QUOTE 1 “He was a martini snob even more tiresome than the usual wine snob.” – Alfred Kazin, Washington Star.
QUOTE 2 “This bum wouldn’t know a Chateau Mouton Rothschild from a bottle of Manischewitz.” – Art Buchwald, Washington Post.
Introduction and Excuses
WHEN I commenced this I intended to write a very short article about our wine drinking experiences, but I soon discovered how much fun it is to write about wine, so I simply let it go on until my ball point pen went dry. Actually for my own pleasure. Now I know why so much is written about wine. Pavlov’s dogs had to have a bell; all a writer needs is a pen.
It has been said that people buy stock market advisory letters and books about the market not for the advice in them but they simply like to read about their investments. Clearly most wine books are aimed at just such a market. Wine drinkers of various degrees simply buy the books to gloat over the same pictures and the same text that have appeared in dozens of previous books. The newspaper wine columns are eternally discussing what wine to serve with fish. None of it seems to offer much help to someone trying to find out something about wine.
If you already know all about American wines, you will want to read this to catch my errors. If you are a complete neophyte, you may find something of use and interest. If you have no interest at all in wines, come back in three months when I promise to have a new subject.
Talking and Writing About Wine
ONCE I had a friend who said he refused to drink wine because he could not stand to listen to the talk about it. I could sympathize because for many years I forwent drinking martinis in public because I could not bear to go through the routine of ordering them. Otherwise sensible men have maintained the patent absurdity that some special technique is required to mix gin and vermouth, so there is too much discussion about who makes “good” martinis. Further there is always an “in” way to order them. This way changes slowly over the years. At last viewing, the correct order was “very dry, on the rocks, with a twist.” Some would include “Beefeater” in the order. Although it is likely that more martinis are ruined by poor vermouth than by poor gin, I’ve never heard anyone specify “Noilly Prat” or some other decent vermouth. Finally, when I grew old enough to be shameless, I, too, could go through the ordering procedure. Not without some wincing, however.
I’m satisfied that my friend and I were both exhibiting sound, if difficult to define, scruples.
The advice I gave my friend was to continue to drink wine but to refuse to discuss it with anyone and, if necessary, to lie about drinking it.
Wine and art are subjects for which most discussion seems to be intended to increase the confusion. If you read about art, you will find a complete absence of concrete language. If anything, the writing about wine is worse. This has some justification since the vocabulary for taste and smell is even more restricted than that for form and color. A perfume blender may recognize 1200 different scents, but he has few names for them. For taste we have only sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.
It is hard enough to keep language sensible when discussing matters for which an adequate vocabulary exists but there’s no hope when discussing tastes. Therefore, if you intend to talk about or read about wine, you must harden your sensibilities to resist obscene expostulations when someone says, “The earthiness of this wine’s flavor reminds us of the sturdy peasants of the countryside in which it is produced.” A sharp chop to the speaker’s chin will, however, benefit all wine and language fanciers.
It is very hard to write about wine without sounding, and perhaps being, phony. How does one go about describing the taste of Zinfandel, for instance? Some people say it tastes like raspberries, and if you stretch your imagination, you can see what they mean. Zinfandel is an American wine; there is no European equivalent. It is so common that it is used as one of several grapes in much cheap California Burgundy, and good Zinfandel has in it something of that characteristic taste. It is the most distinctive of the varietal flavors. If you cannot describe it, there’s little hope of describing other much more subtly flavored varietals. Oh, well. It’s enough to cause one to adopt the modern patois and say, “It’s, you know, like, you know.”
The Nature of Wine Books
BOOKS on interior decorating, brochures from Merrill Lynch, and books on wine have a common characteristic. The interior decorating book shows you how to decorate your seven-room, New York City apartment including an “attractive room and bath for your maid.” Merrill Lynch helpfully suggests that a “straddle” can convert your capital gains to long-term, 50-percent-taxed gains. The wine book assumes that you visit your wine merchant, and he takes you to his cellar where you sample this and that wine that he recommends, and then you say, “Send me a few cases of this, and this, and several of this would be nice.” When in due time the cases are delivered, the wines are laid down in your cellar for the necessary aging for 5 to 20 years while you are drinking the wines you or your ancestors laid down years and years ago.
I don’t doubt that there are such people as those to whom the above messages seem to be addressed, but I’m fairly sure there’s not enough of them to make the book sales worthwhile, and further, I’m sure that such people do not need the books or the brochure at all.
This is part of the phoniness of wine. A few recent (American) books have taken a more realistic view of the modern American wine drinker.
