Tag Archives: wine history

civilwar

Civil War wine: What we drank 150 years ago

Civil War wineThe Wine Curmudgeon will be in East Texas over the weekend doing a freelance piece about Civil War re-enactments. This means two things: First, very little wine for three days, because East Texas is both rural and still dry in many places (which offers the prospect of going cold turkey). Second, though the U.S. was not a wine drinking country 150 years ago — we drank twice as much beer and 20 times as much spirits as wine — there was a thriving wine industry.

The heart of Civil War wine country was the Ohio River near Cincinnati, and its Robert Mondavi was a lawyer named Nicholas Longworth. As with all American wine pioneers, from Thomas Jefferson to Mondavi, everyone thought he was crazy, but for some 40 years Longworth produced quality wine despite the difficulties of grape and terroir. His best wines, including a semi-sweet sparkling, were made with catawba, a native hybrid grape that needs to be sugared to overcome its flavor flaws, and the Ohio River Valley is too humid and too hospitable to grape pests and diseases for long-term success.

But by 1860, Ohio made one-third of the country’s wine, Longworth farmed 2,000 acres of grapes (by comparison, we have just 8,000 in Texas today), and produced almost 10,000 cases in a country where the total production was probably less than 100,000 cases.

In the end, the difficulties caught up with Longworth. Diseases, including powdery mildew, destroyed the vines, and the Civil War took care of the rest. The area saw some fighting, which is never conducive to grape growing, but more importantly, there was no one left to pick grapes after the work force went off to fight the war.

Longworth, though, turned out to be more than footnote in U.S. history. His law practice, as well as his real estate speculations, made him one of the richest men in the 19th century U.S. His great-grandson, Nicholas III, became speaker of the House of Representatives and married Alice Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s oldest child and of whom T.R. said: “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”

European wine culture

Cop shows and European wine culture

European wine cultureA country’s pop culture — its books, films, music, and TV — often provides a better insight into its values and beliefs than any number of academic studies. Want to learn about the Red Scare in the U.S. in the 1950s? A couple of Mickey Spillane novels, which sold tens of millions of copies, will probably tell you all you need to know. And any 21st century teenager can talk about sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll in the 1960s because their parents and grandparents listened to the Rolling Stones.

Hence the Wine Curmudgeon’s current fascination with European cop shows and what they say about the European idea that wine is part of everyday life. Watch a program from the continent, be it as ordinary as Britain’s “Midsomer Murders” or as intriguing as the Swedish version of “Wallander,” and wine is a fixture at the dinner table. In “Dicte,” a series about a female Danish crime reporter who is almost as tough as Spillane’s Mike Hammer and whose ethics would make Walter Burns of “Front Page” fame blush, the characters drink more wine than I do. And I drink wine for a living.

Compare this to U.S. cop shows, where wine is rarely seen and the best known characters, like “NYPD Blue’s” Andy Sipowicz and “Law & Order’s” Lennie Briscoe, are alcoholics. Even when there is wine, like “The Closer” and Brenda Leigh Johnson’s glass of merlot, there are enough drunks around (a cop on her squad and her husband) to make the point that wine is an exception.

Note, too, that the shows I’ve seen, mostly from Britain and Scandinavia, aren’t French or Italian, where you’d expect to see everyone drinking wine. Who knew the Swedes cared? But Kurt Wallander, the moody police inspector played to existential perfection by Krister Henriksson, treats wine the same way he treats the weather, his bosses, and his failed personal life. There is nothing out of the ordinary about any of them.

In one respect, none of this is surprising. Nine of the top 10 countries in per capita wine consumption are European; the average adult in France still drinks four times as much wine as the average American, despite all the laments about the collapse of Gallic wine culture. Which is why there’s more to wine culture than consumption statistics, or else so many in the U.S., currently the world’s biggest wine consuming country by volume, wouldn’t see wine with dinner as the next step toward an AA meeting. Like the Centers for Disease Control.

Culture is not something that can be manufactured by the Winestream Media rehashing those consumption numbers. Rather, it happens over time and in a way that no one really notices. The U.S. idea of rugged individualism, formed by the country’s frontier past, is still with us even though we haven’t had a frontier in 120 years. Wine needs to been seen as commonplace as the frontier once was, and we need to to accept it the way Wallander does — as ordinary as snow in a Swedish winter.

