WHAT WINE SNOBS DON’T KNOW ABOUT WINE
To find out, Maclean's overseas editor journeyed intrepidly to southern France, land of champagne cellars and the world's most pampered grapes. Then, perhaps even more intrepidly, he invited four of the world's most loquacious epicures to lunch—rare wine snobs who may even know what they're talking about
LESLIE F. HANNON
WITH WINE-BIBBING on the increase over most of the civilized world — champagne exports increased eleven percent last year — the curious social neurosis of wine-snobbery is starting to spread like the flu bug. It's a nonfatal, affluentsociety kind of outbreak, like the Twist. It's hard to define, impossible to stamp out, and so insidious that you’re showing symptoms yourself before you notice it.
Not long ago I was in the pleasant white town of Epernay. in the heart of France’s champagne district, where a wine snob can get debunked faster than anywhere else. The best debunker in Epernay is a Scottish lass named Moira Campbell who's worked nine years for the world's biggest champagne firm, Moët and Chandon. One Sunday morning I went with Miss Campbell to the very monastery at Hautvilliers where it was first discovered that white wine, allowed to ferment a second time in the bottle, imprisons gas in the liquor and makes it sparkle like crazy. (Moët and Chandon has owned the monastery for two centuries.) A cracked bell was sending its echoes over the Marne and across hillsides of the most pampered grapes in the world, and Miss Campbell was exploding a wine myth every second:
Champagne is not made from white grapes— it's made from black ones and the pigment is in the skin;
Champagne grapes flourish in a relatively cold climate (most of populated Canada is further south than Epernay or Rheims):
Each bottle of champagne is not lovingly corked by gentle hands — machines do it, whacking out 12.000 bottles an hour:
There's no natural difference between champagne brut (very dry or sharp) and cham-
pagne doux (sweet)—it all depends on how much cane sugar is added.
What about the word “vintage." which wine snobs drop with such a clang? It simply means that the wine of a vintage year was considered so good by the expert tasters that it was not blended as usual with wines of other years. Naturally, you pay more for it because there's less of it. But Miss Campbell told me that not one Frenchman in a thousand could tell the difference between vintage and nonvintage champagne in a blindfold test.
I took my pilgrimage to Epernay soon after the Russians announced they could make perfect champagne in three weeks instead of the traditional three years. Abel Medard, chairman of the committee that rules the French champagne industry, sneered at the Soviets and said the French could do it in eight days — if they wanted to. “You put wine, sugar and yeast in one end and fizzz! — wine comes out of the other,” he said, with all the scorn he could muster. When these views were put to me. I was sitting in an eighteenth-century chateau with a baluster goblet of eight-year-old vintage champagne scintillating in my hand and the contents of another tintinnabulating inside me. I found myself nodding in comfortable agreement. But later, alone in my shuttered hotel room, I faced up to the facts: (1) champagne is a fizzy wine with sugar and yeast in it; (2) the Russians do invent things, including rockets that actually reach the moon.
Certainly, France and champagne have always gone together—like ham and eggs, as far as I am concerned. But if I were given a glass of Russia's instant bubbly and a glass of France's best in a blindfold test, howwould I make out? You'd think the chances would be fifty-fifty but the sneaks who think up this kind of test just might fill both glasses with true champagne. Would I know? Would you?
Right there, I grudgingly admitted. I was showing the first symptoms of wane snobbery. It was like turning forty and admitting you’re never going to get back in shape.
I decided to try at least to isolate this embarrassing virus.
My dictionary says a snob is a person who cares too much for rank, wealth or position. It doesn’t dare a separate definition of the wine snob. Now. after the months of research for this article, the boring wine tastings, the dull champagne suppers, the dusty travel to the French. Spanish and German vineyards, I have discovered some of the reasons why. One of them is that the wine-snob bug. like the amoeba, constantly divides.
