A unique home-made product from California’s wine country. And unlike the WMD in Iraq, the Wine of Mass Destruction actually exists.
Anyone who lives in Northern California is automatically a wine person, because of geography. And as we all know, there’s a lot of vino culture to navigate. Which wine is best with swordfish? What’s an appropriate bottle for a gift that won’t appear cheap, but is? What’s the hot new wine bar? Which wine festival? What vintage? Where? Whose wine charm is this?
Living in Wine Land can often be similar to the experience of standing in line at Starbucks, listening to some needy person waste 10 minutes of everyone’s time, ordering a coffee that looks like a milkshake. The options are endless. In all the excitement, we forget the primary purpose of both wine and coffee: Get it down your gullet. That’s why, on my deck right now, sits the Wine of Mass Destruction.
Technically it’s a 2002 Zinfandel, blended with Cabernet. But it’s best known as WMD (and unlike Iraq’s alleged WMD, it exists). No label, no numerical rating, no suggestions for food pairings. There’s not even a bottle. The WMD dispenses from a silver 5-gallon cylinder once used for soft drinks. And it tastes great. I mean, it’s a broad-shouldered red, muscular yet crafty, prevailing new wood, with forward loganberry and hopeful pear, scant juniper and top notes of cocoa. The pear is especially hopeful.
WMD does not originate from a faux-rustic winery in Sonoma, with a cutesy gift shop and tour buses in the parking lot. Nor is it the gentleman’s hobby of a retired physician eager to become famous. And, restaurants don’t offer it at a 300 percent markup. WMD comes from a far less glamorous source: an industrial park in Concord.
Beer, Beer and More Beer’s warehouse resembles an auto parts store, except instead of oil filters and fan belts, they sell fermenting tanks and pH meters. BBMB is the world’s largest such company, and ships its equipment around the globe. The work environment is happy, especially with five beers always on tap, and the company even sponsors a Tiki-Bar-on-wheels in the annual Bay to Breakers race. Four years ago, employees started making their own in-house wines.
Vice chief engineer Regan Dillon leads me up a flight of stairs and opens a cooler door. Inside are about 50 of the soft-drink tanks, filled with red wines, all resting comfortably at 61 degrees. Each container holds the equivalent of two bottled cases from a specific grape. These Cornelius or “corny” tanks are the blending sources for the Wine of Mass Destruction.
Each season, BBMB makes its wine from several varieties of grapes, and then throughout the year, employees experiment with different blends. The WMD is always big and earthy Zinfandels, Syrahs and Cabernets and is customized for the tastebuds of only two people, Regan Dillon and his girlfriend, Cindy Rae. The rest of the employees are beer guys and don’t really drink wine. The Wine of Mass Destruction got its name during the hunt for WMD in Iraq. When Dillon arrived at a Christmas party carrying one of the cylinders over his shoulder, someone pointed at it and exclaimed, “It’s the Wine of Mass Destruction!”
Pouring directly from a Cornelius tank is sacrilegious to wine snobs, of course. Finicky home winemakers insist on bottling and designing their own labels. Impatience is another hallmark. “The wine people always show up in the fall,” Regan adds. “They want all the equipment, and they want it now.”
We make our way through the stainless-steel grape crushers and destemmer machines, all of which look insanely complex. I wonder what kind of person would choose the hassle of making wine, instead of just buying a bottle at a store. “They’re mostly guys 35 to 50,” Regan says with a shrug. “Maybe they have a 5-acre lot. ‘Should we get some horses? Let’s put some grapes in.’ ”
BBMB has tried grapes from the valley regions, and discovered the hillside yield is usually better than the valley. If you’re growing your own, I learn, don’t bother the first few years, because the grapes will be bad. The fifth year is when they start to get really good. And several decades later, long after you’re dead, your descendants can boast about the 100-year-old vines.
Back in the main warehouse, I sip a Scottish ale and stare at the shelves of yeasts and sulfites and chronometers and malolactic bacteria. Wine making is as geeky as anything else. Bins are filled with corks and tubing and little bolts, including the all-important quarter-inch swivel nut flare fitting. BBMB sells three types of oak chips: French for mild, Hungarian for a middle range and American oak for a harsher edge, usually Cabernets. You can always mix the oaks together, for that not-so-mild, Franco-Hungarian feel. A basic winemaking kit, including grape concentrate and chemicals, costs about $200 to $300, and someone could start bottling after 40 days.
It’s finally time to taste the WMD. Dillon brings out a glass gallon jug of 2002 Merlot, blended with American and French oak, and pours it into paper cups. Sounds crude, but really, is it any less vulgar than a Parisian restaurant filling carafes from a wooden keg? To me, it seems exotic and rarefied. That is, until it hits the tongue. This is bold and present, like a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but way too much oak for my taste. Like licking the trunk of a tree. But that’s OK. Every batch is different. And I still have most of a container of WMD Zinfandel sitting on the deck of my house. Regan Dillon smiles and lights a cigar. “This is just grape juice with chemicals.”
(This first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, and is also archived here.)