You don’t have and you couldn’t find a wine merchant. At the very best, you find a liquor store where so much is sold that they can afford to have a good wine selection. In states where liquor sales and wine sales are separated, I have never seen a decent wine selection. In areas where the state or the local government operates the store, the wine selection is guaranteed to be atrocious. The best you can hope for anywhere is a liquor store owner who, himself, is a wine fancier. Like one such who said to me recently, “Isn’t it great to be around now when so many wonderful wines are available?”
I am fortunate in that the Washington, D.C. area seems to be one of the best wine markets in the country. The selections are very good, including wines from many small California vineyards that are reputed to be very hard to get. Only the San Francisco area seems to have an equivalent selection of California wines, and strangely enough, California wines are more expensive in San Francisco than in Washington, D.C. Come to think of it, it is great to be around when (and where) so many wonderful wines are available.
You don’t have a wine cellar. At best you have a few cases stashed away in your basement or shoved under the bed. Who has the space for storing thousands of bottles for decades? Wine should be kept out of the light, in a vibration-free place, at a temperature of about 55 degrees F (cave temperature, if you own a cave). Not many of us can have a suitable storage facility. Oh well.
Wine books abound in all shapes, sizes, and prices. Typically, they discuss French wine regions and list the vineyards, the better known ones, in each region and show a lot of color photographs of grape vines, chateaux, peasants and wine labels. Of 300 pages, France will get 292; Germany will get 4; Spain and Portugal, for sherry and port, will get 1; Italy will get 1; the rest of Europe will have 1 page; and 1 page will be devoted to America, with California summarily dismissed in three paragraphs.
These books are fun to read, mouth watering to look at, and eminently suitable for decorating your coffee table, but of little use in trying to make sense of wines. There are also a number of books about California wines that follow the same pattern except instead of peasants they have pictures of huge stainless steel tanks and mobile grape crushers. These books are of some help in acquainting one with the names and locations of the vineyards.
I recommend the following books and suggest that you buy them (or at least the last three) because you will want to reread and refer to them often.
(PELLEGRINI): Wine and the Good Life, Angelo M. Pellegrini, Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.
(GROSSMAN): Grossman’s Guide to Wines, Spirits, and Beers, 4th Edition, Harold J. Grossman, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964.
(ADAMS): The Wines of America, Leon D. Adams, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973.
(HANNUM): The Fine Wines of California, Hurst Hannum and Robert S. Blumberg, Dolphin Books, Doubleday & Company, 1971, and Revised Edition, 1973.
I recommend PELLEGRINI to everyone who is not teetotaler for some reason or who simply does not like wine. He gives me the same feeling of envy I used to feel about Saroyan – that he is more alive than I am. Anyway it is a delightful, instructive book that assumes that good bread and good wine are both every man’s necessity and every man’s right. His favorable attitudes toward American foods and American wines are worth thinking about. Mainly though, the book is simply a joy to read. It is a celebration of wine and its place in our lives. It’s awfully hard, though, not to be jealous of a man who has barrels of Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon aging in his basement. I try to adopt the attitude a friend of mine claimed to have as we stood at the marina at Fort Lauderdale looking at the thousands of unbelievably expensive boats. “It does me good to know that someone has such things,” he said.
GROSSMAN is recommended as a reference book on wines and all alcoholic drinks. If you want to know what bock beer really is (you will find in some books the myth that bock beer is beer from the bottom of the vat), whether vodka is made from potatoes, or what “Triple Sec” is, this book is the place to find out. It also has at least as good a discussion of French wines as most books and lists the vineyards in France and Germany.
With the next book, ADAMS, one can begin his study of American wines with the best book available on the subject. This book has the details on the kinds of grapes grown and the kinds of wine made throughout America. One finds that wine is made in every state except Alaska. Even the amateur winemaking hobby is discussed at some length in this book. The bulk of the book is about California and its grapes and vineyards. In Adams one finds a man who believes American wines are second to none. He says that the really important wines of any country are the “ordinary” wines and that America’s cheap jug wines are clearly better than the ordinary wines of any other country. He also believes the better wines of this country are as good as any in the world.
His view is that the major factor in grape growing is climate and that the climates of Northern California and of the Yakima Valley in Washington are superior for grapes to any found in France or Germany.
If you are at all interested in the wines of America, this is a book you will want to read over and over, and you will then want to use it as a reference book.
My favorite wine book is HANNUM. It is exclusively devoted to California wines, and it includes, what no other book does, specific criticisms of each vineyard’s wines by type and year. I have found it extremely helpful and completely reliable. I realize this could mean that my taste, by chance, coincides with the HANNUM tasters, but even the details usually agree with my experience. For example, the first edition of HANNUM praised Paul Masson Baroque (a proprietary name) and I agreed with it. Early in 1975 I bought a case of it and found it was not nearly as good as it had been. The second edition of HANNUM says that Baroque has declined in quality.
