The much-maligned wine cooler has returned in a grown-up, delicious way. Here's where to drink this refreshing fall trend around the country.

By Jason Rowan
September 01, 2016
Credit: Benji Wagner

Wine coolers peaked in the mid-eighties, when the sweet, bubbly bottled drinks were mainstays at sorority parties and BBQs. Made out of cheap wine, fruity juice "products," and plenty of sugar and carbonation, popular flavors included Boone’s Farm’s Country Kwencher and Sunset Orange. But as tastes evolved in the mid-90s, the drink fell out of vogue and off the shelves of suburban supermarkets. In the past five years or so, lower-proof cocktails have emerged as a more strategic option for a long night of drinking. As a result, wine coolers have been reappearing in new, imaginative forms—there aren't the Melon Splash Wine Coolers you might remember chugging while dancing all night to Culture Club. This fall, bartenders and sommeliers around the country are turning to the previously maligned concoction and re-imagining it in a more thoughtful—and incredibly delicious—way.

Sweet Berry Wine Cooler at Tusk

Credit: Benji Wagner

"I stole my first wine cooler from my dad," confesses Tyler Stevens, the bar manager at Tusk in Portland, Oregon. Local wunderkind Joshua McFadden opened the restaurant in late August and it instantly became the hottest reservation in town. "Part of our thought behind the bar program was, what would be good at a house party?” says Stevens. “Wine coolers came to mind—the first time I saw my aunts drunk at a party was when they were drinking wine coolers.” His Sweet Berry Wine Cooler uses Stein Riesling and Cocchi Rossa vermouth, mixed with Ayers Creek Farm Boysenberry Jam and white peony tea. It’s topped with a lemon peel and soda water. The beguiling cooler is a vivid pinkish red, and is served in a clear bottle with or without glassware—it's fine to drink from the bottle at this casual spot, especially for nostalgia’s sake. The team will serve rotating seasonal versions in upcoming months.

The Bacchanal at Bywater

Credit: Breanne Furlong

After 10 years building up the reputation at Los Gatos’ Manresa, James Beard award-winning chef David Kinch has opened the Bywater, also in Los Gatos. Kinch’s new spot is a deeply affectionate homage to the New Orleans cuisine of his youth. The cocktail menu, by local company Tin Roof Drink Community, is based on drinks that would pair well with and stand up to the rich New Orleans cuisine—including the Bacchanal, a profoundly reimagined version of the classic wine cooler. Claire Sprouse and Chad Arnholt of Tin Roof used the basic cooler as a jumping-off point: "We start with a great French Beaujolais and Lo-Fi Gentian Amaro—this isn’t the kind of wine cooler you grew up sneaking out of your parents' fridge,” says Sprouse. "The Napa-made Lo-Fi Gentian Amaro has a nice bitter backbone with cinchona bark and gentian root, and is balanced out by the bright flavors such as grapefruit, orange peel and ginger." Completing the cocktail is grilled grapefruit, house-made lemon cordial, and carbonated water. "We serve the Bacchanal in individual bottles, or larger bottles made for two or more,” adds Sprouse. “It's meant to be enjoyed with others.”

Ramona Artisanal Wine Coolers by Jordan Salcito

Credit: Ramona Fiz

"Wine coolers were an easy entry point to wine for me," says Momofuku Beverage Director and Bellus Wines founder Jordan Salcito, whose new line of wine coolers, Ramona Artisanal Wine Cooler, has just launched. "They were easy to love and enjoy, and they were perfect at a time when I was curious about wine but not yet ready to think about it in a serious context." When wine coolers began to disappear from the market, Salcito came up with the idea of creating a better version that’s more in step with modern tastes. "We wanted something not too sweet, but not too bitter, so we started with a dry wine using organic grapes from Italy, mixed in natural grapefruit flavors and organic cane sugar, and carbonated the entire thing." The result is a zesty, effervescent low-proof drink in a can that is perfect for the dog days of summer or early fall barbeques. Ramona is currently available as a four-pack at liquor stores in New York City, with nationwide distribution coming later this month. “The wine cooler is a forgotten classic,” says Salcito. “Our aim is the bring it back.”