But that’s difficult to do when the people who oversee wine tell us we need special tools and a special language to drink it — and to accept their judgment about what to drink. That doesn’t happen in Europe, and if someone tried it, Dicte would probably slap them upside the head. And then pour herself a glass of wine.

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Francis Ford Coppola, wine, and family

Francis Ford Coppola, wine, and family

“I like to drink wine.”

Francis Ford Coppola spoke for 2 1/2 hours in Dallas last week, a monologue that covered his Academy Award-winning film career, his very successful wine business, and his grandchildren. But perhaps the most impressive thing was his modesty.

“I like to drink wine, but I don’t make wine,” he told the audience of 150 or so. “I don’t know how to do it. I suppose I’ve learned how it’s done, but that’s not why I do this. I like to drink wine.”

Which, in my 20-plus years of talking to celebrity winery owners, was the first time anyone has been that forthright. Talk to the entrepreneurs, actors, and musicians who get into the wine business, and they throw winespeak around like heart-shaped cards on Valentine’s Day. Maybe they figure that’s how they can make their bones. But Coppola didn’t say brix or clones, never mentioned scores or critics, and spent more time showing pictures of his family — and singing about them — than almost anything else.

There were literally dozens of wines available to taste at the event, but I’ll hold off writing about them. Conditions were not conducive to tasting, with so many people crammed into the lobby of a 1930s movie theater, and the more expensive wines were mixed in with the cheaper ones so it was hard to tell which was which. My general impression: the grocery store-style wines were solid, if a little ordinary.

And they weren’t the biggest attraction anyway. That was Coppola, not only the man who has made some of the greatest films in the history of the movie business, but someone who seems just as happy sharing snaps of his grandchildren as talking camera angles and gross vs. net. A few highlights:

? Coppola got into the wine business by accident, mostly because he liked the swing that was hanging from a tree when he and wife Eleanor wanted to buy a house in Napa Valley in 1975. The tree was in the front of the historic Niebaum mansion, and Coppola said he could see his 4-year-old daughter Sofia (yes, that Sofia) swinging on it. But the mansion included some of the best vineyards in California, and one thing led to another.

? The wine business has exceeded expectations, becoming one of the 30 biggest in the U.S. The 1.25-million case Francis Ford Coppola Winery includes the grocery store brands like Diamond, Rosso, and Bianco, while the high-end wine, including Rubicon, is part of the new Inglenook company, part of his effort to restore one of California’s first great wineries.

? “The biggest change in the wine business since I started? The number of wineries, and not just in Napa, where it’s gone through the roof. I traveled across the country once making a picture, and once we got past Virginia, there was no food and no wine. That’s all changed, and all for the positive. People are so much more knowledgeable, and have learned the more you know about wine, the more you enjoy it.”

? The best explanation ever for the mess that is “Godfather III:” “I didn’t want to make it. Whoever heard of ‘Hamlet III?’ But I had to pay off the bank.”

? Making “Apocalypse Now” taught him that past success never guarantees anything, and he told how he became so angry he threw his Oscars out the window and broke them. That’s because, given the piles of money the first two Godfather pictures made, he said, he assumed he wouldn’t have any trouble getting studio money for “Apocalypse.” Which is exactly the opposite of what happened, and he had to finance it himself.

? And That Movie? Coppola discussed it briefly, noting that it was both a financial and critical failure, and that he wasn’t too happy with it, either. I felt better.

Photo credits: Lisa Stewart

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Cheap wine history: Hogue fume blanc and Jaja de Jau

10wine-0Last January, when I waxed reminisicent about the original 1999 $10 Hall of Fame, I promised to tell the story behind several of the wines that made that list. Now, as I’m starting to put together the 2014 Hall of Fame (which will appear on Jan. 6, 2014), it’s a good time to share those stories — they’re after the jump.

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Julia Child and wine, both local and cheap

Julia ChildJulia Child is rightfully credited with making American cooking more than steak, baked potatoes, and a dinner salad of iceberg lettuce, rubber tomatoes, and bottled French salad dressing. What’s often overlooked is her role in helping us figure out this wine thing, and especially her advocacy for American wine, which was pretty much unknown 50 years ago.