When a reporter thinks he has the main branches catalogued, he runs into a couple of new types. For instance, I recently met a silent bowler-hatted man. umbrella over elbow, who drinks his after-office pint of beer in one of Henekey’s vaulted wine cellars in London and. simply by gazing at the oaken barrels of amontillado behind the bar,
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There are three types of wine snob. Then, there’s the man who scorns all wines — the antiwine snob
feels superior to the man who is slugging down his wallop in The Horse and Groom across the road. An ocean away are the 107 members of the Canadian Wine of the Month Club who arc paying $50 a year to become wine snobs by easy installments. They not only get a different bottle over the transom each month, but also a chunk of quotable wine talk, such as “This de-
lightful little all-purpose femme-à-toutesaffaires will add its gaiety to the fun of your summer outdoor feasting.”
For ordinary reference, though, I think wine snobs can be divided into three main groups, all recognizable in a dimly lit restaurant: first, the man who actually is a connoisseur of wines; second, the man who pretends he is; third, the man who is too
dumb to learn anything and who covers his shame with remarks like, “Vintage, schmintagc. Just shoot us a bottle of vino." By the way, 1 haven't forgotten the man who won’t touch wine at any price — he’s an antiwine snob.
I can't introduce you to typical men in dl these categories. Telling a man he has no wine sense is worse than telling him he
has no humor sense. Some become violent. Anthony Clarkson, a noted Fleet Street bibber, remembers a Soho wine waiter striking a disputatious customer on the back of the head with a bottle of Beaune. The customer had driven home his complaint with a short right jab to the waiter’s belly. 1 can, however, introduce you to a group of the world's best-known, bestqualified and most loquacious wine snobs.
They came to a small dinner party 1 gave amid the Edwardian gilt of London’s Trocadero. Excepting myself — still trying to shake off overexposure to rye highballs and Toronto Chinese cooking — all were wine and food connoisseurs. Under the guidance of Maître Bradshaw of the Troc —that is, Bradshaw selected the wines and food — I dined them well and pumped them relentlessly for most of the facts and fancies in this article. (Unfortunately, my notes, written in the light from the pêche flamhêe, were badly scorched. )
Over frosty aperitifs of Moët and Chandon Dry Imperial 1955, Cyril Ray told me that there was an awful lot of rot written about wine. Ray is a small tight-waistcoated Mancunian who writes an awful lot about wine. He is wine columnist of the London Observer and editor of the glossy, boozy annual called The Compleat Imbiber. I asked him to document his opinion that English-speaking peoples are more familiar with the world's best wines than the men of other nations. “Easy,” he said. "In the wine-growing countries, they take wine for granted. It's in the kitchen cupboard or in a jug at the corner store. These people always drink the ordinary— vin du pays — nothing half as good as you'll get in practically any bottle in an English pub.” Ray can also trace a winesnob streak in the Erench. He has a promoter’s puff for Châteauneuf-du-Pape: "It gives off a thousand odors, violent at first, of truffles and moorland herbs . . . and then finer ones . . . the evocation of sun-kissed fruits . . . and floral scents by the tubful.”
During our hors d'œuvres of asperpes fraîches oliviere, Ray outlined some of the difficulties of the professional wine snob. “There are really only three words that strictly define taste," he said. " I hey are ‘sweet,’ ‘sour’ and ‘bitter.’ They obviously add up to pretty flat copy so we drag in —words like ‘light,’ ‘balanced’ and and sometimes ‘noble.’ Even thex pretty shopw'orn.”
At this point. Chassagne Montrachet 1958. a cool not-too-dry white burgundy, was poured to accompany sole farde amiral—sole stuffed with truffles and lobster scraps. Another guest. Raymond Postgate, who is sometimes referred to as Public Stomach No. I. announced that the worst wine snob of all was the expert who poured scorn on the honest mistakes of the amateur. This could start the newcomer off on the wrong foot, give him the silly notion that drinking wine is some kind of a social ordeal or, even worse, a kind of barometer measuring a man’s status in the affluent society.
