choosing and serving wine (circa 1955)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a particular fascination for old, obscure, out of print wine books, and love to thumb through them to see what the wine wisdom of days gone by had to say. Thanks to a very generous gift from a Seattle reader, I have come into a stash of excellent books published between 50 and 60 years ago, many in Great Britain.

The book pictured here dates to 1955, and is smaller (by about an inch in length) than today's pocket guides, though far less dense and without all the annoying symbols. I have no idea who the author Raymond Postgate may have been, other than what little this book tells of him. An author of biographies and detective stories, he also wrote occasionally on food and wine. His brief introduction to this little gem advises the prospective reader that "it is not a connected account of wine, its appreciation, qualities, origins and use... it is a utensil, a tool like a saucepan or a colander though I hope a more entertaining one."

I happened upon an entry for American wines that contains a nice little rant about the damage done by Prohibition:

"Vineyards were grubbed up; expert vineworkers were dismissed, or employed as bootleggers. After some thirteen years of crime, violence, and misery, this law was repealed; but it is easier to destroy than to build and the wine industry could not be at once restored. The hillsides suited to fine vines had been abandoned, and men in their ignorance planted vines in rich valleys which produced heavy crops of large luscious-looking grapes from which, as always, only the poorest wine could be made. Nor was the skilled labour still there. As a result, for years there were only produced heady, vulgar wines which annexed with no justification names such as Chablis and Sauternes."

Now you may think that in the 55 years since this appeared that great progress has been made, and certainly it has. And yet, we are still wrestling with not only laws that were deeply impacted by Prohibition, but also a Prohibitionist, anti-alcohol mentality that continues to believe that banning alcohol solves the problem of abuse. We still have wines labeled Champagne that are not Champagne, and only recently have banned the mis-use of terms such as Chablis and Sauternes and Port. We have just begun to consider putting some legal definitions the use of the word "reserve".

And a plague of dull wines, also noted by Mr. Postgate in his entry on Claret, continues to occupy a great many retail shelves. I can't resist one more juicy quote:

"A fine claret has all the qualities of taste, vigour, roundness, and bouquet that the most persnickety critic could ask for; and the market is world wide. For decades the best clarets used to be sold to Scotland, but nowadays, as I found when compiling a gastronomic guide, hotel after hotel offers an identical list of half a dozen dull wines from the same wholesaler. However, there are places where the tradition still lingers and it may yet be revived by less degenerate Scotsmen."

Well, on this Thanksgiving day, let me say that I for one am grateful that "less degenerate Scotsmen" have turned their attention to whisky, and decent claret can be found right here in Washington state. In fact, I may open one up tomorrow, and enjoy it, with a salute to Mr. Postgate, with his recommended "delightful and healthy" meal of "good English cheese, fresh brown bread, butter, an undressed salad..." and some leftover turkey. Cheers!


Anonymous said...

See for a brief biography of Raymond Postgate.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently reading a tremendous book: Last Call by Daniel Okrent. It’s a fascinating account of the Prohibition movement from the mid 1850's through enactment of prohibition and then repeal. I never knew how intertwined prohibitionism and women's suffrage was. Or how many of the Progressive heroes were staunch prohibitionists. Also, until the income tax was instituted, 60% of the government's income came from liquor taxes and tariffs. That's just an example. There are also great descriptions of all the major players/characters.

All in all, a great read for anyone interested in power politics, the alcohol industry or American history.

Mark Kendziorek

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