1940s Archive

Vin Ordinaire in America

Originally Published October 1947

As far as its gastronomic resources are concerned, this country is already the envy of the civilized world. I suppose it will be doubly so when we somehow arrange to produce and distribute widely and market at a really low price a few sound and pleasant table wines. Please note that I am not talking about rare vintages and old bottles, but about the lowest common denominator of wine—something that we could all afford to drink every evening or as often as we chose, as a beverage and not as a ceremony.

How many of us can recall, before the war, after wine-drinking holidays in France or Italy or Spain or the Rhineland, our return to a bleak cocktails-then-ice-water regime in this country? A good many of us were goaded into action of some sort—we tried to make our own wine, and came to the reluctant conclusion that this was a job for professionals; occasionally we found an Italian grocer or gardener who would sell us gallons, but the wine proved uneven in quality and hard to keep; finally, after repeal, we shopped around in our local liquor stores for a dependable and palatable American wine at a price we could afford, and generally, after a few disappointing months, we gave up.

Even American wine producers will now admit that most of the wines which they marketed between 1934 and about 1940 were a long way from what they should have been. And in the past five years we have hardly seen any real vin ordinaire (by which I mean a common, inexpensive table wine) sold in America. The humble gallon jug virtually disappeared in 1943 from our wine merchants' shelves; instead, the undistinguished reds and whites from the mass production areas of California appeared in fancy dress at a fancy price, and elaborate advertising campaigns were launched to convince us that bottles which we used to buy reluctantly for 60 cents were suddenly worth $1.50 and were being sold us as a special favor.

The real purpose of this article is to say that today, at last, a potable American vin ordinaire is not altogether a mirage; it may be less distant than a good many of us have believed. Grape prices in California are back to reason this fall, the great wine boom is over, and from here it looks as though, for wine-thirsty Americans, 1948 would be the pleasantest year since 1917.

This may be as good a time as any to attempt to draw a clean line of demarcation between common table wine, of which the United States produces annually some thirty million gallons, and fine table wine, of which we produce about one-iftieth as much. The former, in terms of food, is what we eat 360 days a year; the latter is turkey at Thanks-giving and plum pudding on Christmas Day. Fine wines, whether produced in Burgundy or on the Rhine, in California or in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, will never be plentiful and will never be cheap; if vin ordinaire is not cheap, there is no excuse for its existence. When you pay $1.50 or $2 for a white Pinot from the Livermore Valley or a Cabernet from Napa, you have a right to the equivalent of a filet steak—a vintage wine from a top district, properly aged both before and after bottling, made with great care out of the unusual, shy-bearing grape varieties which yield outstanding wine not only in this country but in France. When you buy vin ordinaire, you are altogether in a different league, and you should judge what you buy as you judge coffee or milk or beer. The vintage (or lack of vintage) is of no consequence, for you want a young wine, and it may please you to remember that 90 per cent of all French wine is drunk when it is less than two years old. As with coffee or beer, you have a right to something which is sound and palatable, with no off taste or off color; your wine will have little or no bouquet (for this comes with bottle age) but what aroma it has should be agreeable; you can serve it in tumblers or mugs or cocktail glasses, at the temperature you like and with any dish, including pickles. It is, as I have said, a beverage, not a ceremony.

The idea of converting America into a nation of wine-drinkers through the pleasant evangelism of cheap native wine is not by any means new. It has been tried every couple of decades for the past hundred and fifty years, and by persons and organizations as diverse as Nicholas Longworth and Leland Stanford, Thomas Jefferson and the Wine Advisory Board. “The introduction of a very cheap wine into my neighborhood, within two years past,” wrote Jefferson, “has quadrupled in that time the number of those who keep wines and will ere long increase them tenfold.” (I wonder where the cheap wine came from, and what it was that finally killed off that promising little nucleus round Monticello.)

If you reread today the yellowed pages of the reports and chronicles published on behalf of wine in California between 1850 and 1900, you find, over and over again, expressed with varying degrees of optimism, as the market went up or down, this same idea, as ineradicable, apparently, as the vine itself. Sooner or later the Golden West would bring the inexpensive fruit of its expanding vine-yards to “the populous cities of the East.” The case, in those days, was well argued. A quarter of a million immigrants a year were arriving in the United States from the wine-drinking countries alone; most of the restaurants in large cities were run by Frenchmen or Germans or Italians; the “upper classes, arbiters of fashion,” already drank wine, and where the upper classes led, “the rest would follow.”

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