Postgate is a gruff and burly silverthatched man who started drinking wine, under the eyes of his Victorian parents, at age nine. He now thinks fourteen a better age to start and has laid down clarets and burgundies (1957 and 1958 vintages) to be given to each of his five grandchildren when they reach that age. An historian by training. Postgate became so angry at bad English cooking that he wrote The Good Food Guide, now in its eighth edition. His companion book. The Plain Mans Guide to Wine, is a classic. "I’ve the ex-
perience not to be taken in by a lot of pretentious nonsense." Postgate says. “I think food and wine are like bread and butter — you need the bread to put the butter on.”
Maître Bradshaw, beaming and balding, now pushed in a wagon on which a twig fire blazed merrily under spitted legs of baby lamb. Sheets of flame flushed his cheeks as he doused the meat with incendiary sauces. His waiters circled with a dry and pungent claret. Château Latour, Pau il lac 1948. New York bon vivant, L. Harry Brague. Jr., who comes to London when fatigued with the boring round of the Twelve Caesars and the Four Seasons, remarked lightly that he was always puzzled by the instruction "serve at room temperature” which applies to most, but not all. red wines. Did this mean, for instance, the seventy-five degrees of the dining alcove of a North American split-level in February, or the forty-odd of an English country house in September? Our head wine waiter, Raymonde Puppin. offered an anecdote about a flustered woman who first put a bottle of her husband’s best burgundy in the fridge to chill it. then, remembering the "room temperature” law. yanked it out and held it under the hot tap to warm it up again. I asked if this treatment would spoil the taste of the wine. Puppin’s eyebrows arched. "M’sieur. the wine would be shocked.”
Maurice Buckmaster, the legendary wartime commander of the maquis who is still playing an undercover role as a champagne publicist, told me, as the dessert approached, what to look for among the jumble of words on a wine label. Consider, for instance. Médoc, the well-known red Bordeaux wine. Starting at the bottom of the scale, you'll find a label reading simply "Médoc.” It should be quite okay
but the growers didn’t think too much of it. Next comes a label reading, say “St. Julien" — at least you know from which part of the Médoc it came. Up another step (presumably in quality and certainly in price) comes a bottle labeled Château Such-et-Such. This does not mean the wine came from the château to you. You’ll find a shipper's name in small print somewhere —he bought it in bulk from the château and bottled it himself: if he was an honest man he didn't cut it with cheaper Algerian. Lastly, if you can stand the tab, your label will be surprintcd “Mise en Bouteille au Château." That’s the best, the connoisseur’s wine, bottled at the chateau. Of course, there are châteaux and châteaux.
I he official order of merit of red Bordeaux wines, iron-clad since 1855. lists sixty-two chateaux, in five grades. Only myself and the Trocadero staff knew that the Latour which was served with our meat course belonged among the lordly three in Grade One — the Premiers Crus. By the way, that Latour cost only forty shillings a bottle at sensible London prices —under six Canadian dollars. If you find all this interesting, you’d make a pretty good wine snob yourself.
Our dessert, pèche flambée Trocadero, was caressed by Chateau d’Yquem 1948. Everyone has at least heard of this most expensive sweet sauterne but only the scholarly Raymond Postgate knows that the extra something in Château d’Yquem is. frankly, rot. To be more precise, it is the fungus parasite botrytis cinerea which attacks the grapes. Elsewhere it's a curse but in the sauterne parishes it’s a blessing and only grapes so attacked are pressed. The technical explanation is beyond me.
Every wine snob I’ve met of whatever rank, has bits of wine lore secreted about
him. Stephen Potter, the English humorist, devotes a chapter of his book. One-Upmanship. to “winesmanship." He suggests that aspiring wine snobs shun adjectives like “sound” and “pleasant” when talking of a wine. People will only think you've been mugging up on wine merchants’ catalogues. He suggests using what he calls vagucry (“It has — ah — don’t you think?”) or randomy (“too many tramlines"). Journalist Pierre Herton likes to say. “It’s a cheeky small wine, a boy on a man’s errand.”
