Sept/Oct/Nov 2009

Red Wine and Blue

Americans have a long and contradictory history of imbibing and proscribing.

Melanie Rehak


Alcohol can cause delusions—among Americans, anyway, who think it's reasonable to let a person vote and go to war before giving them the right to sip a fuzzy navel. And these are just the latest symptoms of this affliction, which dates back to colonial days. According to wine-industry lawyer and vintner Richard Mendelson, author of the very engaging From Demon to Darling: A Legal History of Wine in America (University of California Press, $30), "early temperance advocates believed that beer and wine played a critical role in encouraging a life of temperance. So accepted was this wisdom that the 'Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance . . . served wine at its gatherings.'" As Garrett Peck writes in The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet (Rutgers University Press, $27), not only have we never known how to deal with the stuff, we don't even know how to classify it. "Is it a normal consumer product? Is it a controlled substance? Is it a gift from God? Or is it Demon Rum?"

The answer—and the problem, of course— is that it's all these things and more. Alcohol has been an engine of economic growth (through taxation and the creation of jobs) and the force behind a surge in organized crime (during Prohibition). It's festive but sinful, the fuel for great daring and much idiocy. George Washington did brisk business as a whiskey distiller after his presidency ended in 1797, and Thomas Jefferson was, as Mendelson reports, a great patron and promoter of American wines for Americans. Yet even our booze-loving Founding Fathers couldn't save us from the temperance movement, which was partly responsible for killing the nascent American wine industry; in California alone, the number of wineries went from more than 700 before Prohibition to 177 by 1933. In wine's stead came products like Vine-Glo, a concentrated grape juice that arrived from California complete with instructions on how to turn it— la Jesus at Cana—into wine, forever ruining, according to some oenophiles, the American palate.

As it happens, the failure of taste is at the forefront of Jonathan Nossiter's mind. The filmmaker has written Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26), which, despite his protestations to the contrary, essentially picks up where his globe-trotting 2004 documentary, Mondovino, left off. Nossiter, however, seems to know his wine better than he knows himself. He claims to disdain "modern wine gibberish" but then makes declarations like "People don't want to be provoked by acidity," when discussing white wine, and comments that a certain vineyard's wines have "become banal" and "lost their character: the scintillating edginess of the wines' textures, the mysterious depths of their flavors."

In Nossiter's world, wine is all about terroir, the French concept that wine is "an expression of a place . . . the geology and meteorology of a specific site, [but] also of the history of that land in relation to the vine and, equally importantly, the history of those people who have cultivated that place. It's the intersection of human culture and agriculture. And each bottle is an expression of that intersection." (The wine that lost its edginess came from a vineyard that had been sold to someone outside the original vigneron's family.) Terroir is a gorgeous idea, one rooted in labor and tradition, and it ties in beautifully with the humanist argument that gives Nossiter's book its title—that wine is a kind of liquid memory because it's imbued with the character of everyone and everything that made it. I don't disagree, though I prefer the more democratic monologue from the wine movie Sideways that Peck reproduces, which makes much the same argument in less lofty terms: "I like to think about the life of wine, how it's a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the years the grapes were growing, how the sun was shining, if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And, if it's an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now." That if is a key difference. Like me, Peck finds Nossiter's insistence on terroir "elitist, because it subscribes to a belief that only centuries of history can bring validity to a wine."

Still, even Nossiter shows signs of an inner struggle, which leads him to mount this tangled argument in his own defense:

How to reconcile democracy with elitism, where elitism is understood as a carefully considered expression of taste that seeks to be distinguished from others? It is intrinsically elitist to bring a critical judgment, make distinctions. What seems crucial is to recognize that there is an ethical engagement at the heart of this elitist activity. If one employs one's elitism to denigrate others, then it's reprehensible and renders a notion like terroir in wine unspeakably chauvinist and antidemocratic. Where elitism acquires nobility is in the suggestion that we're not all the same and that a distinction is being made in order to affirm the potential singularity of us all.

This is the essence of his own identity crisis, and in some ways it is the American identity crisis— concerning lineage and class—seen through a wine bottle darkly. On the one hand, Nossiter insists that the trend in the US of big, fruity wines with no history behind them panders to juvenile American taste buds and is destroying global wine production because other people want to copy those wines, which sell well, instead of producing the smaller, idiosyncratic ones he favors. In his opinion, the infamous 1976 Paris tasting (which Mendelson and Peck also write about), in which French wines lost out to a California chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, was "one of the greatest catastrophes that has ever befallen the wine world." It's not that Nossiter hates all American wine, just that the US's toppling of France in a blind taste test resulted in the rise of an industry based on power and money and created a market and appetite for wine "designed to overpower tasters"—that is, the kind of wine that drinkers like himself, "who prefer elegance, a graceful vivacity, and finesse," would never go near.

On the other hand, Nossiter believes—and I think he truly does, in spite of his mixed message—that we should all be allowed to make our own decisions about what kind of wine we enjoy. "The more a wine salesman . . . wields a technician's jargon, the more easily he's able to dominate you and prevent you from formulating your own reaction, your own taste, your own curiosity about the wine's cultural dimension, your own pleasure," he says, quite rightly. His main target in the war against inappropriate guidance is the critic—and "most ludicrous offender"—Robert Parker, whose one-hundred-point rating system has, Nossiter concludes, wreaked havoc on Americans' confidence in their own choices. (Never mind that Peck quotes Parker as saying, "No matter what I tell you, there can never be any substitute for your own palate or any better education than tasting the wine yourself.")

What all this gets back to, of course, is the American ideal of freedom. It's why people found a way to drink during Prohibition even when they were told not to. (As Peck writes, "Temperance advocates were nave to believe that Americans would obey a law simply because it was on the books.") It's why Nossiter doesn't like Parker's dominance in the wine world any more than Peck likes Nossiter's occasional condescension masked as populism. Still, Nossiter is often right, not least in his wise inclusion of the answer given by a close friend and chef in Paris when asked whether wine is ultimately unknowable. Wine, the friend tells him, is finally about inebriation. People hope to go beyond the immediately human. This, more than any argument about terroir or temperance, is the point. We drink to travel somewhere else, and sometimes it's OK not to care that much what's in the bottle.

When I was in my early to mid-twenties, a friend and I had a regular date to meet in the parlorlike bar of a local inn after work on Friday evenings during the cold winter months. We would settle into the musky velvet couches and order Jack and ginger, the perfect combination of smooth—the whiskey—and sharp—the ginger ale. (A slightly more grown-up version, made with bourbon, real ginger, and club soda, appears in Joy Perrine and Susan Reigler's The Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book [University Press of Kentucky, $15], under the name Woodford and Ginger.) We would toast to the weekend and knock the cocktails back quickly. We drank to forget the cold outside and that we were underlings at our jobs. We drank to escape ourselves and everyone around us, except each other. We drank to avoid the looming question of whether we would be romantically involved by the time the weather thawed. In the morning, we woke up and went about our routines, but we knew where we'd been, however briefly.

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