There was the huge demand for so-called fortified wines, or “dessert wines,” with high alcohol content, such as angelica, muscatel, port, and sherry. Largely because of their high-alcohol content and relatively inexpensive price (50 to 75 cents per bottle), these “proof per penny wines” proved more popular than dry wines in the United States. Dessert wines outsold table wines approximately three to one. Since they were cheaper to produce than quality table wines and seldom aged, the American wine industry largely devoted to the production of these dessert wines in the 1940s and 1950s. Ernest Gallo, founder of E. & J. Gallo Winery, insisted that people bought vintage wines primarily to show off and the “greatest consumption was among those who were drinking dessert wines for alcoholic reasons, that is, drinking it for the alcoholic content.” He had little patience with people who talked about making American wine more sophisticated or changing American tastes. By the late 1970s, Gallo had accounted for more than 30 percent of the national wine market.
On the contrary, the wine importer Frank Schoonmaker regarded the popularity of dessert wines as “abnormal and unhealthy.” In The Complete Wine Book (1934), he lambasted the state of the American industry: its devotion to dessert wines, the overall poor quality of its products, and its use of generic labels and commercially invented names. Like Schoonmaker, Leon Adams considered dessert wine as distasteful. Adams especially denounced the term “fortified” as “a most ugly word.” Mass media as well as the wine industry had widely used the term to signify dessert wine in general. In retrospect, Adams later stated that fortified wines “almost killed the wine industry.” The word in itself had a connotation of “skid row drink.”
Besides, in Adams’s view, the general low-quality of fortified wines prevented Americans from developing their palate. He asserted that many Americans “ha[d] not yet been subjected to the civilizing influence of flavorful cuisine.” In such “gastronomic deserts of America, wine, which enhances food flavors, does not compete with catsup, which hides flavors that usually deserve to be hidden.” Believing that his mission was “to civilize American drinking, teach Americans to use wine,” Adams assisted winery executives to found the Wine Institute, an advocacy group for the California wine industry, in 1934.
Through the Wine Institute board of directors, Adams requested that the federal government amend the regulations to prohibit the use of the word “fortified” in any advertising or labeling. Instead of “fortified,” Adams suggested “dessert wine,” defined as wine with more than 14 percent alcohol content, and at the same time proposed the word “table wine” to designate non-sparkling wine with not over 14 percent alcohol. In 1938, the class of fortified wines was renamed dessert wines and the low-alcohol content wine as table wines. Sparkling wines, such as champagne, were classified as the latter category. By replacing the term, fortified, with dessert wines, Adams and the government officials aimed to eliminate the general association of wine with low-quality booze.