A beautiful, worldly thirtysomething woman I know, to be identified only as Andrea ("no last name please") for reasons soon to become apparent, recently invited me out to dinner. It would be an opportunity, she told me, to observe a peculiar habit of hers. Andrea is a fashion-world insider from Hong Kong whose job requires entertaining and dining with important clients, which is how she developed a penchant for something called "blush fizz."
"My boss loves fine wine," she explained, "so we often drink grand crus for business. The problem is, I don't really like wine – I've tasted enough to know I don't have the palate for it. Plus, I get drunk really easily and then I feel bad the next day and I hate that." Andrea has devised a solution: cutting red wine with Sprite to make a blush fizz. The mix, she said, not only renders the wine more palatable to her, but also allows her to drink a couple of glasses without getting inebriated.
To show me how it works, she ordered a typical bottle of wine she'd drink at a company meal, in this case a Vosne-Romanée Aux Malconsorts by the esteemed Burgundian producer Domaine Dujac.
We were at Luckee Restaurant in Toronto, where the bottle, nowhere near the most expensive on the list, cost a hefty $375. As the sommelier headed off to fetch the bottle, she turned to a busboy and ordered a Sprite.
The wine was duly opened and tasted. The sommelier waxed rhapsodic about its purity, elegance and refinement. Andrea nodded along, calling it "the Céline of wine," a reference to the minimalist French fashion line. I found it excellent, if a tad beyond my usual price point. When the som left, Andrea surreptitiously poured half the wine glass into her tall glass of Sprite, creating a pinkish mélange that she gleefully sipped with a straw.
"Sure, the wine tastes good," she allowed, "but the blush fizz tastes really good. The Sprite is too sweet on its own and the wine too strong, but together they're just perfect."
Such scenarios may seem blasphemous to the average Western wine lover, but they're happening all over the world as cultures not used to drinking wine are becoming richer and drinking wine to display status. Not versed in the traditions of wine tasting, they modify wine to their own preferences.
Wealthy Russian patrons at private clubs in London regularly order pricey bottles of French wine with a side bottle of soda pop. Diners in Tokyo mix Italian whites with green-tea flavoured soft drinks. And forget merely putting sugar cubes into prosecco: Some high-rolling Brazilians stir artificial sweetener into their flutes of Dom Pérignon.
No country takes this collision of luxe and junk to the same extremes as China, where the elite have more money than God. Just as mixing white wine with Sprite is a common occurrence over there, so is the vinous use of Coca-Cola. Chef Gavin Russell, currently executive chef at the fivestar Han Yue Lou hotel in Nanjing, told me about a lavish winemaker dinner he recently prepared.
"The Chinese diners kept mixing Coca-Cola into their wine glasses, in the presence of the French vignerons," he recalls. "We're talking firstgrowth Bordeaux wines – Lafitte and Latour – cut with Coke. I asked the guys from the châteaux, 'Doesn't it bother you that they're doing that? Isn't it disrespectful?' But they didn't mind. 'At first, yes, it bothered us,' they told me. 'But now we're just happy they're buying our wine, so they can do whatever they want with it.'" China has become the most lucrative market in the world for luxury wine and spirits producers.
It also happens to be a country where they traditionally drink their alcohol like water. "They're used to filling tiny glasses with baijo and knocking them back," Russell explains. "So you'll see them filling their wine glasses to the rim and then chugging it."
The esteemed wine writer Jancis Robinson, when asked what she thinks about the Chinese penchant for mixing Pétrus with cola, scoffed.
"That's not how the wine is meant to be enjoyed," she said. That's true – a Château Margaux 1961 isn't meant to be diluted or amplified in any way. But neither is it meant to be enjoyed with Mandarin sweet-and-sour squirrelfish, so, while you're enjoying dishes like that, why not drink whatever you want?
It's true that sipping a wine, savouring the bouquet, tasting rather than gulping, is part of the joy of loving wine – and that know-how will certainly come as newly minted wine-aficionados learn that there's more to wine than showing off how big your bank account is. To the true enthusiast, appreciating the subtleties that come with training one's palate is the whole point.
But even more important than detecting sousbois notes is remembering that wine is meant to increase happiness and pleasure. Top sommeliers will all tell you that champagne tastes great with potato chips or popcorn. Some premium barolos are perfect with takeout pizza. Everybody mocks the person who dares add ice to his or her wine at a summer barbecue, but doing so was common practice among Florentine nobility during the Renaissance. As anyone who has ever summered on the French Riviera can tell you, everybody on the beach drinks ice-cube-filled glasses of rosé through straws. And what of ancient Greece, where Plato and Socrates enjoyed wine blended with honey and spices?
Perhaps Andrea's choice of a blush fizz isn't that outlandish after all. At Luckee, finishing our Peking duck, the busboy noticed her empty glass.
"Would you like another Sprite?" he asked.
"Absolutely," she answered.
This story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Globe Style Advisor. To download the magazine's free iPad app, visit tgam.ca/styleadvisor.