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State Wine Growers Dispute Claims of Seagram's Alcohol-Content Ads

September 19, 1985|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

Recent magazine advertisements by Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc. discussing the alcohol content in various beverages have been called "more than absolutely false" by a representative of the Winegrowers of California.

The latest harsh exchange between the trade group and the nation's largest distilled spirits company concerns an eight-page advertising supplement that appeared in the August Reader's Digest magazine. The ad's message essentially was that there is no difference between a typical serving of wine, beer or distilled spirits, by stating that "a drink is a drink."

Seagram's introduced the alcohol equivalency issue earlier this year in advertisements that were immediately criticized by the wine growers, who, in turn, filed a formal complaint against the company with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The federal agency reviewed the ads in question and supported the Seagram's statements that the alcohol in wine, beer and spirits is chemically identical.

The Seagram's campaign ostensibly is aimed at refuting the myth that wine and beer are less intoxicating than typical servings of spirits such as bourbon, gin or vodka.

The wine growers are particularly upset with the passage, "a drink is a drink." Citing figures given in Seagram's own bar guide, Ed Schwartz, a wine growers spokesman, said that the average pure alcohol content in mixed drinks ranges from 0.6 ounce to 1.2 ounces. The typical 4.5-ounce serving of wine contains 0.5 ounce of pure alcohol.

"On a quantitative basis (the Seagram's statement) is rubbish. Just to say 'a drink is a drink' is crazy," Schwartz said. "Is he (Seagram's President Samuel Bronfman) saying a martini has the same amount of pure alcohol as in a glass of wine?"

A Seagram's representative said the company's calculations on alcohol equivalency are based on slightly different measurements than those of the wine growers. For instance, a 5-ounce serving of wine contains the same amount of pure alcohol, or ethanol, as a 1.25-ounce serving of spirits, said Kathy Valyi, a Seagram's spokeswoman.

Furthermore, the company's campaign does not compare wine with a martini, which cannot be considered a "typical drink," she said.

Valyi was also critical of the wine growers' frequent comment that wine is easily differentiated from spirits because it is served with meals.

"They are always saying that wine is an accompaniment to food and that is a misrepresentation. The great growth in wine over the past few years has been white wine served as a cocktail, and the growing segment represented by coolers (which are) not, in general, consumed with food. . . . For that matter, I haven't seen many ads on TV where beer is shown as an accompaniment to food," she said.

The wine growers have continued to criticize the New York-based firm, which is also the nation's second-leading wine company, because of fears that the Seagram's campaign will ultimately cause significant problems for the California wine industry.

"It is a known fact that liquor sales are down and they are trying to do something to turn the market around," Schwartz said. "It isn't true that they will get converts back to hard liquor by saying that it is the same (as wine) when it isn't. . . . They're also unhappy about the fact that taxes on liquor are higher than on wine and beer. Wine has a wonderful image and liquor doesn't, especially in California.

"They are lowering the quality image of wine and setting the stage for possible tax increases on wine (thus bringing them in line with those on liquor), and the one thing the U.S. wine industry doesn't need is an increase in taxes. We are doing everything we can to get (Seagram's) to desist from this advertising. They are telling untruths, absolute falsehoods."

Valyi dismissed the accusations that Seagram's was trying to tarnish the image of wine or create a climate for higher taxes.

"Seagram's is the second-largest wine marketer in the United States and spent $250 million to acquire (former Coca-Cola subsidiary) the Wine Spectrum. There is no way that we would in any way tarnish the image of wine, the wine industry or (our) wine. This is an issue of responsibility and understanding what you consume. It is also attempting to create a healthy environment where beverage alcohol can grow by using messages of responsibility. This is not about tax issues," she said.

Candy With a Kick--Another alcohol issue brewing with somewhat similar intensity involves a bill in the Legislature that would permit confectioners to increase the alcohol content in specialty, gourmet candy to as high as 5% from its current 0.5% level.

The legislation, which awaits action by Gov. George Deukmejian, was sponsored by Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego). The present allowable level of alcohol in candies is established to permit the use of extracts, such as vanilla.

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