'Sex' Sells

How a name he never thought would be approved turned Larry Mawby's sparkling wine into a national brand


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Call it the law of unintended consequences, but what happened to Michigan’s premier sparkling winemaker Larry Mawby several years ago certainly hits that note.

It started as a venting of frustration at government, an attempt to tweak the nose of those silly bureaucrats. Instead, it ended up launching a national brand name.

By now, almost everybody has seen that sparkling wine on shelves labeled “Sex.” But not many people know the funny story behind how it came about. 

Back in the early 1990s, Mawby, then still a bit of a struggling winemaker, was trying to settle on exactly what he wanted to make. He had worked with all sorts of reds and whites from standard European grapes and hybrid grapes. He had blended them in all sorts of ways, until he began to settle on what he does exclusively today: sparkling wine. 

Mawby was also one of many hundreds of winemakers and winery owners across the country who were constantly at odds with the federal government over regulations that amounted to censorship of what they could put on wine labels. 

The regulators, at the time, were the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF). And some of the things they did were ridiculously picky.

For example, the BATF ordered Clos Pegase winery in California to crop a proposed wine label with an abstract painting by artist Jean DuBuffet of a frontal nude male figure standing with hands by his sides. Regulators insisted the label show nothing south of the waistline. Which kind of ruined the painting. Needless to say, Clos Pegase’s owner and art collector Jan Schrem went ballistic.

Meanwhile, the winemaker at Christian Brothers, Brother Timothy, a monk, was fighting BATF over sulfite content warnings on wine labels. According to a story that made the rounds in the wine industry years ago, one day he quipped had BATF had been around at the Last Supper, it would have required that when Jesus passed the wine chalice to his apostle, he must state: “And this is my blood, but before you sip, my son, know that it contains sulfites.” 

So it was in that atmosphere that Larry Mawby wondered what would happen if he submitted a label named “Sex.”

Mawby filled out the form and sent it in, fully expecting it would be rejected. Weeks later, he was a little dumbfounded when he received a response from the BATF telling him that his application had been approved. Sex could indeed be used as a name of a wine.

Since he hadn’t planned for this, Mawby suddenly had a problem. He didn’t have enough sparkling wine to meet the demand. So he scrambled around northern Michigan, begging other wineries for whatever white they could spare.

Eventually, he came up with just enough to get him by that first year. 

But sales took off like a rocket ship to the moon, confirming that old advertising adage that sex does indeed sell. 

And, the rest, as they say, is history. Sex is now sold all across the country. Within a few years, Sex and its younger sibling wines Wet, Fizz, and now Green, all have been big successes. And they have allowed Mawby to concentrate on his more serious wine like Talisman, which has brought him international recognition.

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