1940s Archive

Vin Ordinaire in America

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The inevitable result was a five-or six-year period of poor wine, wine so bad that much of it could not be sold at any price, even in a country where wine was a new and glamorous toy; wine made from raisin grapes or table grapes or culls, hastily and carelessly fermented; wines labeled “Sauterne” and “Moselle” and “Chablis” and “Rhine Wine,” although all four were drawn from the same tank; wines that would make a beer-drinker out of anyone who tried them, and a good many people did.

Most California producers were just a step ahead of the sheriff in those days. In 1939 grapes sold for $20 or $25 a ton, well below the cost of growing and picking them, and bankers estimated that California's wine inventory of 115, 000,000 gallons was worth an average of 24 cents a gallon, which was perhaps an exaggeration.

If the war years did nothing else, they at least put the California producers on somewhat firmer financial ground, and now that grape prices are down again we have a right to expect from our friends on the West Coast something a good deal better and a good deal cheaper than anything they have sent us since prohibition. Congress has seen fit to tax spirits at a rate which makes them no longer competitive with wine, and if California misses this chance, she may never get another so good. I do not think, however, that she will miss this chance.

Having by now (I hope) awakened a moderate thirst and a certain spirit of anticipation in my readers, I am compelled in all honesty to admit that it will probably be more difficult than it sounds to find really satisfactory American ordinaires, a least for the next few months. Such wines will certainly be produced and will certainly be for sale; the problem will be to find them, to put one's finger unerringly on precisely the right jug or precisely the right bottle in the carnival of fancy names and gay labels. To do so, we shall probably have to abandon some of our carefully nurtured prejudices.

I, for example, very much dislike buying a wine called “Chablis” unless it tastes like Chablis, or a “Claret” which resembles nothing so much as a lesser wine of the Rhone Valley. When I buy a superior American wine I insist on knowing not only where it came from, but also out of what grape it was made. When we are dealing with vin ordinaire, this is altogether out of the question. If we buy a jug labeled “Moselle” and the wine tastes likes Graves, we have no complaint so long as it tastes like good Graves. Actually, it is impossible to distinguish, either by chemical analysis or by tasting, between California Burgundy and California Claret, and the one axiomatic statement that we can make about both of them is that neither is ever made from the same grape as its prototype in France. Apart from a few regional and varietal names (Sonoma and Santa Clara; Zinfandel, Cabernet, and Riesling, for example, the former referring to districts and the latter to grape varieties) California table wine names are utterly without meaning. A producer is at liberty to call his white wine Chablis or Rhine Wine or Hock or Dry Sauterne as he sees fit, and legally he can draw all four out of the same barrel. This, of course, has nothing to do with the intrinsic quality of the wine, which may be excellent, but it does render a good deal more difficult the selection of a bottle on a wine merchant's shelves.

Before prohibition, California clarets were generally (but by no means always) lighter in color and body than Burgundies and contained a high proportion of wine made from Zinfandel grapes, whereas Burgundies were made from the Petit Syrah, the Carignane, and the Refosco. But the most celebrated “Chablis” of the 1890's was a Gray Riesling, “Moselles” were made largely from Folle Blanche (which is the cognac grape), and a half dozen more odd fish of the sort could be pulled up at will out of this wide ocean of confusion without limit or bottom.

Such nonsense need not concern us greatly when it comes to selecting a cheap wine for our daily dinner table—the producer can label it “Château Fujiyama” or “Napa Red,” providing the wine is good.

Another widespread and legitimate prejudice is one against tank-car wine. Since a certain amount of bottle age is absolutely necessary to a fine wine, and since practically everything shipped out of California in bulk and bottled in the East goes to market as soon as it is bottled, and finally since the raison d'être of tank cars is cheap transportation, we are justified in complaining if a tank-car wine is anything but cheap. But if we are buying ordinaire, we can afford to look on the despised tank car with affectionate respect—it may save us as much as a dollar a case.

All this is rather negative—perhaps a few positive suggestions would prove helpful.

First, confine your searches for vin ordinaire to wine from California. Neither in New York State nor in Ohio nor in Michigan can grapes be grown cheaply enough to permit the sale of well-made wine at much under $1 a bottle, and here we are talking of wine at 60 or 70 cents.

Second, try, if possible, to get a wine from one of the north coast counties—Sonoma, Napa, Santa Clara, San Benito, Alameda (which includes the Livermore Valley), and Santa Cruz. Far too much of the wine produced in the central valleys, around Lodi, Stockton, Manteca, Modesto, Madera, Fresno, and Delano, is made out of what are known as “three-way grapes.” This innocent-sounding term means a raisin grape which can be sold as a table grape when raisin prices are low or, if worst comes to worst, can be used for wine. Such wine may be passable raw material for the manufacture of cheap domestic sherry, but it goes to market all too often as Chablis or Sauterne; it is flat, neutral, and about as appetizing as colored water.

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