Drinking the Bottom Shelf: Richards Wild Irish Rose

Drinking the Bottom Shelf

Will Gordon drinks his way through the bottom shelf of the liquor store...so you don’t have to.


I live in Cambridge, which is a strange place. Strange isn't always the same thing as interesting, so I'll try to keep this and future digressions on the workaday weirdness of my surroundings brief: I know we've got cheap booze to drink. But like any good story, this one needs to start in the middle.

One of the signature—and Bottom Shelf-relevant—oddities of this relatively rich place is that so many of the civilians operate in states of sartorial disarray. I tend to be a bit undersheveled myself; my nicest t-shirts are the ones with the bleach stains, because at least they indicate onetime proximity to a cleaning process. But even though my Sunday-best liquor distributor freebies have bathroom-cleaner scars, I still never feel underdressed around here. That's because an uncommon percentage of my fellows are dirty grad students, dirtier hippies, or dirtiest street folk. It's not always easy to sort individual specimens without whipping out the dirtometer. The good news here is that there's rarely any good reason to sort them. The other news, if you're an inveterate sorter like myself, is that the truth lies in the eyes: Grad students are dead-eyed, hippies are googly-eyed, and street folk are wild-eyed. So naturally I gravitate toward the street folk.

Most of Cambridge is the same as it ever was, but a couple grubby handfuls of things have changed since my last tour ended in the fall of 2009. Most of these changes don't matter, so let's complain about the ones that do. 1) The hamburgers have gotten very expensive. 2) The roads have all been bombed to the point of being borderline unbikeable, which won't be noticeable come December because the city traded all the snow plows for LED signs that flash lies about street closings and detours. 3) My man Sammy's gone.

Sammy was, I guess, a bum. The thing is, that word makes me uncomfortable. I have a filthy mouth and on any given day most of the things I say after "good morning" are offensive, but, for whatever reason, I'm uncomfortable calling a bum a bum. This is why I cringe a little bit every time I set about to review cheap fortified wine, because these things are popularly known as bum wines. There's even a pretty funny website called Bum Wine. I like the site, hence the link, but as invaluable as the content is, I can't fully endorse the tone. I'm not sure the author respects bums, which can only lead me to conclude he never met Sammy.

Sammy was a pleasant and scuzzy little man who wandered up and down Mass Ave. twenty hours a day, doing pleasant and scuzzy things and generally adding a little life to the street. He spent the other four hours recharging in the YMCA flophouse across from City Hall. He held this gig for decades that should have stretched into forever, but he got shipped out after the 500th time he almost burned the place down with a contraband cigarette. I heard a neighborhood benefactor found him a placement at a similar facility in Florida.

Anyhow, Sammy didn't drink bum wine (nips of whiskey on the street and Miller High Life when you could herd him into the bar for a quick one), and none of the similarly situated cats I see living-ish in the park do either. So what we're going to do here is review a bum wine, and then stop saying "bum wine," please. It might be disrespectful—you can tell by my own shifting vocabulary that I don't know what the hell to call these never-risen angels and I generally avoid playing word cop—but it's definitely inaccurate. The bums I know drink hard liquor. And they're not bums, damn it. But then I guess they kinda are.

Which brings us to Richards Wild Irish Rose. I'd never tried this, but it's been recommended by some commenters on previous bum wine posts, and I recognize its place in the canon. It's pretty pricey, though: I paid $4.99 per bottle at a reasonably priced store full of cheaper buzzes (FourLoko and all that for $2.99, plus the abominable Olde Savannah Sweet Tea Wine for $1.99) and even cheaper real wines (jugs of Gallo and whatever South American runoff lurks in the 3-for-$12 bin). I got a red and a white. They're both 18% ABV screw-caps of what purports to be "100% Grape Wine with Citrus Spirits."

The red is decidedly undisgusting: It doesn't resemble proper wine, per se, but in a blind test, you'd probably identify it as some sort of agricultural product. It's pretty, too. If you stare too intently into the glass, you'll notice a disconcerting grease amoeba sloshing around on the surface, but why would you stare, and furthermore why would you be drinking it out of a glass? So let's go back to calling it pretty. It smells too sweet, but the alcohol burn cuts that out right quick on the tongue in a nice bit of accidental balance. It tastes a bit like cheap cherry hard candy, and that's alright with me.

The white sucks. It tastes like crunchy milk augmented by the same sleazy fake vanilla you'd find in vanilla-flavored cat food if they made vanilla-flavored cat food, which they might. Same surface-slime deal as the red, too.

I'll finish the red some medium-dark day, but I wouldn't wish the white on anyone.