What We Drink in the Shadows

To say Gothic imagery has permeated popular culture is to say nothing particularly groundbreaking. There isn’t a mall in America without a Hot Topic or a meme page without a passing reference to Edgar Allen Poe (Spoiler alert: this essay won’t be about “The Cask of Amontillado,” internet hot as it is right now). If Gothic representations are everywhere, it only makes sense that this popularity would leak into beverage culture, though its journey here is complicated. The more time I’ve spent building wine lists and teaching introductory wine courses, the more I’ve realized that wine culture mirrors the advent of the Gothic period in the late eighteenth century. If we accept David Stevens’s tenet that the Gothic was a reaction to a century or more where rationalism, empiricism and classicism were the dominant ideological forces,” then these “Gothic wines” are a revolt against the buttoned-up European wine label, the old-money manor house, and the crusty sommelier with a fancy tastevin and a vocabulary full of esoteric flavor references. Wine is kind of scary, these Gothic labels whisper. Let us revel in it.

In the wine world, labels follow trends like teenagers. For much of the twentieth century, it was common to feature text or perhaps a pencil drawing of the wine estate itself that conveyed the seriousness and pedigree of the wine within. The development of the bulk wine industry and liquor-adjacent “brands” in the 1980s saw “critter wines” take over, and more recently the natural wine world has taken to delicate watercolors and minimal text. Gothic wine labels, as I’ll call them, are a very specific subset, originating with Ravenswood in the late 1970s and exploding in popularity in the last 20 years with the likes of Apothic, The Prisoner, and Orin Swift.

Though the European continent is the setting for many eighteenth-century novels, Gothic wine is a uniquely American phenomenon. Throughout the twentieth century, Americans vintners believed they were the anti-heroes (look no further than The Judgement of Paris for proof). Excluded from the European savoir-faire, they entered a difficult marketplace festooned with awards for the old guard, and plenty of scorn for American Oak barrels (their “uncouth” flavor has been routinely abandoned in favor of delicate French oak, despite the challenges of import). Ultimately, Gothic wines from California are a rebellion against the tradition of inaccessible European wines and the “enlightened” bourgeois aesthetes who drink them.

 A wine label—especially a traditional European wine label—asks a lot of the reader; you are meant to deduce the grape variety from the wine’s location (if the label says “Bourgogne Rouge,” you can expect a delicate Pinot Noir, if “Montalcino,” you can predict a muscular Sangiovese, and so forth), decipher foreign languages and local dialects, detect vintage variation, and infer technical production techniques, all from a few scribbles on the bottle. For the average consumer, this obscurity makes wine labels difficult texts to interpret unto themselves. Of course, oenophiles have no trouble with these hieroglyphs, and will delight in telling you so, which deepens the chasm between the world of fine wine and the average American consumer—it breeds resentment and the determination to find a wine that speaks to you if you aren’t one of the anointed few.

Though standing in the bottle shop doesn’t build terror in the same way that reading a novel does, Gothic wines are similarly designed to elicit an emotional response in the consumer. What’s inside the bottle almost doesn’t matter (though most of these Gothic wines are not terrible, they aren’t excellent wines, by critical standards). The label sells the consumer an identity, and a defiant one at that. You, these labels whisper, are not a priggish wine snob. You are an independent thinker; you are Byron himself, blazing a trail through the wine shop and laying waste to the old bores who sniff and swirl and talk about “the bouquet” and “mature Claret.” These wines market an identity distinctly opposed to the “enlightenment” of the wine connoisseur. The following five wines form the basis for the genre but are by no means its limit—from 7 Deadly Zins to Vendetta, the Gothic lurks in every bodega and on every shelf if you know where to look for it.

Let us begin with the most famous. It can’t be ignored that Apothic arrived to market on the heels of Twilight and general vampire lore. The brand, which launched in 2010, was the result of years of market research on the part of E&J Gallo, Apothic’s parent company. The word was supposedly made up in a Gallo boardroom and meant to conjure up the notion of an apothecary. The real words that “apothic” most closely evokes are the English “apothec” or the French “apotheque,” meaning apothecary. Apothec, according to the OED, was a sixteenth-century term for a store-room for medicines, wine and dry goods. While this origin may not align historically with the rise of Gothic fiction, the idea of a spooky, dark, back room, door ajar and wind whistling, certainly belongs in it. Beyond its etymological roots, I can’t help noticing how felicitously Apothic rhymes with Gothic. Just familiar enough to be uncanny, the name appeals to a consumer who might not be ready to commit to a scary movie or a frightening novel. Likewise, the dark label, featuring a sultry and stylized “A” emerging from a knot of thorny vines, like a beast in the bush, looks just foreign enough to conjure up an air of mystery.

Following the resounding success of Apothic, Gothic interpretations spilled forth like an inkblot: Apothic “Dark” and Apothic “Inferno” were soon to follow, and the much-anticipated Carnivor was released by the Gallo company in 2016. If Apothic were Frankenstein’s creature (a wine built on market research and secretive lab testing, rather than born as a natural expression of vineyard and place), Carnivor is the backward bride, designed to appeal to the male consumer, but never fully achieving the cult status of the original. On the shelf, Carnivor was merchanised alongside branded corkscrews that resembled hatchets, and its website featured manly meat-centric recipes. “We’re all for breaking rules,” the Carnivor homepage declares, and in fact, after the initial release of the wine, Gallo received so many complains about its tooth-staining quality that they had to scale back the use of purple coloring in the blend. The image of hordes of black-fanged drinkers penning angry letters to a multi-billion-dollar alcohol distributor would be monstrously scary if it weren’t also a bit hilarious. Ultimately, in marketing Carnivor specifically to men, the wine alienated female consumers. It never picked up traction like Apothic did, and the sophomore attempt performed much worse in the market than hoped. Somewhere in an adjacent office, Mary Shelley is laughing.

