1940s Archive

Vin Ordinaire in America

continued (page 2 of 4)

Alas for the upper classes and alas for Bacchus! The best California wine, as late as 1910, sold for $6 a case, but in those easy and pleasant days you could buy a case of bonded whisky for the same $6. Now it is a disillusioning and unpleasant truth that the popularity of various alcoholic beverages, the world over and throughout history, has always been in direct ratio to their alcoholic content and their price. The fiction that deep-seated racial preferences exist, that Frenchmen like wine, Germans like beer, Cubans like rum, and Americans like whisky, is nothing but fiction and has been disproved a hundred times over. Move a family from Munich to Rüdesheim or from London to Bordeaux or from Chicago to Paris, and you will have a family of wine-drinkers within twenty years. Ninety per cent of your rum-drinking Cubans come of wine-drinking Spanish stock. The Normans are French, but they drink cider like their neighbors in Devonshire across the Channel, and like the Spaniards in Asturias, for the excellent and sufficient reason that cider is cheap and wine comparatively expensive in the districts where they live.

To bring the comparison a little closer home, how can we explain, except on the basis of availability and price, the fact that the average citizen of California drinks four times as much wine as the average citizen of West Virginia or Michigan or Vermont or Texas? There is no longer, either in California or elsewhere in America, any large body of foreign-born who still cling stubbornly to the eating and drinking habits which they formed before they came to this country. The overwhelming bulk of the wine which the American public will buy and drink during the next ten years will be bought, not on account of old taste habits, but because it seems, to the present generation, to go well with American food, and because it is fairly cheap. A gallon of wine for $2.50, or a bottle for 60 or 70 cents, is a better buy than $3 gin or $4 whisky by any criterion, even by the tough, unpleasant, but final criterion of alcoholic content.

The important part which price plays in this matter was long ago recognized in California. Competing with spirits at 50 cents a bottle, the table wines of preprohibition days had to be cheap as well as good if they were to be sold at all, and a possible saving of three or four cents a gallon in transportation costs was a matter of major interest to the entire industry. As recently as 1910, most of the wine shipped east from California came by steamer or sailing vessel around the Horn, at some three cents a gallon plus the cost of the oak or redwood barrels in which it was customarily shipped and sold. Rail rates were considered almost prohibitive, and it was not until the first refrigerated tank car appeared in 1910 (a tank car designed for milk being used as a model) that the railroads began to play a really major role as carriers of cheap wine. At seven cents a gallon, coast to coast, these tank cars were rated at first as something pretty luxurious and expensive, and a good many of the old-school vintners continued to claim as well that a wine which had twice “crossed the line” in wood had received a sort of “aging” which time itself could not duplicate. It was more or less in support of this theory that a lady journalist, Mrs. Frona Eunice Wait, once wrote that even the Spaniards, in order to age their sherries, shipped them to “the Equator, in the Mediterranean Sea.”

The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 made wholly academic any further discussions of this sort; it also brought to light a good many novel possibilities in the field of shipping wine. By the end of 1915 plans had been completed for a double-hulled tanker which would carry wine from dockside San Francisco to dockside Brooklyn for one cent a gallon, and which would carry steel rails to California on its return voyage. Before the keel could be laid, there came the steel shortage and the war and prohibition and, so far as the California wine industry was concerned, the deluge. It is interesting, however, to note that some twenty years later the French constructed a very similar steamer, which they quite properly named the “Bacchus,” and which carried on every trip across the Mediterranean, in its capacious belly, enough Algerian wine for an army on the march.

The unhappy story of the prohibition years has no rightful place in an article such as this. Briefly, those who were unwilling to do without their claret or their vino rosso began to buy what were euphemistically called “juice grapes” in the large Eastern cities, in order to make wine at home. Now the finer wine grapes are thin-skinned and fragile—they will not stand transcontinental shipment. The demand, therefore, was for the tough, thick-skinned, and common varieties which would travel; fine vine-yard after fine vineyard was grafted over to such vines or replanted, and the superior varieties, little by little, tended to disappear. Today, fifteen years after repeal, most of this debris is still there, and even today there are fewer acres planted to superior vines in the better California districts than there were when the Eighteenth Amendment became the law of the land.

Nearly a decade and a half after its great and apparently final defeat, the California wine industry was rather abruptly called on to reform its ranks and begin where it left off. Obviously, this was altogether impossible. Most of its conscientious and honorable leaders had retired or died, many of the producers were bankrupt, the majority of its wineries were in ruins, the beautiful oak cooperage in most cellars had dried out or gone moldy through sheer neglect, the better vineyards had been regrafted or abandoned—there was less left than most Californians care, even today, to admit.

Subscribe to Gourmet