Misery at Just a Dollar a Pint

THERE'S no denying the vital importance of the war on drugs. But don't forget the less publicized struggle against the cheap fortified wines that also have severely damaged the health and welfare of many Americans. ``Fortified wines are designed for one purpose and one purpose only - to give drinkers a quick, inexpensive high,'' notes Milton Marks, a California state senator who recently introduced legislation to slap a 66-cents-a-gallon tax on the wines to finance alcoholic-treatment programs.

The measure would have raised money to help those whose reliance on the wines greatly profits those who produce and sell it. But the bill failed, thanks to pressure from California's powerful liquor lobby, which has kept the state tax at a mere 2 cents a gallon for the past half-century.

Walk into any grocery or liquor store in any poor neighborhood and you'll find shelves crammed with their screwtop products of misery. Look at the empty bottles rattling in gutters. Look in the brown paper bags grasped by men slumped against buildings in the skid rows of America.

Thunderbird, Night Train Express, Wild Irish Rose, MD 20/20, the most popular brands are called. With up to twice the alcoholic content of regular table wine, they sell for about $1 a pint.

A spokesman for E & J Gallo, which produces more than one-third of the wines, claims the winemakers are merely providing ``an affordable alternative'' for ``many moderate and responsible consumers, many of whom are retired and on fixed incomes.''

Nonsense. What Gallo and the others are doing is chasing big profits by selling cheap wine to poor, desperate alcoholics. It costs them relatively little to concoct the fortified wine, produced from the cheapest of grapes. No aging is necessary, no storage, and little or no advertising. The profit margin is four to five times that for other wines.

Sales of wine and liquor generally have declined steadily in recent years. But sales of fortified wines have risen steadily, to more than $500 million a year - and no wonder: The customers can't stop drinking the stuff.

Although eager to collect the profits, the winemakers are not eager to be associated with the products that generate them.

``This is a pretty delicate subject,'' a Gallo representative, Gladys Hiriuchi, says. ``Someone working in the fine wine business doesn't really want to be associated with ... this type of wine.''

That sensitivity has made Gallo and others vulnerable to pressures from community groups opposing the sale of cheap fortified wine.

Gallo and another major producer, the Canadaigua Wine Company, quit distributing their fortified wines in San Francisco's Tenderloin district last year under pressure from a local ``crime abatement committee'' that had tried unsuccessfully to get the neighborhood's two dozen liquor stores to quit stocking the wines.

The committee's success led to moves by similar groups and city councils elsewhere, and eventually to Gallo's decision to stop sending fortified wines to stores in any of the country's other major skid row districts.

But merchants and drinkers can simply go outside the area and bring in the wine.

Gallo has tried to lay the blame on merchants, for selling the wine to ``obvious alcoholic derelicts.'' But the merchants are small potatoes compared to the firms that produce the wines - like Gallo, which does nothing for the victims of the alcoholic poison that accounts for part of its billion-dollar-a-year wine business, the world's largest.

The very least the public and its elected representatives should demand is that the winemakers pay for the treatment urgently needed by the many victims of their lust for profit.

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