This is a book report from my collection of experimental agriculture literature put out by the University of California.
A Tale of Aromatized Wine
Vermouth is a strange topic. Almost everyone who drinks cocktails has heard of the infamous beverage, but outside the sweet type in a Manhattan, few people still consume vermouth. Many historians are aware that vermouth was wildly popular in the past but are uncertain as to why. The short-cut answer is usually that vermouth was considered medicinal, due to its botanicals, and was consumed therapeutically. An alternative, more probable answer is that the natural wines of the vermouth hay day were not very good and consumer tastes out did producer ability to make good natural wine, especially the dry white type.
Producers were held back from making good wine because yeasts got stressed by rustic techniques. Strained yeast often misfire the desired clean ethanol, instead producing higher, fusel alcohols and congeners that induce headaches if consumed in excess. Stressed out wine was likely the case with much of the world until maybe the last thirty or forty years before producers adopted tricks like maintaining low fermentation temperatures to caress the yeasts. Another case against the drinkability of common wine was the yields. If producers could not find markets able to sustain grand cru wine yields that so much of the world is able to slap a vintage on today, the wine would have a diluted taste that many a peasant’s palate would even reject.
The vermouth concept has advantages over primitive natural wine because producers do not have to stress the yeasts in the wine reducing congeners and there is the further ability to add grand cru levels of extract (and due to their good taste they did not take it much farther than that). A wine maker could go with a cleaner low alcohol wine and then fortify it to avoid vinegar spoilage, which was so common in rustic wines, by raising the alcohol content above the limits of acetic acid producing vinegar bacteria (15.5% or so). If the fruit of the wine was eroded by a bad harvest or too high a yield, flavor could be subsidized with orange peels and chamomile flowers, which are botanical anchors to near every vermouth formulation.
Now that producers actually had a stable beverage, unlike the volatile stocks of natural wine slowly turning to vinegar, vermouth makers could add even more sophisticated and amusing depth of flavor to beat the linear and monotone nature of boring ordinary wines. After the vermouth concept became popular, fewer drinkers had to vie for that coveted hillside producing the best grapes. Any imbiber could dabble in complex flavors within products meant for the masses. There are still lots of developing wine regions that have undrinkable white wines by many standards (they command very little money and you see few of them in the market today) and these are probably not coincidentally regions with high rates of vermouth consumption (anecdotally anyhow). I would take a glass of dry vermouth over so many Portuguese dry whites any day of the week. In many wine producing regions long ago, there was vermouth or blandness.
Some of the theories of why vermouth used to be so significant to daily drinking are tucked away in the abstracts of Maynard Amerine’s: Vermouth an Annotated Bibliography (you can finally buy it as an ebook!) which was published in December of 1974. Even in its strange format (literally an A to Z bibliography with short abstracts written by Amerine, the wine technology guru, a strange and interesting tale of aromatized wine is told. For starters, the work was done with funds from the Mario P. Tribuno Memorial Fund given to the University of California to “advance knowledge pertaining to vermouth” (use of the scholarship apparently has been broadened to the study of wine aroma). The Tribuno name should be vaguely familiar because it is the name of the relic of a product currently owned by The Wine Group (formerly owned by Coca Cola), who is the same conglomerate that produces Franzia (aromatized with natural flavors! unfermented peach juice supposedly). An obituary for Mario Tribuno listed him as the former president of the food company GB Raffetto which produces Giroux grenadine among various other bar mixers. Mario P. Tribuno was a pioneer of American vermouth production and led the American industry. The Tribunos were even cocktail enthusiasts. According to one entry in Amerine’s bibliography Mario’s son, John L. Tribuno, who took over Vermouth Industries of America, easily acknowledged the martini as responsible for 95% of American dry vermouth sales in the 1950’s as well as the start of the ever drier martini.
The references depicted by Amerine’s concise abstracts range from the 19th century to deep into the 20th. A big wonder of this novel collection of references is Amerine’s unique ability to handle roughly five languages that frequently appear (English, French, Italian, German, and Russian). The text really demonstrates how the University of California’s programs were able to unify the world’s wine technology. Publications like the American Wines & Vines consistently reappear with insightful articles (English language!) that draw you in to a world where many people grappled with vermouth’s secret formulations. Amerine also points out exciting Italian works from early in the 20th century which he deems to be extremely important that are far beyond the grasp of most enthusiasts language skills (1935. Il vino vermouth ed suoi componenti is listed a standard text).
