The Boxwooder
Number 120, July 1979
Confession of a Wine Taster
Front Cover


Confession of a Wine Taster makes me feel I was born 30 years too late. – Evelyn Pruitt


The wine glass on the cover is a woodcut by Quick Carlson.

THE reputation I seem to have acquired in some quarters as an expert winetaster is hardly deserved. In most instances I had seen the bottle! The one occasion that springs to mind in which that was hidden does not reveal much sophistication.

Upon my return in 1926, after five years in Europe following my first marriage, we found the prohibition law in force. We obeyed it religiously during the next seven years. When it was repealed under President Roosevelt in 1933, we were in California, and as a first step to the resumption of the mild wine drinking we had become accustomed to in Europe, we tried a white wine from the Napa Valley which bore the confusing title “dry sauterne.” Confusing because the sauternes from Bordeaux had always been sweet. Nevertheless the Napa Valley wine proved suitable for the frequent picnics that the California climate invited.

On returning to Chicago, at a party given by Harry Bigelow, then dean of the University of Chicago law school, wine was served. There were about 14 guests, and the bottles were brought in what might have been mistaken for the swaddling clothes babies were wrapped in around 1900. After one sip the wine declared itself unmistakably as “dry sauterne.” In order to show the host appreciation, I shouted several times until he was forced to pay attention. He denied the attribution, protesting loudly, “You’re wrong; it’s a Chablis.” But, after the dessert, he drew me aside and whispered, “Damn it, John, why did you do that. I was trying to get rid of the stuff on second-string guests.”

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As a child I was allowed no “alcoholic” beverages. An exception was a spot of brandy with castor oil. This did not make either liquid agreeable. Another exception was after my mother died in 1909 and my father and I began to visit Europe in the academic summer vacation. Although virtually a teetotalist himself, my father, during his studies for the doctor’s degree in the 1880’s in Munich, had developed a taste for some of the famous brews served in the enormous beer halls. After 1909, when our European trips began, he used to take me along, and I was permitted some beer.

Visits to Munich were short and infrequent. We spent most summers in Switzerland. An unsatisfied longing developed to taste the dark red liquid in the glasses of diners in the hotels my father frequented there and in the Tyrol. The outbreak of the first world war in 1914 found us above Zermatt. On the way back through France to board a French Line ship (The Flanders), we spent several days in Le Havre at the beginning of September when, unknown to us, the first battle of the Marne was being fought. It was an exciting time for everyone in France whether or not they knew the extent of the German invasion, and my father was in no mood to enforce his regulations. The lunch and dinner menus always included a bottle of red or white wine for each person. This unexpected freedom to indulge an anticipated pleasure almost persuaded me that war was a good thing.

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AFTER my father died in 1915, I lived with my guardian and his wife, George and Helen Mead, and learned about two famous wines which they and their circle drank on exceptional occasions. One was Chateau Yquem, another Berncastler Doktor. The first is probably the greatest of Sauternes. The second is perhaps the greatest of Mosels. It does not last well, is at its best after two or three years in the bottle. The first wine is most luscious but too sweet to be drunk appropriately, as the Castle-Mead clan drank it, with the main courses of a meal. Elinor and I were given some of our wedding breakfast, the choice of our aunt, Helen Castle Mead.

We went to Europe unprepared for the finer shades of wine drinking. Soon after arriving in Paris in December, 1921, a late Christmas Eve supper in a crowded nightclub gave me my first taste of champagne. I did not like it; it reminded me of beer.

Once settled into life abroad after New Years, 1922, instruction in wine came in abundance. We lived in the Hotel Metropole in Montpellier during the first winter and often chose Chateauneuf-du-Pape in lieu of the vins ordinaires of Languedoc which were part of the table d’hote. We used to say we could “taste the grape” in this Rhone wine, and Chateauneuf-du-Pape became a feature of the meals to which new-found friends were invited.

Later, during prolonged residences in Paris, we learned that 1911 had been a remarkably good year for the wines of France. In the early 1920’s many connoisseurs used to frequent, for after-theatre supper, a restaurant on the Rue Royale called Weber. One night after ordering foie gras, salad, and cheese, I ran over the wine list looking for 1911’s and (quite innocently) fixed on a Chateau Lafite. No liquid had ever tasted better or blended so happily with the food. This is how we were introduced to what is often regarded as the greatest of clarets. A bottle of early 19th-century Chateau Lafite is said to have sold recently for $14,000. Needless to say no 1911 wine was that expensive in the 1920’s.

