What will you miss about summer? I’m going to miss sangria.
This article was supposed to be a love letter to sangria. It was going to take the wondrousness of the refreshment—named for its blood-red color—as an uncontroversial pretext. It would then define its terms, explaining that sangria is made of wine (usually red, although sangria blanca uses white), sweetness (usually simple syrup, honey, or OJ), chopped fruit (any combination of oranges, lemon, limes, peaches, pears, nectarines, guavas, apples, grapes, melons, mangoes, and/or berries), brandy, and occasionally soda water. It would languorously trace sangria’s evolution, noting that the Romans first planted vineyards in Hispania 2,000 years ago, and that the covertly alcoholic punch resembles medieval European blends of wine, spices, fruits, and brandy. It might throw in some trivia—that when Keats dreamed of the “true, the blushful Hippocrene,/ with beaded bubbles winking at the brim,” he may have been alluding to hippocras, one of sangria’s ancestors; that Jane Austen’s heroines drank a version of sangria at their dance parties; that sangria might have arrived in the United States with the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.
The essay would then breezily catalog some of sangria’s contemporary cousins: the West Indian cocktail known as sangaree, say, or “mangria,” which masculinely blends red wine with grape vodka. There’s a nonalcoholic version sold as a soft drink in Mexico. There’s an unfunny New Yorker cartoon about sangria. As a woman’s name, it is rare but not unheard of.
The essay would go on to itemize a few of the drink’s positive qualities—shareability, deliciousness, attractive ruby-red color—in a languid, circling manner, not in the interests of building an argument but just to facilitate appreciation. I envisioned a woozy, celebratory piece. A toast, if you will. Something honeyed and pleasant to pass around the table at cocktail hour before readers turned to the fuller, darker notes of Slate’s political and economics coverage.
But that is not going to happen. Why? Because it turns out that, rather than being universally feted as divine, fruity mouth magic, sangria is under siege.
“Gross,” wrote one co-worker. “Too sweet and headachy,” said another. “Both sickening and a bestower of ruthless hangovers,” grumped a third. Outside the office, friends (now mere acquaintances) used the descriptors “ew” and “no,” accompanied by disgusted facial expressions. Even mixologists tend to hail their distinctive sangria recipes by promising they don’t taste much like sangria. Kingsley Amis damned the brew with faint praise: It’s “cheap, easy to make up, and pretty harmless,” he said, “so that you can drink a lot of it without falling down.”
This spring, when the New York Times explored sangria options in the five boroughs, the article was headlined, “Refreshing New Sangrias to Chase Away Bad Memories”—as if the old sangrias had afflicted us all with PTSD. The LA Times lamented “terrific sangria, sangria with some depth and complexity … is hard to come by.” Virginia wins the gold star for sangria intolerance: The concoction was illegal in the commonwealth until 2008, thanks to an obscure post-Prohibition law that punished violators with up to a year in jail time.
Why all this spite? Sangria has so much to recommend it. Functionally speaking, it is a social lubricant par excellence. Back in medieval Spain, both aristocrats and peasants drank it, and it retains the aura of something at once sophisticated and unpretentiously folksy. It traditionally comes in a bowl or pitcher, to facilitate sharing. And it allows people who don’t particularly enjoy the taste of alcohol—not to mention health nuts who obsess about getting in all their servings of fruit each day—to participate happily in happy hour.
Sangria is also a performance and a puzzle. Delectable buoys of fruit, soaked overnight in the crimson liquid, bob around the glass. These fruit bits must eventually find their way to your mouth. But how? Perhaps via your lover’s fingers, upon a romantic evening. Perhaps via your own fingers, upon a devil-may-care evening (or a sloppy one). Perhaps via one of those wooden sangria forks that dwell, alongside certain other rare instruments, on Amazon. As a result of the fruit challenge, each serving of sangria exudes erotic, comic, even balletic possibilities.
Most of all, though, there’s its taste. Sparkling, aromatic, refreshing. Just a bit exotic. And sweet.
And here, we’ve reached the crux of the matter, the starting point for sangria haters. Much of their hostility, I suspect, really flows from a more general snobbery about sweet foods. It’s true that some people simply prefer protein to sucrose. Others, though, announce this bias with a specific, theatrical relish that gives them away. Oh, I CAN’T STAND [dish X], it’s FAR too sweet. Their aim seems to be to draw a correlation between taste preferences and maturity level. (You appreciate the marshmallow-and-toasted-oat alchemy of Lucky Charms, therefore you are 7.) But let’s put this pseudoscience to rest. While studies suggest that kids are especially likely to favor sweet tastes because they’re associated with calorie-rich, growth spurt-friendly foods, no research links an adult love of sugar or Splenda to stunted mental or emotional development. (Conversely, eating a wheel of très sophisticated Roquefort cheese can’t raise your IQ or put you in touch with your feelings.) I am not disputing the merits of pursuing a balanced diet; I only question the heroism in rejecting comestibles that secretly appeal to you. If one is meeting one’s nutritional needs, who cares if one happens to possess the taste buds of a toddler? Some people unwind by indulging in foie gras and the sharp bite of a Scotch neat. Others enjoy pixie sticks and sangria. Calm down.
Of course, summer’s waning renders most of this moot anyway, since sangria is passing out of season. But I take comfort in the fact that I am not alone in my appreciation: The top four sangria-only retailers in the United States grew by an aggregate 15 percent last year. Now, as we inch closer to months of ice and goose-down parkas, when sangria will seem a faraway dream, I stand ready to welcome its sugary, fruity winter alter ego: mulled wine.
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