The Prisoner is a fairly notable departure from Apothic in price point and engages with the Gothic on a deeper and more troubling level. The label art features an 1807 Francisco Goya etching titled “The Little Prisoner” (elsewhere referred to simply as “The Prisoner”) from his series “Disasters of War.” The image depicts a hooded figure, crouching forward in pain, with chains extending up from the arms like wings on an angel of death. Sinister and harrowing, the etching is a key text in a series that aimed to depict the dark side of the Enlightenment and illustrate the pain and suffering of the Spanish people following the Peninsula War. After years in Madrid, Goya retired to Bordeaux, the storied French wine region and home of the brooding red grape Cabernet Sauvignon. The Prisoner is a red wine blend based on that very variety and is the only tenuous link between Goya and a premium California red wine. Considering that the parent company of The Prisoner Wine Co is Constellation Brands, whose net revenue was 6 billion USD in 2020, the brand can hardly claim disenfranchisement, poverty, and suffering in common with Goya’s theme. The pairing feels garish, to say the least, and has recently been scrutinized by Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle, in which she points out the “dissonance of its imagery” given the current crisis of incarceration in the US. Using shackles to sell wine is not edgy, she argues. And she’s right.

Fair Palermo next takes our stage—although, confusingly, the wine is actually made in California; while the label aims to evoke the “danger” of Italy, it tastes distinctly and safely American. The winery behind Palermo, Orin Swift, has a penchant for the macabre that has gotten the company in trouble, however. One of their other red blends, Machete, was rejected from most major liquor control boards for its violent name. Censorship on the part of liquor boards is nothing new, however. It reminds us of the Puritanical approach that the governments in North America have taken toward the marketing of alcohol: a fearful one. Gothic wines trade on this premise that alcohol is the modern monster.

Visually, Palermo’s label is dark and mysterious like The Prisoner, and adorns a thick black bottle (the heavier the bottle, the fancier the wine, so goes marketing wisdom), but this time, it features a photo, and a distinctly Italian one at that. Though Anne Radcliffe’s seminal Gothic novel The Italian takes place in Naples, the parallels with Palermo are plentiful. The novel features the use of a veil as a recurring motif, while Palermo‘s label features a skeleton adorned with a cap and cape. Though the skeleton’s identity is mysterious, the cap is a biretta, worn by various ranks of the clergy and reinforcing Palermo as hardly a wine for Puritans.

The label of Ravenswood is less overtly fantastically Gothic than the prior wines: the label features a lithograph by David Lance Goines, designed for the winery in 1979, the inaugural vintage. Goines’ work is typically considered part of the Arts and Craft movement, and many of his prints helped to shape the California Granola vibe of the 1970s. On the label, three ravens intertwine in a Triskelion pattern, as winemaker Joel Peterson felt the ever-present black birds on his property “protected” his grapes in his early days of farming.

Decades later, after being sold to Gallo by Constellation brands (the largest alcohol company on earth), however, the Ravenswood Winery was eerily abandoned. After closing their tasting room in 2019, neither Constellation nor the winery itself confirmed that Ravenswood made a vintage that year. The brand was retained, but the winery itself closed, with Ravenswood presumably continuing production on other Gallo properties. The winery still sits vacant, perched forever upon the bust of Pallas like Poe’s Raven. Nevermore.

What truly unites these Gothic wines is the uncanny experience of drinking them. From Bone Shaker to The Prisoner, these stylized and carefully manufactured wines all tend to taste remarkably similar. Indeed, drinking one after another will cause a case of the unhemlich: each glass bears the same features: a robe as dark as night, notes of stewed blackberries and plums, a vanilla-oaky richness, a luscious, full body, and a notable sweetness on the palate (Yes! Though a purportedly high-brow wine consumer might scoff, many of these high-volume California red blends can range from 9-15g/L in residual sugar). There are only so many variations on a theme you can taste before your cheeks pucker and tastebuds tire out.

Like the best Gothic monsters, the natural origins of these wines are as mysterious as their labels—they are not sourced from specific AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) or regions, and are likely blends from hundreds of different growers and corners of California. They’re usually adjusted with enzymes and color correctors and enough sulfur to protect the bottle from the apocalypse. None of these details matter for a late-night bodega purchase when the label is intriguingly sinister, however, the same way it doesn’t really matter what the exact recipe is for Coca-Cola (though at least Coca-Cola has an ingredient label).

The most Gothic element of these wines is the extent to which many are Frankenwines, cobbled together from disparate fruit sources, born in the boardroom and laboratory rather than the vineyard. The vinous ideals of “terroir” and a “sense of place” recede here because these wines are made according to charts, fermented with selected yeast strains, and colored with Mega Purple Concentrate; in other words, Frankenwines come into being in the same calculated way that Frankenstein crafted his creature from stolen gravesites and (half) a college education. In its simplest, but also most revered state, wine is an agricultural product meant to bring us closer to the land and tell the story of a time and a place. Man’s interference has made this difficult, however. Beyond the recipe is the looming threat of global warming, forest fires that roar back every year, and the future vintages that might not be possible at all. At least the Gothic in wine encounters the fear of the unknown and owns it. A wildfire might wipe out every vine in California in an instant. Drink up.

Kelcie Jones holds the WSET Diploma and is a first year MW student with the Institute of Masters of Wine. She hails from Vancouver, Canada, where she is Wine Director at Elephant Restaurant, teaches WSET wine courses, and writes about wine and its socio-political context. Before she fell under the vinous spell, Kelcie completed her BA and MA in English at the University of Toronto, where her first love was the long eighteenth century.

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