Never underestimate the Southern capacity for drink. I learned this lesson on road-trip stop somewhere between Georgia and Deliverance, inside a truck stop station. My jaw hit the floor when I saw Wild Turkey and Budweiser shoved in alongside gummy candies and two liters of Fanta, having expected uptight, labyrinthine liquor ordinances below the Mason-Dixon. The cashier rolled his eyes and crossed his arms. “Honey, honey, HON-ey,” he drawled, adding a syllable and a half to every word. “The Pope don’t recognize fornicators, and Baptists don’t recognize each other at the liquor store.”
In translation, “polite on paper, and sauced on the side.” Sounds a bit like Rhode Island, which still bears the marks of Puritanism and the temperance movement’s so-called blue laws, yet rates among the booziest states in the nation. Bars are as plentiful here as the barflies are thirsty, and liquor stores do ripping business within their limited hours. Nice to know that more than I-95 unites North and South, one supposes.
Lolita Healy, a Reese Witherspoon look-alike and Atlanta native, is certainly capitalizing on that common ground. After relocating to the area for love and marriage, Healy fell hard for Providence’s creative scene, and chose to situate her company, Designs by Lolita, within city limits. What began in 2004 with a Sex and the City-inspired foray into hyper-femme, cheeky barware recently culminated in wines with a similar spirit, and the response has been enthusiastic – if a little slurred, too.
Armed with a bottle each of Lolita’s red, white and sparkling rosé, I invited friends for a tasting, otherwise known as “Tuesday night with an 80% chance of morning-after hangover.” (85-90%, if we’re being honest.) Now, as a barely-reformed tomboy more familiar with Band-Aid-clad knees and tangled hair than the well-coiffed, small-waisted forms on Lolita’s bottles, I underestimated the wines’ punch. All of us did, opting out of the usual sobriety saving tricks like canapés or that thing called “moderation.”
About an hour in, we found ourselves collectively hammered, and rather jarringly so for a group of practiced drinkers. I grabbed one bottle, the “Ravishing Red,” and squinted hard at the label. 14.5% alcohol. To convey how uncommonly strong that is, it’s on par with the percentage in alcohol-bomb cab-savs preferred by big-gutted, cigar-chomping fellas. Life lessons present themselves, here: One, don’t assume cute equals weak. Two, always nosh on something before hitting the sauce.
Brawn was no accident on Lolita’s part, since cross-gender appeal was part of her goal from square one. Although she began with a desire to help foster female bonding – and, really, what’s better for bonding than shared drinks? Lolita has also tried to resist gender stereotypes in surprising ways. Her wines are hardly what we imagine our mothers pass around. But the broader goal was to create wines that are, as Lolita says, “objectively good.” In other words, wines that can stand alone or pair with food, and that are fun conversation pieces in and of themselves.
After building a following with glassware and other designs, now sold in 8,000 stores internationally, Lolita first considered entering the wine business when it became her fans’ top request. Yes, fans. Lolita is the kind of person who draws them, functioning not just as a designer or business owner but also a brand avatar. This likely clashes with the outlook that most vintners and connoisseurs share, which views wines rather than winemakers as celebrities. Lolita’s chutzpah would likely vex that crowd further still: How could somebody just decide to make wine, tout suite, and yield anything respectable? Even powerhouse winemakers struggle.
To her credit, Lolita appears to make no time for neuroses and equivocation. Instead, she assesses, decides and acts in short order, and her path to date shows no folly in doing so. For her wine venture, she partnered with Federal Hill’s well-respected Gasbarro’s Wines to glean industry expertise, as well as with what she terms a “boutique” producer on the Italian boot’s heel for her grapes and vintages. After the success of the first three wines, her initial o!ering is poised for national release outside New England, and more varieties are in the works.
Conventional she’s not by winemaking standards, but those who might pinch their noses ought to un-pinch them and have a glass. Or, as another plucky Southern gal by the name of Dolly Parton once said, “Get down off the cross, honey. Somebody else needs the wood.”