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Wine punch

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.