beer and coke

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I recently was given several books written by the late Harry Waugh, a British wine merchant turned author and lecturer. Waugh died in 2001 at the ripe age of 97. His obit in the London ‘Independent’ noted that “Harry Waugh will be remembered as the éminence grise whose enthusiastic championing of quality wines initiated a new era in wine drinking and appreciation. He was the man who presided over a new golden age of fine wines for Harvey's of Bristol which, thanks to his influence, became one of the country's leading fine wine merchants in the two decades after the Second World War.

“A man of infectious energy and charm, Waugh did much to take the élitism and mystique out of wine, laying the foundations for today's unstuffy approach to wine-drinking. And despite an insatiable appetite for good living, he remained a trim and sprightly figure right to the end ...”

Apart from being a sterling example of the health benefits of dedicated wine drinking, Waugh ushered in, through his nine books, the modern era of wine journalism. He mixed reports of travel, food and conversation into his work, avoiding over-indulgence in tasting notes that read like seed catalogs. (Sample Harry Waugh tasting note, for the legendary 1961 Ch. Latour – “lots of colour and bags of fruit”)!

Waugh had the advantage of working in a time when there was no push-back on authors who also made their living in the wine trade. Though best known for his writing on Bordeaux, he took a keen interest in California wines, and toured the state as both lecturer and journalist with his editor Katie Bourke.

On one of these tours, in the spring of 1969, he wrote “Pick of the Bunch.” In the preface to that engaging work, he writes: “With widespread prosperity and the new-found interest in table wine, the future of the American wine industry would appear to be almost unlimited. But somehow the ‘emerging wine lovers’ and particularly the American ‘sommeliers’ must be led gently to understand that, as a beverage, wine is neither beer nor coca-cola...”

I bring this to your attention because, to a large degree, beer and coca-cola are still the dominant flavors of many cheap wines. Young, unripe, yeasty white wines that taste like beer, and manipulated, sweet, oak-chipped red wines that taste like coke still fill the supermarket aisles.

Just this month I received a sampler of inexpensive imports from around the world purporting to offer a “passport” to “travel the world for $10 or less.” A mighty circumscribed world it turned out to be, with wines from Spain, Argentina, Australia, France, and Italy that carried no sense of place whatsoever. When coupled with the degradation of varietal labeling (see yesterday’s blog), this sort of jaunty, meaningless PR does nothing to promote wine in general, or these wines in particular.

Varietal wines should taste like the grape they are named for. Wines that promise “the fresh, free-spirited flavors of Australia” or “a rich, smooth and stylish celebration of the Spanish lifestyle” should relate in some identifiable way to the place(s) they purport to represent. And you can tell ‘em that Harry said so.


Anonymous said...

Great! Excellent review of the man and I love the finishing paragraphs...

Andy Plymale said...

Call me crazy, but I swear that a bottle of 2009 Columbia Valley Roussanne that we were drinking since Saturday tatsed and smelled like a Belgian ale, as coincidene would have it (the wine made a good cheese foil).

Vinogirl said...

He was good at what he did because he simply loved wine.

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