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Last call for Thunderbird

January 08, 2003|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

"What's the word?"

"Thunderbird."

"What's the price?"

"Three bits twice."

That was the Thunderbird jingle 30 years ago in its glory days, when cheap wine was chugged from bottles in brown paper bags and immortalized in blues songs written on jailhouse walls.

Today, a vintage bottle of Cabernet can be bought for less than a $2.99 bottle of Thunderbird, but it's not the wine glut that's killing this old brand. In fact, the glut has been a windfall for fortified-wine makers, dramatically lowering the cost of raw juice.

And because they're selling to a market a world away from the buyers snapping up vintage bottles, they've had no increase in competition, said Frank Walters, director of research for M. Shanken Communications Inc., the publisher of Wine Spectator.

E. & J. Gallo makes Thunderbird. It's a fortified wine, which means it is more than 14% alcohol -- which is the point, of course, rather than the bouquet. But Gallo no longer advertises Thunderbird, allowing the brand to drift along as a "call item," sold mostly through security bars at skid-row liquor stores. Ten years ago, Gallo sold 3 million cases a year; now it sells only 300,000, Walters said.

The fortified-wine market overall is dwindling, said a Gallo spokesman, calling it a vestige of the 1950s that is nearing the end of its life cycle. Today, the leading brands are Richard's Wild Irish Rose (2.3 million cases a year) and MD 20/20 (1.7 million cases a year).

Night Train, known as "the pocket rocket," sells just 65,000 cases a year.

-- Corie Brown

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