On a visit to Newcastle in 1924 in search of documentary evidence about the British coal industry, the town clerk took us to lunch and ordered (innocently, also!) a 1921 Berncastler Doktor. He intended to reconcile me to what he regarded (quite erroneously) as the absence of any valuable information about the early coal trade in the Newcastle municipal archives. He succeeded in diverting us beyond his hopes. In German wines, 1921 was perhaps the best year of this century, and he had provided this Mosel when it had aged just enough to be perfect.

During the early twenties our gastronomic education in France came chiefly from two sources. First, from a series of tiny paperback books written by two self-appointed experts, Curnofsky and Rouff, and called La France Gastronomique. We were able to follow these gourmands to several provincial addresses, to the advantage of our knowledge of wines, but not to indulge the excessive appetites which swelled both men to enormous dimensions insuring early death. One occasion that has left an indelible impression was when, on our way back to Paris from the Riviera in 1925, we stopped overnight in Dijon for no purpose other than to lunch at the then famous restaurant called Les Trois Faisans. We ordered lunch in advance and fixed on a great 1915 Chambertin. It fitted admirably the meal which included roast pheasant and a dish I have never tasted since (or before), haricots verts au gratin.

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The second source of our knowledge during the early twenties was our friend Costaki Katsimbalis, a Greek of my father’s generation who provided much helpful instruction, particularly in the great restaurants of Paris. There were more such restaurants then than now. The two which taught me the most were Larue and Voisin. We became such habitues at Larue that they even catered a luncheon into our flat in the Avenue de Saxe where I was laid up with a bad cold which the food and wine immediately cured.

But Voisin made the most enduring impression. That famous restaurant was on the southeast corner of the Rue Cambon and the Rue St. Honore. It was founded by a man named Voisin early in the nineteenth century and lasted almost a hundred years, first under its founder and then under his son-in-law. He had been in charge almost fifty years when, in 1925, we began to frequent it. Among the extraordinary items on the wine list was a great Napoleon brandy. We stumbled on it one night after dinner. It tasted so good we took a bottle home. It soon became the Mecca for Sunday luncheon guests who, coming at one o’clock, would remain until six, unable to tear themselves away from the soft, tender flavor that had accumulated in those bottles during more than a hundred years. After purchasing six bottles or so, one at a time on visits to the restaurant, I returned for another and was told by the friendly owner that he could not sell me any more. “Oh,” I said, “dear sir, I haven’t been paying nearly enough, please charge me more.”

“That’s not the point,” he said. “You’ve had your quota.” He was right. We had already drunk all that was needed to erase the memory of castor oil.

The owner’s moral integrity was revealed even better from a story printed shortly afterward by one of his English clients. He had been singing the praises of this restaurant on the Channel crossing to a distinguished Hungarian nobleman who had never visited Voisin’s. “Then I must introduce you,” the Englishman insisted. They fixed on an evening. The Englishman went in some days ahead to prepare the owner and explain that he had asked the Hungarian to name his favorite wine which turned out to be an Essence of Tokay. The meal was a total success and the Hungarian pronounced the Essence of Tokay the best had ever savored. When he paid the bill, the Englishman was astounded to find that he had been charged only $2 for the bottle, a small sum even in those days for a famous wine when a single peach could set one back $1 in a first class Paris restaurant. A few days later he asked the owner how he had come by this bottle. The Voisin proprietor explained that he knew the butler at the Austrian embassy and had bought it from him. “How much did you pay?” the Englishman asked.

“Five dollars.”

“But you only charged two dollars.”

“That’s all it’s worth,” was the dry comment of Voisin’s son-in-law.

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VOISON had been the haunt of famous Americans, particularly of Henry James and through him of Edith Wharton. The two stories I have told are surely authentic, but I cannot resist telling a third that is based on hearsay. In 1925 or 1926, after a drunken early morning, Scott Fitzgerald, who was hardly in the Wharton or James tradition, is said to have entered Voisin at lunch time and ordered a “shredded wheat.” The proprietor was informed. Quietly but firmly he escorted the novelist to the door saying, “Good bye, sir. This is a restaurant.”

Kitsimbalis’s instruction extended to the French provinces. He sent us to Mere Filiou in Lyons, a city often regarded as the summit of French cuisine. She offered what was perhaps the most exquisite meal of the early 20’s in France. We were among the last of her visitors, for she died in the autumn of 1925. Hers was an unpretentious place with sawdust on the floor, located on the outskirts of the city. We took the early morning train from Evian, where we had spent two nights with the Kitsimbalis, in time to arrive for lunch. There was a wreck on the line, and we did not reach Lyons until 2:30 in the afternoon. When we explained the circumstances to Mere Filiou, she said it didn’t matter, she would serve us anyway although the last guests were leaving.

