooler for those few people who still infrequently asked for it, but kept his Cisco inventory low. "In fact, (the distributor) had four or five flavors of them, but I wouldn't order them." He pointed to the cooler shelf where a few bottles of Cisco stand. "When I finish selling these--they're gone."

Many stores in predominantly white North Dallas won't sell it. About a third of the Centennial liquor stores in town, for instance, don't carry it. "It depends on the area of town," one clerk explained, "and the type of clientele."

One North Dallas liquor store manager was more blunt. "I see it a lot over in South Dallas and that is not the kind of clientele I want," says the manager, who asked to be identified only as Dan. "I think it's overrated and [alcohol] overpercentaged."

Recently, Canandaigua has begun marketing Cisco Tropicals, table wines that are 13.5 percent alcohol and come in flavors like Island Strawberry, Bahama Berry and Tropical Tangerine. The company is also selling Cisco-Rita's, Canandaigua's cheap answer to the margarita. Like the original Ciscos, the "tropicals" and Ritas are sold next to other wines and wine-coolers and appeal to young palates.

The wine and alcohol industry has faced down criticisms for years that it targets black communities with cheap drinks with high alcohol content. About the same time Canandaigua was negotiating with the federal government over Cisco, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price was whitewashing the plethora of billboards that advertised liquor in poor black neighborhoods. But, like Cisco in clear bottles, the signs are back.

"The problem is that the only way we can drive these type of merchants out of our community," says Jeffrey Muhammad, leader of the Dallas mosque of the Nation of Islam, "is that we teach our people that these products are just not good for them."

The former Surgeon General agrees.
"It is really a drug, not a drink," Novello says. "When they are trying to sell this they are selling trouble to the youth of Dallas and, more importantly, they are betraying the neighborhoods. I hope the pride that is a part of Texas comes up and tells these people to take this product somewhere else.

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