One can learn a lot from the straight forward abstracts and see an interesting story unfold. Historians agree that Carpano produced the first vermouth in the late 18th century which was (and is via its popular low volatile acid replica!) kind of primitive and rustic relative to what we see today. Carpano’s intent was probably a therapeutic tonic. Afterwards the Cora’s came about in the mid 19th century which started the modern vermouth era with a likely transition from medicinal to a pursuit of the sublimely flavored and easily accessible, which was quickly followed by everyone else. An 18th century Carpano vermouth replica has become very popular in the present cocktail scene as a way to replicate the experience of mid and late 19th century cocktails, but if the Cora’s product style became the mainstream, and was structured more like what we drink today (slightly less extracted and more complex) rather than the fun, but simplistic (yet definitely amusing to drink) Carpano Antica Formula then what the early pioneering bartenders used was probably more similar to the current vermouth incarnation than the Carpano replica product.
A reliable picture of the structure of what people were drinking at the beginning of the 20th century is painted by the surprisingly sophisticated analysis summarized by the abstracts. Even a hundred years ago, vermouths were probably not clumsy and overly intense. One source, unfortunately without a relative comparison, claimed that French vermouths of the day do not really have a lot of aromatic essences and another from the 1920’s compared the intensity of vermouth’s sugar free extract to be that of a dessert wine.
The bibliography shows that vermouth production was spread across the globe with so many cultures consuming the aromatized wine, but not always of top quality (still probably more amusing than the average natural wine). Vermouth was so relied upon that many papers collected by Amerine proposed laws and methods of analysis to detect fraudulent flavors and watering down of the wine bases which really shows how serious the vermouth beverage medium was taken. Rather rigid guidelines of structure (sugar, acid, alcohol, extract) were drawn up that narrowed the ideal of the vermouth aesthetic among producers. The differentiation of current mainstream vermouth production is so narrow that many connoisseurs are unable to reliably differentiate the brands.
One of the most interesting references of the bibliography is a paper by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Internal Revenue. Amerine’s abstract subtly seems to leak admiration for the position of the author Peter Valaer who had access to anyone’s formula that wanted to have a government approved product in the U.S. The Treasury Department conducted thorough analysis of all taxed products and found that many American Vermouths (but definitely not all American!) used “odds and end” and defective wines that were considered high in volatile acidity (vinegar!), which showed the role of vermouth as a means to doctor the hard to swallow, though it was widely noted by the emergent vermouth connoisseurs that bad wine could not be covered up. Peter Valaer also wrote a book in Amerine’s bibliography called Wines of the World written from the same vantage point of the IRS laboratory. Valaer notes that from the producer supplied formulas, most dry vermouths contain ten or fewer botanicals compared to the twenty botanicals of typical sweet vermouths. It is also pointed out by Valaer that many producers use the same formula for their sweet and dry vermouths but with less botanical intensity in the dry.
The abstracts assert that after WWII, vermouth production continued to climb and the Americans got a big domestic sales advantage due to global conflict slowing down importation combined with a significant rise in domestic production quality. Reports criticize overall global production by citing problems like the watering down of wine (vermouth should be more than 75% natural wine) and the use of artificial flavor extracts. These concerns illustrate the fact that vermouth was still thought of as wine by conscious consumers and though enhanced, was still an attempt to celebrate viticulture. Any adulteration had to be done with a traditional minded artistic constraint. The avid straight vermouth drinker of long ago would probably put down his/her brand for a taste of today’s straight, terroir driven grape wine.
Global vermouth production was huge mid century despite sophistication (the commonly used negative application of the word) issues plaguing the market, therefore a large amount of the references are devoted to analyzing products and showing methods of detecting fraud. The market even faced aromatization issues among wines notably in the south of France that were sold as natural grape wine supporting the theory that consumer tastes could not always be met by natural wine production.