Child was passionate about wine, and it’s worth watching the grainy black and white episodes of the original “French Chef” public television show to see just how passionate. In the second episode, aired in 1963, she prepares her classic Boeuf Bourguignon, and it includes a very intelligent discussion about wine to serve with the stew. You can see it at 25:58 of the linked item; she recommends mountain red, a California jug wine made with zinfandel, and explains why it’s not necessary to buy an expensive bottle of red Burgundy. No wonder, as Jacques Pepin once told me, “what you saw with Julia was what you got.”

Child did a wine and cheese episode in 1970, and the array of bottles — six French wines with their American counterparts — must have been as confusing as molecular biology to most of her audience. That’s because dessert wines were the best-selling wine in the U.S. until 1967 (part of the discussion in Chapter II of the Cheap Wine book), and the first U.S. wine boom was still five years off.

Some of the best wine advice ever written is in “The French Chef Cookbook,” published in 1968. Rose goes with anything, says Child, and she does not have kind words for retailers who offer less than helpful advice. There are also wine and food pairing suggestions, still relevant today, and she explains why there’s nothing wrong with cheap wine for everyday meals. My favorite part, though, is this: “The simplest way to start in on this pleasant hobby is to buy wines, start sampling, discussing, keeping notes, reading about wines, thinking about them, and enjoying them.”

Sounds like a great plan, no?

When Blue Nun ruled the wine world

In the 1980s, the German company that produced Blue Nun exported 2 million cases of the cheap, sweetish white wine, making it the YellowTail of its day. In this, it was supposed to be the fabled gateway wine — something that would introduce non-wine drinkers to wine. Then, they would progress from Blue Nun to dry wine and eventually turn into smart, sophisticated, and savvy wine drinkers.

That never happened (and, as I discuss in the cheap wine book, probably never will). Blue Nun, like all potential gateway wines, whether white zinfandel or YellowTail, reached its peak, and consumers moved on to something else. Blue Nun is still around and still sells millions of cases, but it ?s not what it was.

How big was Blue Nun then? I had dinner at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans in 1982 in the swanky upstairs dining room, and six or eight people at the table next to us were drinking Blue Nun. That they ordered it at one of the world’s great restaurants and which had an equally great wine list speaks to how comfortable it made those diners feel. Because, of course, Blue Nun was the white wine that’s correct with any dish — a brilliant marketing slogan for U.S. wine drinkers hung up on wine and food pairings, and just as true now as then.

Not all of the wine’s marketing was that good, as this TV commercial from 1985, when it was on its downhill slide — demonstrates (courtesy of xntryk1 at YouTube):

A brief history of wine

image from openclipart.org

Those Roman wine critics were a hoot; Columella complained about low prices.

These things really happened. Sort of, anyway.

? 3000 BC: Egyptians and Chinese are the first to ferment grapes to produce wine. Pyramid hieroglyphics show winemakers bemoaning three-tier system, since they can ?t ship direct to other parts of ancient world.

? 2000 BC: Greeks and later Romans spread wine culture throughout the Mediterranean, and Romans produce first wine critics. Roman Empire collapses 2500 years later ? certainly not a coincidence.

? 35 AD: Jesus turns water into wine. Wine Spectator gives His effort an 84, noting lack of oak and fruit.

? 12th Century: Henry II of England marries Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose dowry includes Bordeaux, to form pioneering multi-national wine company. The first cute labels, with names like Maiden ?s Merlot and Days and Knights, appear on store shelves.

? 17th century: European colonizers fail to successfully grow grapes in North America. Among the most noticeable flops is Thomas Jefferson, which paves the way for Todd Kliman ?s best-selling book, ?The Wild Vine. ?

? 1855: French announce first wine classification system, rating best wines in Bordeaux. Napa winemakers are furious and say they will wait for Robert Parker to invent scores before they make world-class wine.

? 1919: Prohibition, which outlawed the sale and manufacture of liquor in the U.S., begins. Hardly anyone stops drinking, and alcoholism rates may have increased.

? Mid-1980s: Cranky ex-sportswriter starts writing about wine. Cosmos yawns, but the cosmos never did like cheap wine anyway.

? 21st century: Wine consumption in U.S. is at record highs. But no one seems to be very happy, do they?

Cartoon courtesy Bocian at OpenClipArt, using a Creative Commons license