What she prepared was, in my experience, unexcelled. It was the same menu she served every day and its feature was Volaille demi deuil – her version of that supreme dish of the Lyonnais, “Poultry in half-mourning.” She raised, fed, stuffed, and killed the chickens, herself, and then so prepared them for eating that even the feet melted in one’s mouth. We had asked what wine should accompany her meal, and she recommended the most agreeable of all Beaujolais wines – Moulin-a-Vent. Drunk fresh not long after it was bottled, it blended perfectly with the meal she served as a more-celebrated wine from another district would not have done.

With these experiences at my back, I was able very often to supply excellent wines in Paris during the year 1925 to 1926 when we lived from April to April, first in that flat on the Avenue de Saxe and later in a more spacious ground floor apartment at 9 Rue de Lille.

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WE visited Europe every summer from 1932 through 1937. I think it was in 1933 that we invited our dear English friend Stanley Bennet to dinner at the Langham (opposite Queen’s Hall), a comfortable family hotel then frequented by English country gentry but destroyed in the blitz during the second world war. The best item on the wine list appeared to be an authentic Montrachet. In drinking that, Bennett, a man of much discrimination, asked, “John, where did you get this luscious yellow stuff?”

Weeks later, when we were motoring with Elinor’s mother on a hot August day in the hills that slope down from the Massif Central into the Rhone Valley, there came into my mouth the memory of a taste I could not identify but wanted to satisfy. We were planning to dine above Valence at a restaurant which the Michelin guide had given three stars. It occurred to me the wine I yearned to drink was a wine from that region – perhaps a white Hermitage which we had frequently enjoyed when we stayed in France before 1927.

So we ordered that. It tasted good but did not remotely resemble the flavor which had welled up in my mouth during the afternoon. I soon forgot the episode. We spent the following weeks on the Riviera and on the way back to Paris stopped for lunch at a good hotel in Chalons-sur-Saone. The proprietor brought us a superb Montrachet. With the first taste I recognized the penetrating flavor that had haunted me for several hours two months before.

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A great opportunity presented itself in the 1930’s after the repeal of the United States prohibition law and again after the second world war, an opportunity to purchase some of the finest European wines at bargain prices. And this for two reasons. Wine growers – particularly in France and Germany – wanted to capture an American market of which they had long been deprived and made extraordinary concessions to dealers in the United States who would buy up wholesale lots. This gave us the opportunity to taste a German wine imported by a dealer in Chicago, perhaps the most German of American cities. The unparalleled 1921 vintage was represented by one of the best Rhine wines – a 1921 Steinberger Cabinett – which unlike the Mosels have a substantial endurance; at their best they sometimes last longer than even an authentic Montrachet. I got two cases (a large assignment for us) in 1934. It was glorious, but differed from a Montrachet in that it revealed all its glory immediately, whereas the best Montrachet becomes more glorious with each successive swallow.

Another bargain purchase made about 1934 was two cases of 1924 Chateau Margaux, to me the most delicate of clarets, and consequently particularly suited to a taste that always sought not quantity but quality. At about the same time I was drawn to the lightest of the Burgundies – the Compte de Vogue’s Musigny which was also being extensively imported. We discovered it by accident in Saulieu where, stopping to drink mineral water, we stumbled on a hotel that the owner had recently made one of the most sought-after gastronomic halting places in all France.

A second reason for the remarkable cheapness of the finest European wines in the United States after the repeal of Prohibition until about 1955 was the condition of the American market. Wine was then widely treated in the United States as one road to heavy drinking. In fact it was common until after my father’s generation to regard a person who touched even the mildest fermented beverage as an alcoholic. Americans divided their compatriots into drinkers and nondrinkers, into “alcoholics” and “teetotalists”; no distinction was made between wine and beer on the one hand and stronger beverages on the other.

For the purpose of getting drunk wine will indeed serve (and beer, too) only it usually takes a considerable quantity. For the more scrupulous Americans the only way to protect oneself against a fall from grace was never to touch any “liquor” whatsoever. A slightly older contemporary of mine at high school in Chicago, John Nuveen, who inherited one of the leading municipal bond houses, had been brought up by his father in that tradition, only to abandon it in his mid-fifties, as a result of his appointment to head the Marshall Plan, first in Greece and then in Belgium. In both he found firsthand evidence that it is possible to become a lover of wine without getting drunk, and in Belgium he was soon corrupted into wine drinking with wholehearted delight.

Having plenty of money, Nuveen was able to lay in one of the best cellars in the middle west. We owe him the greatest wine Evvie or I ever drank. Just after our engagement in 1964 we invited the Robert Carwells, at whose house we had met, to dinner in my Washington flat. Nuveen had recently given me a case of single bottles selected from his cellar. One was a Romanee Conti of 1934. We drank it just 30 years after the grapes had been grown, and never had any of us tasted such perfection. It lived up to the description sometimes made of it, “a bottle stuffed with velvet and satin.”

