NEWTON LOWER FALLS, Mass. It’s Friday night, historically the busiest time of the week for Jim Varbenian, who’s owned a liquor store in this western suburb of Boston for two decades.
“When I started out, we’d sell maybe twenty cases of beer and a couple of kegs between five and six o’clock on a Friday night,” he says. “Now, I’m lucky my beer doesn’t go stale before I sell it.”
“This is a cheeky little syrah with wobbly legs and a busted nose.”
Brewers of beer are caught in a contracting market, as more and more people switch to red wine because of its perceived health benefits, lesser impact on waistlines and aura of sophistication. “Beer is now viewed as something your dad drank while he was bowling,” says Wine Conoisseur editor Rollo Wolfe. “It wasn’t good for his bowling, and it isn’t good for you.”
“You guys on a diet? You’ve only had six pitchers tonight.”
Which leaves political consultants in a quandry; for years they’ve been chasing “Joe Sixpack,” the hypothetical working class voter who would swing an election if he could be convinced that a candidate was his kind of guy. “Joe Sixpack is dead,” says Toby Gregory, a principal at Campaign Strategies. “We’re in hot pursuit of Joe Merlot.”
Merlot was popular until Miles, a character in the 2004 movie “Sideways” played by Paul Giamatti, disparaged the brand, launching into a tirade about wine neophytes and screaming “I am not drinking any merlot!” Sales of the varietal went into a tailspin from which they have never recovered, and prices fell to levels that were affordable to men who had previously been satisfied with cheap beer.
As a result, Kevin Feeney, a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives this fall, finds himself standing outside of Varbenian’s Liquor greeting men as they arrive for a “$5 and Under Wine Tasting,” first in a series of similar events he will host throughout his district in order to gain exposure.
“Joe Merlots are generally middle-class and highly-likely to vote,” says Toby Gregory. “They tend to be opinionated, and can influence their immediate family and wider social circle, even though their teeth turn purple after awhile.”
Varbenian starts things off with a upper New York state brand, Rusty Nail, so called because it has a distinctly orangish hue. “This is a very robust wine, with a hint of furniture polish and overtones of Rustoleum,” he says as he swirls it around in a glass. “Let it sit on your tongue for a second, but if you feel a burning sensation spit it into this cast iron bucket and we’ll call the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Feeney spits his out quickly, then uses the opportunity to make his pitch to the other participants who are temporarily speechless due to the wine’s acrid taste. “You know,” he says, “in England they serve cheap red wine called ‘plonk’ in pubs and American brands have a shot. In France, they look down their noses at us and keep US brands out with unfair trade policies.”
“Umlmglk,” a man named Ted says with a gulp, before spitting a mouthful of the brackish liquid out into the bucket. “So I hope you’ll vote for me next month and help me fight for immigration reform,” Feeney continues, disoriented by the heady mixture of brands he has tasted in a short period of time as he mistakenly locates France in North America.
“Here’s a young merlot that I think you’ll find amusing for its presumption,” Varbenian says with a sly grin. “We’re selling it for $4.50 a bottle, and it’s great for waterproofing your boots in the winter.”
A stocky man wearing a Red Sox hat who identifies himself as “Todd” is asked why he made the switch from beer to wine. “My palate had matured quite a bit since my college days,” he says as he tried a sip of a zinfandel that is on sale for $3.95 a bottle. “That, and my wife got tired of my burping.”