Accent on Living

THE lovely little wine that “won’t travel” has been reported over the years by all sorts of mournful tourists. Because it has not traveled and is not at hand for sampling here at home, such a wine can always be safely asserted to be superior to all others, even to the more famous bottlings which do travel. The implication is that the nontraveler is of so fragile an exquisiteness that a jaunt down the road a few miles would cripple it; a five-day transatlantic passage would drop it dead in its tracks. To drink this frail vintage one must make the pilgrimage to its source, walking lightly, on the balls of the feet, at any distance within a hundred yards of it.

The concept of so perishable a delicacy troubled me from time to time, especially whenever I found myself tasting a fine wine that had survived, intact, the storage, sales, and delivery hardships of a distant market and some years in my own cellar, under far from ideal conditions. The idea grew on me that travel would be unlikely to damage a good wine properly bottled, but I continued to hear the pronouncement. My ultimate disbelief in it resulted from a batch of inexpensive Anjou which I had bought in the thirties and conserved through the war years, using only two or three bottles a year. Each bottle seemed better than its predecessors, and the last, uncorked in 1946, at age thirteen, was outstanding. Yet Anjou is another local phenomenon, various tourists have explained to me indulgently, that no one expects to withstand the rigors of travel.

A friend who knows a lot more about wine than I do gave me an example of his own and explained, at the same time, the origin of the myth. He had been charmed, he said, by an Italian nonvintage rosé wine called Gran Caruso, which was served to him in 1951 at a hotel of the same name in Ravello. What was ostensibly the same wine, at Capri, was no good, and neither was that offered by a New York department store four years later under an identical label.

In 1958 my friend returned to Ravello, found the wine, if anything, better than before, and put three bottles of it into the trunk of his car. Two months of European driving followed, and the wine that he opened eventually in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was just as pleasing as it had been in Ravello. The main reason for the myth, as it relates to wines not widely known, is the lack of distant markets: no reputation, no dependable market. Next in this chain of circumstances, my friend believes, is the unwillingness of the producer to risk losing what may well be a rich local market in order to find new customers overseas: if a winery is already getting a good price at home for the best of its wines, and if the supply is short, only products of lesser quality will be shipped. Finally, such is man‘s depravity, on occasion, that wines are sometimes not at all what the perfectly good names and dates on their bottles represent them to be. From somewhere among these considerations came the notion of the wine that can‘t stand travel.

Another friend, at whose apartment I stayed in Paris for a few days, always served champagne instead of cocktails, preferring it to the expensive or inferior spirits that were available. The champagne came to about $15 a case, and I had never encountered either of the two brands that made up his supply. Both seemed to me excellent, fully comparable to the better-known varieties, and my friend agreed. Either one would travel with a will, but, sad to relate, neither does. “Their only crime,” my friend said, “is that they are not famous.”