Nuveen had collected many remarkable wines, but I had a small advantage over him. He had learned to love wine only in middle age while my much more modest beginnings were in my early twenties when it is easier to acquire new tastes. And so at a dinner given for Nuveen by the dean of the University of Chicago divinity school, I was able to identify the wine he had provided for the dean. It was not, as he guessed when he tasted it, a Steinberg, but a Schloss Johannisberg, another equally Rhine wine that belonged to the Metternichs, one of whom had presented Richard Wagner with several cases a century before to console him for the failure of Tannhauser in Paris.

Before the time of Nuveen’s conversion all wines brought into the United States were treated much alike by the federal government. Vin ordinaire paid the same freight and taxes as Chateau Lafite; wine of great years the same freight and taxes as wine of poor years which were considered abroad as hardly worth drinking. The advantages of buying the greatest wines were obvious. Any reader who now buys wines will recognize that such conditions no longer exist. In consequence of the change, less famous wines and even good vin ordinaire (of which there used to be plenty) have come into their own. This, too, is to the advantage of the wine lover. For no discriminating taster wants to nourish his taste only on great wines.

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WHAT is called for is a wine appropriate to the meal and the occasion and the local food. For example the remarkable lamb of Pauillac needs to be accompanied by a Pauillac wine. Furthermore nothing can beat some of the fresh local wines which are still very reasonable in price. Good examples of these are the Beaujolais – Bruilly in the reds – or white Chateauneuf-du-Pape if bought wisely. Evvie got some of this in Lake Forest when we were staying with the James Douglases just after our marriage in 1964. She later introduced Charles Lucet, then French ambassador, to this white Rhone wine to his delight and ours.

Moreover, it seems senseless to pay the stupendous price that so-called “first growths” now command, when one has the choice of less famous growths which are often as delicious as the more famous. Among Margaux wines a Chateau Lascombes, a Chateau d’Angulet or a Chateau Giscour can take the place happily of a Chateau Margaux. Among Pauillac wines, a Lynch Bages can take the place of a Chateau Lafite, a Chateau Mouton-Rothschild of a Chateau Latour.

In the saint Emilions, a Chateau Figeac can replace a Chateau Cheval Blanc or a Chauteau Ausone. In the Pomerals a Vieux Chateau Certan can replace a Chateau Petrus. And perhaps the most advantageous sources for first-rate clarets, which are still within the range of a fairly modest purse, are the wines of Saint-Julien. Here there is no first growth, but there are an almost innumerable variety of wonders in the finest years – like 1970 – the three Leovilles (Leoville Las Cases, Leoville Barton, Leoville Poyferre), Chateau Talbot, Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou, Chateau Beychvelle, Chateau Gruaud Larose, etc., etc.

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When my life was transformed by Evelyn’s entry during the winter of 1964, I found that she had little experience with wines but was interested in the subject. Soon I sensed she was about to become a convert. That was when we went to New York in search of an engagement ring. I had recently become acquainted with a white burgundy, a Musigny Blanc (Comte Vogue) that could be compared with the authentic Montrachets (I mean those of the Comte de Moucheron and the Marquis de la Guiche) and that attracted me more than Corton Charlemagne which I also very much like. So when we lunched at Shepherds and the Drake Hotel where I had recently discovered this Musigny Blanc, we ordered it with oysters. “What should we have to follow that course?” I asked. “More oysters and more Musigny Blanc,” she replied. She has now developed a taste and palate for vintage clarets – which we lay away in our small but favorably cooled cellar in Georgetown.

A year or two ago she introduced me to Michelob beer. To my astonishment, it gave me much more pleasure than any beer had ever done. Then I found out, after thirteen years of marriage, that what she really liked best for festive occasions was champagne. I have hastened to make up for depriving her in the past and have provided some bottles of Dom Perignon and Moet and Chandon. And I have to confess that to my surprise I now drink these great champagnes in small quantities with at least as much pleasure as Michelob beer.

Is a moral to be drawn from such experiences? Yes, there is. For some men, love of a woman who returns it is infinitely more precious, more consoling, and more humanly important than a love for wine. But the one passion does not necessarily exclude the other. Au contraire!

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Hand set in Deepdene. Display type is Piranesi Italic; initials are Caselon. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed 470 copies on a 10 x 15 C&P. This issue marks 10 years of Boxwooders.

The Boxwood Press
Greenbelt, Maryland 20770

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