The second half of the 20th century started with continued optimism for the U.S. domestic vermouth market but was marked by changes in tastes. In 1965 John L. Tribuno predicted vermouth sales would double within a decade but noted that 1960’s tastes necessitated a lighter flavor in vermouth (lighter whiskey also became fashionable) citing that 90% of dry vermouth was used in martinis. Tribuno’s own article for Wines & Vines pointed out that martinis pre WWII were 2:1 gin to vermouth but over 20 years had evolved to 8:1 and 12:1. Around the same time, the San Francisco Wine Institute “stresses the fact that cheap, young neutral-flavored wines are used as a vermouth base in Europe” which is a departure from the high quality distinct Muscat variety recommended earlier in the century. Whether consumers today have inherited these bland wine bases is hard to say, but Noilly Prat has recently just switched back from its leaner Americanized wine base (likely a product of the 1960’s) to something fuller bodied that the firm had maintained in the less cocktail-centric European market. Amerine actually exposes his own skepticism in an abstract from a 1963 source regarding Noilly Prat. Amerine’s parenthesized comment of “(this is surely not current practice)” refers to a basic wine book author’s claim that the firm ages 800,000 gallons of wine in the sun in 160 gallon barrels for 18 months to mature their wine base. Today it is widely believed that Noilly Prat actually uses such an elaborate process, making their dry vermouth product quite the outlier in the market.
English tastes, at the end of the 1960’s, really showed how significant the vermouth market was to a producing country. A source claims that in 1968, 70% of the Italian wine imported into England was vermouth while only 44% of Italian wine imported into North America was vermouth. If Vermouth represented small percentages of Italian wine production, these markets (especially the English) also show how disregarded (and probably not stable enough for export) the natural wine of a major vermouth producing country was.
The story told by the bibliography essentially ends with market statistics from the very late 1960’s but sourced from the 1970’s close to the bibliography’s publication date. In 1969 Cinzano and Martini & Rossi spent nearly $500,000 on spot radio advertising while Vermouth Industries of American (Tribuno brand which dominated the american market) spent only $74,000. On magazine advertising Martini & Rossi spent $800,000 of the $1.5 million spent by imported vermouth producers relative to the $113,000 of Vermouth Industries of America. Domestic vermouth producers faced an onslaught of advertising but did very little to counter it. More data shows that in 1970 Vermouth industries of America spent even less to tackle the bombardment of foreign producer ads by spending only $80,000 relative to the $1.47 million by imports.
At this point, the story told by the bibliography’s abstracts really leaves you hanging. A 1975 Consumers Union Report on Wine and Spirits still shows the top selling domestic producer Tribuno as favorable in quality but we know they are doomed to obscurity today. Eventually, Tribuno Vermouth will become merely a brand with all its sensory quality stripped away, but it is hard to pinpoint exactly when that happens. American vermouths got caught up in the Barbarians at the Gate phenomenon of the 1970’s and 80’s where brands were raided, bought up and shuffled around conglomerates. Tribuno likely got shifted to a conglomerate that could not handle its complex, artisanal nature (good vermouth is hard to make). The conservative corporate cultures could not handle the blitz of highly competitive advertising from competitors. Even if Coca-Cola had expertise battling Pepsi or if RJ Reynolds knew how to fend off Marlborough, American vermouth brands likely became insignificant divisions of giant companies and could not get significant advertising money allocated to fend off Martini and Rossi who had ads by Andy Warhol.
In the fall of domestic producers like Tribuno, it is only an assumption that quality changed along the way exacerbating their demise. At the end of the 20th century, Americans are often thought of as entering a dark age of connoisseurship with no ability to notice the shadows of their former selves that many domestic products had become. We can only hope that the foreign vermouths we are left with today have maintained most of their integrity but the 1960’s introduction of bland wine bases may have taken its toll. In the cocktail scene of the 1980’s and 90’s, Fuzzy Navels and Apple Martini’s without vermouth robbed the spotlight of the Manhattan and Martini. The cocktail market for vermouth likely dropped off a cliff while aperitif consumption faced irrelevance due to significant improvements to natural wine. Many countries subsidized modernization of wine production so stressed yeasts and a lack of markets supporting wines of noble yields became a thing of the past.
In the present, vermouth has finally become relevant again as pre-prohibition style cocktails are back in vogue and gastronomic adventurers try to drink everything. Hopefully the story of vermouth can be continued definitely beyond 1974 and its back story can be pieced together by more than just a collection of abstracts. A richer understanding of vermouth’s history could cement the relevance of the quality producers we still have today so we do not lose anymore and better understanding could also create opportunities for new producers in the future. With some work, hopefully we will see the Mario P. Tribuno Memorial Fund directed back at solely advancing knowledge pertaining to vermouth.