Four years ago, a New York-based wine company met with Federal Trade Commission officials, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and the U.S. Surgeon General. The subject was a fortified wine called Cisco that was posing serious health risks--particularly to teens.
The company, Canandaigua Wine Company, was under fire because Cisco contained 20 percent alcohol (40 proof), yet was bottled like a wine cooler, which generally contains only about six percent alcohol. Cisco's soda-pop taste and its alcohol punch were proving a dangerous combination.
"We called it the 'wine fooler,'" recalls former U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Novello. "It is more like a drug than a drink. It was really frightening, because they had packaged it to look very refreshing. Cool and refreshing and like a wine cooler."
Cisco's kick-- more powerful than fortified wines like Thunderbird--sometimes affected drinkers so adversely that they complained to authorities, fearing the effects were the result of product tampering.
Several health advocacy groups called for Canandaigua to stop selling the wine when several drinkers developed acute alcohol poisoning after drinking Cisco. "The problem with Cisco was it looked like a wine cooler, was packaged like a wine cooler, and tasted like a wine cooler," says Novello.
So people--particularly teens-- drank it like a wine cooler, fast. Novello says that a 100-pound person who drank a 375 ml (12 oz.) bottle of Cisco in less than an hour could die of alcohol poisoning; a 150-pound person would be legally drunk.
"There was a case when a passerby threw a brick from an overpass, paralyzing the driver of the car on the highway," Novello says. "He was on the influence of Cisco. The kids called it 'liquid crack.'"
Faced with a growing list of injuries and federal charges of deceptive marketing, Canandaigua agreed to make a few changes to their profitable drink.
First, the wine company changed the shape and color of the bottle--from clear to green--so that Cisco didn't look so much like a wine cooler. They made the bottle's neck longer and thinner. The company also added the warning, "THIS IS NOT A WINE COOLER" in bold type to the label, so people wouldn't guzzle it. The label, Canandaigua promised, would also make clear that the bottle contained more than one serving: four for the 375 ml bottle and eight for the 750 ml bottle. That notice was also trumpeted in bold type.
The company would also work with sellers to make sure Cisco was placed away from drinks with lower alcohol contents.
"We got on their backs," Novello says. "We told them that this could no longer appear like a wine cooler. They could not have them in the cooler. They had to change the labels and put them behind the counter with the other fortified drinks."
The idea, Novello says, was to make sure that people knew what they were getting: a highly potent alcoholic beverage that even in the small bottle is equivalent to five shots of vodka.
Three years after the agreement with the government, as the demand for Cisco and other "dessert wines" declines nationwide, the company appears to be relaxing the standards of the Cisco agreement in Dallas. The changes are evident in liquor stores, especially in South Dallas where the product's distributor says the biggest demand is.
In many of those stores, Cisco is displayed prominently in refrigerated coolers, placed right next to other wines with less alcohol. The dark green bottle that Canandaigua unveiled as an effort to distinguish Cisco from wine coolers can still be found, but the wine now is more frequently being sold again in clear bottles, with lighter, brighter-colored labels, an apparent violation of the 1991 agreement. Canandaigua official Howard Jacobson refused to discuss the label and bottle changes. But the clear bottles found on store shelves today do not have the shorter necks that the older clear bottles had when Canandaigua agreed to remove them from the shelves in 1991.
And while the bottle labels still warn that Cisco isn't a wine cooler, on the newer bottles you have to look closely to find the warning, which is now in tiny type.
The Observer described the changes to Novello, who is now Unicef's special representative for health and nutrition.
"They (Canandaigua officials) are playing games," Novello responds, "I am afraid that there are going to be many behaviors that are going to cause problems in Texas. Those are the consequences of this. When I met with them, they said, 'Well, nobody has died.' I said 'somebody has to die to get you to sell this from behind the counter?' They should not be in the wine section."
If found to be in violation of the agreement, the FTC could assess penalties against Canandaigua of up to $10,000 per violation.
As far as Canandaigua is concerned, says Jacobson, the company's vice president of marketing, the product is no longer an issue.
"We adhered to what we were asked to do as a responsible producer of alcoholic beverages," Jacobson says. "And what we have on the label is the legally accepted size.
"We agreed to change the bottle," Jacobson acknowledges. "We (also) agreed to make some changes to the package, the labeling which identified the product as "this is not a wine cooler" to eliminate consumer confusion. And that was done. I am not aware of any agreement to sell the product behind the counter. It is my understanding that we agreed to have our distributors and retailers not place the product with wine coolers."
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."
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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.