by ANDRÉ L. SIMON
THERE must be millions of Americans — men, women, and children — who have never tasted wine. The historical background of wine; its geographical distribution; the subtilties of its color, flavor, and bouquet; the fine things that have been said, sung, or written in praise of wine during the past three thousand years — all this, to the average American, is sheer nonsense.
Yet Americans, as they grow up, like to drink, regularly or occasionally, according to their means and the opportunities that occur, something that has more color than water and has a sweet taste, for most grownups retain throughout life the taste for sugar which appears to be born in every child the world over. So they become coke addicts or lap up any of the many colorful, sweet liquids which are called “soft.”
There is also an important minority of men and women who have acquired a great liking for “hard liquor" — a liking that only too often becomes a craving and a curse. And there are a few people who prefer to drink something that is neither soft nor hard; they ure the wine drinkers. The proportion of the population in each category is anybody’s guess. Mine, which is made without benefit of all the statistics that may exist somewhere, is that 63 per cent drink water and soft drinks, 33 per cent drink beer and hard liquor, and 4 per cent enjoy wine.
If we consider that wine has been the most highly prized beverage among all the more highly civilized nations from the earliest times; and if we bear in mind also the fact that there are many acres of American land producing wine-making grapes, chiefly in California, but also in a number of the Eastern states, we may well wonder how and why it is that there is not a greater demand for wine in the United States.
It may be that the lack of appreciation shown by the American public for wine is due to the cumulative retarding action of excessive prices and poor quality. Wine is unnecessarily and outrageously dear, being beyond the means of all but the higher income groups. There is also, unfortunately, well-founded ground for the complaints made by many of the wine importers that immediately after the war they received wines of very poor quality which were absurdly dear and not worthy of the well-known — even famous — names which their labels displayed. This must have done a lot of harm, and such harm is of a lasting nature. Happily prices have now been drastically cut by the retailers, and arrivals from European vineyards are of much more worthy quality.
But what of the California wines? The quality of the table wines, both red and white, is appreciably better than it was before the war. This is particularly true of the varietal wines — that is to say, the wines sold under the name of the grapes used in the making of such wines. A red wine, for instance, sold under the name of Pinot, and another sold as Cabernet, I found to be altogether better wines than wines of a similar character sold as claret and Burgundy, and they were more enjoyable red wines to drink at mealtime.
Quite as important is the fact that red wines sold under the name of Pinot, for instance, all possess the likeness of type one expects to be able to recognize when drinking at different times any of the red table wines of Beaujolais — or for that matter different wines, wherever made, but made from the same species of grape. On the other hand, the different California wines which I tasted among those that were labeled Burgundy were quite unlike each other; one was good, two or three fair, and one or two bad, without the least family likeness among them.
Although 1 have not yet come across any California wine that deserves to be called great, there are many which are good and a few which are very good wines that any wine lover would be glad to buy even at fancy prices. Why not make more of these wines?
A great deal of California wine, which is made well and from fine grapes, is sold much too soon, just as there is a good deal of prime beef which is ruined by being sold after a week’s instead of a month’s hanging. The only solution is for the consumer to be sufficiently appreciative to pay the butcher more money for less weight of better meat, and to pay the dealer more money for a better wine.
It is disappointing to learn that despite the improvement in ihe quality of the still wines of California and also the Eastern stales, and despite the very fine work of the Wine Institute of San Francisco to popularize wine, the consumption of table wines is not on the upgrade. It appears that the wines of California for which demand is steadily growing are the fortified wines; they are immature wines, very sweet and loaded with alcohol, quite unacceptable to any wine lover but greatly relished by the least discriminating wine drinkers, the men and women who must have all the sugar there is in soft drinks and more “kick” for the money than they would get out of hard liquor. Wine means nothing to them, except as a name that covers sugar and fire. They know no better.
But there are in America many men and women of educated taste who have the means and the opportunities to enjoy wine, good wine, with their meals, every day or occasionally. Yet very few do.
Co to any of New York’s smart restaurants and see what happens. A party of six, for instance — six well-groomed, bright youngish men and women — arrives rather late and rather flushed for dinner; there is ihe inevitable confusion as to where each one is to sit, showing that neither host nor hostess has given it a ihought beforehand. Then six large glasses are filled with ice water, just to take care, evidently, of that incessant intestinal refrigeration which American cityfolk have been trained to demand. Next six immense menu cards are handed round and each person — host and guests— has to make a pretense of looking through the long list of dishes offered by ihe house, eventually agreeing to what ihe captain or one of his assistants will suggest. When the wine waiter proffers the wine list, it is more often than not brushed aside; four out of the six people at table will have whiskey, a fifth will ask for milk, and the sixth for coffee.
Presently the food will come along, at different times according to the more or less sophisticated dishes ordered by different members of t he party. This is not comedy, but tragedy. The host has boughl a dinner for his friends just as he would buy a drink for a stranger at a bar. That is not hospitality, and still less gastronomy.
The host should give his guests something that no money can buy: his own time, imagination, and intelligence in the ordering of a meal in which both the food and the wines served with it shall help one another; a meal that will be a compliment to the guests and a joyful memory for them as well as for their host. There is no need of a special course of instruction, nor of any particular qualification, to order a meal that will cost no more but be worth much more. Any person of taste and education can do it and do it well, provided he lakes a little trouble over it.
All the wonderful mechanical devices and uncanny gadgets invented to save time, labor, and trouble are having a deplorable psychological effect. They have made every form of effort a trouble; in fact, to avoid trouble has become an end in itself, something highly desirable. It is a disastrous notion.
There is nothing of real value that does not call for some effort, and reward the trouble that it demands. That is why there are still men courting death scaling mountains without being asked or paid to do it. There is no manly game or womanly art which does not require physical and mental effort; but it is not called trouble— it is fun. Similarly the proper ordering of a good meal can and should be fun. It is a sport like any other if we approach it in a sporting spirit; and as we have every chance of practicing it every day, we can become good at it. If only the educated American public could be made to realize that food is not just fuel, but fun as well, if properly matched with wine, there would be fewer divorces and fewer pills, tablets, and powders sold by drugstores throughout the land.