The only disadvantage to a book that recommends so specifically is that it is soon out of date because the wines rated are no longer available. The second edition is now approaching that state. But you sometimes may have astonishing luck. HANNUM says the Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 1970 is one of the best wines. I had verified this with a single bottle from the rare wine shelf of Beltramo’s in Menlo Park, California. Suddenly a store in Washington had a sale on it by the case. A wine that it is hard to find a bottle of being sold by the case at a discount! Anyway the information in the book about the various vineyards will be of value even when the specific vintages are not available. Presumably there will be subsequent editions.
The French Question
MOSTLY, my family and I drink American wines, and this article deals with American, chiefly Californian, wines. Why Californian rather than French? Well, once you get beyond the seven or eight really famous chateaux in Bordeaux, and those wines are very expensive, the wine seems to me to be no better than equivalently priced California wine, and because of the number of chateaux it is much more difficult to accumulate any useful experience. Whether California Cabernet Sauvignon is the equivalent of the great Bordeaux wines is not the question. You and I do not drink Chateau Margaux, Latour, or Mouton any more than we drink the finest California Cabernets as our habitual table wine. Either the French or the California wines of this class sell for $10 to $30 or more per bottle. So that’s not the question.
The question is this: Is the ordinary California Cabernet, say Paul Masson, Krug, or Inglenook, as good as the equivalently priced Bordeaux? I am convinced by some 25 years of experimenting that the California wines in this category are superior. I don’t know much about the “first growths;” the best wine I’ve tasted is a California wine, Oakville Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1970.
The fraudulent doctoring of Bordeaux, to be discussed in a later section of this article, did nothing to increase my confidence in French wines.
There are apparently no American wines that compare directly to Burgundy. (An American wine labeled Burgundy may be anything at all, but it bears no resemblance to actual Burgundy.) The Pinot Noir grape used for Burgundy is grown in California, but the experts generally agree that it produces a different wine in California than it does in France.
Beaujolais is approximated in California by two wines, Beaujolais Gamay and Gamay. The latter is now said to be the grape variety from which the real Beaujolais is made in spite of the confusion in names. I have never drunk a really good Beaujolais so I cannot compare the French and American wines. The American Gamays seem very variable to me, both brand to brand and bottle to bottle. Gamay is supposed to be at its peak about three years after making, and it may be that some of the undated Gamay is over the hill. Right now I have some Robert Mondavi Gamay 1973 that is quite good.
There are some disadvantages to California wines. Some vineyards do not put the vintage year on their bottles. It is not true, as some vineyards claim, that the climate is so uniform that vintage years are not needed; the truth is that some 95 percent of the wine must be of the year designated, and some winemakers find this restriction a burden to their blending habits. They blend old wines with the new to try to make the new wine drinkable as soon as it is released. If for no other reason, one needs to know when a wine was bottled so he won’t keep it too long. This is especially true of some white wines that deteriorate in a very few years. If one buys by the case, some brands have the bottling date stamped on the case so that solves that problem.
Another disconcerting thing about American wines is that there is little correlation between price and quality. Some vineyards have a fixed price for all their generic or non-varietal wines, Burgundy, Chablis, Claret, etc., and a higher single price for all of their varietal wines. Thus Carignane, the grape variety used for the cheapest Burgundy, will cost, when bottled as a varietal, as much as Pinot Chardonnay, one of the most expensive grapes. Some of these vineyards do price Cabernet Sauvignon above the other varietals. At the next level each wine is priced separately somewhat according to the price and scarcity of the grape variety. Unlike French wines no price variation is made in accordance with the quality of the vintage. Well, in years that are exceptionally good, prices may be higher, but a poor year costs as much as a good one.
In general one can say that most California wines selling at $3 to $5 are superior in taste to those selling for $2 to $3, and those in turn are very much better than the cheapest wines such as Gallo or Italian Swiss Colony.
There is currently an overabundance of grapes and of wine as a result of faulty predictions made a few years ago of wine consumption. While prices of California wines have not fallen, they have also not risen for a couple of years, and that is startling enough these days.
In general, the jug wines, half-gallon and gallon, are inferior and sweeter than the bottled wines of the same name and brand. The word is that the excess good wine is being sold in jugs this year without identification so it won’t depress the bottle price. I’ve read this several times but know no more about it. Every jug I have ever tried has been anywhere from bad to horrible.
(Continued next month)
Hand set in Goudy’s Deepdene. Display type is Raleigh Cursive. Tint blocks are Benday plastic rules. Inks are Van Son Ivy-Mint and 40904 Black. Published by Jake Warner and 475 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P press at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.