FIRST-PERSON: Chrissy’s wine

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)--Last spring, I came across the following, charming passage in the Chicago Sun-Times (March 31, 2004):

“Police later would learn that ‘Chrissy’ was Christine Singleton, a 23-year-old woman who was found stabbed in a South Side gangway on Sept. 18, 1989. They’d also learn that [Michael] Ward confronted Singleton there because he believed she had stolen drugs, jewelry and cash from him. They argued, and Ward knocked a bottle of Night Train wine from Singleton’s mouth and stabbed her in the neck with the broken piece of glass.”

As awful as this crime was, the thing that struck me most was the naming of the wine. You just don’t see that in newspaper stories.

Not being an aficionado of alcoholic beverages, I turned to the Internet for background information. At bumwine.com, I found Night Train reviewed along with other such back-alley favorites as Thunderbird and Wild Irish Rose: “Some suspect that Night Train is really just Thunderbird with some Kool-Aid-like substance added to try to mask the Clorox flavor.”

Night Train is bottled by Ernest & Julio Gallo Winery in California, but you can’t tell it from their website, gallo.com. While they put their Gallo of Sonoma Estates Series of table wines up front, you can’t find Night Train. Not surprising, given Gallo’s obsession with corporate image. Their site features a vineyard at sunset (or sunrise), with the words “World Class Quality” superimposed. No dumpster in view. But I think I found a rationale for Night Train under Corporate Vision: “Relentlessly Focus on the Customer.”

Their focused take on “Chrissy” Singleton was uncanny in its accuracy; they knew her like the back of their hand. She was looking for something in a cheap sedative. As the bumwine.com critic puts it, “Some of our researchers indicated that it gave them a NyQuil-like drowsiness, and perhaps this is why they put ‘night’ in the name.” Yes, there are risks, but the wine will get you to the inebriated state you desire: “The night train runs only one route: sober to stupid with no roundtrip tickets available, and a strong likelihood of a train wreck along the way.” The price is right ($1-3 a bottle), and the experience only gets better as you go along: “[T]he first sip is always the foulest.”

It’s a pitiful affair, but that doesn’t stop the Gallo Brothers from delivering the goods, however surreptitiously. If they cared for souls, they wouldn’t be in the business, one which serves many skid-row customers at least a gallon a day. I looked on their “Heritage” timeline for mention of regret over Chrissy’s death, but I didn’t see it. They noted the opening of the first overseas office (in the U.K.) in 1985 and the introduction of their “Estate” wines in 1993, but nothing about Michael Ward’s murder with one of their broken bottles in 1989. I’m not sure the word got out to corporate headquarters in California.

(If you’d like to see more on Gallo’s, and Mogen David’s, hypocrisy, check out the July-August 1988 issue of Saturday Evening Post.)

My first fall here in Evanston, Ill., a towering Norwegian-American began attending our church, drawn there by a lakefront concert provided us by the choir from Broadview Missionary Baptist Church. We were both Vietnam-era military guys, and we hit it off well. Before long, he asked if I’d like to accompany him to one of his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I’d never been to one and was eager to see how they went.

The stories the members told were tragic but fascinating. One fellow was a genius at hiding his booze, whether behind encyclopedias, under chairs or in the yard. And this wasn’t train yard ripple. It was the pricey stuff, the kind Ernest and Julio would proudly display in their “Product Portfolio.” Night Train or Cabernet Sauvignon, the wreckage can be awful.

The Sun-Times article got me to thinking how great it would be if newspapers regularly reported the products involved in alcohol-related offenses. Here are a few selections from that same March 31 issue, followed by my suggested additions:

“Two weeks ago, a woman named Lynda Fairman was stopped by a Palos Heights police officer for driving her car all over the road. Fairman made it clear to the officer just who her dad was –- former Gov. George Ryan. The officer managed to shake off his awe and arrest Fairman on a charge of driving under the influence.”

ADD: While searching the car, the police found a half-empty bottle of Paul Masson Grande Amber Brandy, with traces of the suspect’s lipstick around the rim.

“According to police, Anne Hatch, 21, and Elizabeth Bell Hatch, 22, were partying at the Crobar nightclub when the pair became belligerent and refused to leave the area after being bounced from the club. Police said Elizabeth Hatch charged a squad car and struck an officer in the face, knocking off the officer’s glasses.”

ADD: The bartender said that Anne had had several servings of Jack Daniels Lynchburg Lemonade and that Elizabeth favored Smirnoff Raspberry Twist Screwdrivers.

“A new study out Friday indicates that binge drinking is most prevalent in the upper Midwest. Defined as drinking five or more alcoholic beverages within a few hours, binge drinking also is prevalent in Texas and Nevada but is lowest in the South, the research shows.”

ADD: Heileman’s Old Style Beer is particularly popular among binge drinkers in Wisconsin, while Michelob Golden Draft Light leads in Minnesota.

That would keep the alcohol industry’s PR men hopping. Wouldn’t you hate that job if the whole truth were told?


Mark Coppenger, at markcoppenger@earthlink.net, is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church. His commentaries appear biweekly in the Illinois Baptist newsjournal.

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