This game is fun, but puzzling, because
wine is basically simple stuff. Poetry aside, it’s booze without the brass knuckles. In the first place, nobody invented it. Not even the French. Wild grapes still flourish around the Caspian and Black seas and the other adjacent areas where civilization began. Bruised grapes fermenting in a clay vessel somewhere in Mesopotamia most likely produced the first wine by sheer accident.
When the natives of Prance were hunting wild animals and each other, the Egyptians had already learned to store heavy wines for years until they matured.
They were probably the world’s first wine snobs. They knew how to propagate mutations — all wild grapes are black — and develop the best wines. Results from the best growing years were stored in great clay jars marked with the vintner’s name, the year, the type of wine — much as a bottle of champagne is marked today. Viticulture spread from Egypt to Greece, into Greece’s colonies in Italy and Sardinia, and into a small Greek colony in the south of France.
The capital of that colony was Massilia, now Marseilles. Thus the lirst wine was
produced in France before the Germanic Franks conquered the Celtic Gauls to leave their name on the land that is now recognized as the world’s vineyard. A little over sixteen hundred years later — last year, to be more exact — I visited the heart of that vineyard, the champagne district along the war-scarred Marne.
Here, in Epernay, Moira Campbell of Moët and Chandon guided me through the •cellars that supplied bubbly to Madame Pompadour: today they supply Queen
Elizabeth and anyone else who’s got the money. With a sturdy stride, more suited to her native Scottish moors. Miss Campbell ran me up and down the hundreds of stone steps in these wine-filled caves. Some of them. 100 feet deep, were dug to get the limestone for the cathedral at nearby Rheims which La Fontaine called “the ornament and honor of France.” With pauses that refreshed. I walked miles in dark gloom past thirty million bottles of maturing champagne and duly admired the huge Bavarian barrel that Napoleon gave to Jean-Rémy Moët.
Back in England. I pursued the point: just how did wine snobbery begin? F'dward Hyams, a one-time novelist who now makes wine in Kent, gives a sensible explanation in his book, Vin.
After 1400 AI), says Hyams, wine ceased to be made commercially in England. For 500 years it was "imported,” carrying all the sales allure of that potent word. It has always been taxed in a beerdrinking country and therefore, as a luxury item, could be afforded only by the wealthy, or upper, classes. Wine drinking became what we’d call today a status symbol. The empire-building English carried this foolishness with them to most corners of the globe. Hyams suggests that if kippers were imported and taxed, snobs would soon be arguing about their bouquet.
Gin for war, wine for peace
London wine stewards and merchants agree that wine drinking is increasing. Francesco Mondelli of the Savoy, who wistfully asks to be called Frank, says that gin is the drink of war and wine the drink of peace. He says he’s pouring twice as much wine for Savoy guests as he was ten years ago. His wine lots run from Krug Imperial at $10.50 to four kinds of carafe wine at a bargain $1.50 to $2.00. Andre Efstathiou, head wine butler at London’s Waldorf, told me there’s now wine on at least half of his sixty tables at any lunch hour. Like most English hotels and restaurants, Efstathiou numbers his wines to help customers who might falter with the pronunciation of, say, Château—1950 Cantenac-Brown. Eighty percent of his customers order by number.
I'm still not sure, after all this, if I'm becoming a wine snob or not. I'm a little confused. In Tokyo, I tried to learn to senti back my sake if it wasn t hot enough. In Athens, I glumly absorbed the resin in retsina. In Suva, I tried to cope with kavakava. In Sydney, I tried to assess that native port laced with cleaning fluid. In Paris. I watched Frenchmen drop ice cubes in their wine. In Los Angeles, I was dared to state that Californian champagne wasn't better than that from la montagne de Reims. In Buffalo, I waited patiently while they iced the chianti. In Toronto, my hosts told me gaily that after one drink what ci id it all matter?
I'm thinking of taking the word of Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. the man who dined and wined his way through the French revolution in such a manner that his very name is synonymous with fine food and fine wines. He once wrote: "lea is an excellent substitute for wine with a meal.” ★