Archive for December, 2008
Prohibition may have failed in the U.S. but it’s far reaching effect was to replace the wine glass with a shot glass..
The effects of Prohibition on America’s drinking habits are so significant, that I wanted to point out a few reasons that Americans have only come up on the radar as a wine consuming country since the 1970’s. American’s love affair with booze goes back in history to the early part of our country when Rum was traded as major commodity and George Washington set up his commercial still operation in Mount Vernon. Over time, wine drinking actually caught on when Americans figured out a way to make American grapes (vitus lambrusco, no relation to Italian Lambrusco) palatable as drinking wines, thus putting Missouri and Ohio on the map of top wine producing areas.
When Prohibition raised it’s ugly head in 1919 through the Volstead Act which essentially made alcohol illegal in most forms (you were allowed to produce a limited amount of wine at home, and Near Beer with a maximum alcohol level of .5% by volume remained legal) and completed it’s devastation by 1933, America was in the middle of the big Depression. America’s taste for “soft” alcoholic beverages like wine and beer had been hardened into a love of gin and other cheap spirits which were readily available during Prohibition in illegal drinking establishment known as Speakeasies. Since the Mafia was in charge of providing illegal beverages to these undercover establishments, booze became king: it was easy to transport, relatively easy to make or bring over the border from Canada, and it had plenty of alcohol by volume both satisfying the thrill seekers of the era: if you were going to risk going to jail for breaking the law, why not drink the hard stuff – booze!
The other major effect of Prohibition (excluding the major number of deaths by people who mistakenly consumed cheap ethanol substitutes like wood alcohol which killed them) was the destruction of over 90% of the existing vineyards and the loss of a major number of breweries. Since investment dollars were hard to come by during the financial Depression, and it takes a long lead time to grow quality grapes and produce quality wine, the wine industry took many years to reappear. Even if a winery was opened, the shortage of talent and skilled labor to produce quality wines was almost non-existent.
America’s tastes changed to spirits such as gin, vodka and whiskey which was most evident during the 50’s and 60’s with the burgeoning cocktail culture and the prevalence of cheap, poorly made wine produces like wine coolers – I remember Bartles and James commercials on TV, do You? Cocktails and the associated cocktail parties were the rage in this era, and wine was still either cheap and sweet or hard to come by unless you were willing search it out and spend relatively a lot of money for the time. And each state had different alcohol laws and controls, for example, in my state of Pennsylvania there were an extremely limited availability of quality wines, and you were more likely to find Riunite, Blue Nun or Mateus as the closest substitute to a fine wine. Since fine wine was relatively expensive and hard to come by, it had a snooty reputation and was perceived as “highfalutin”—something only the rich or Europeans drank, or something saved only for special occasions like sparkling wine for the Holidays.
Conclusion: Prohibition slowed down America’s interest in wine and repositioned booze as the alcoholic drink of choice. Other signs of this fact include American’s sweet tooth in beverages from cocktails to soft drinks and the difficulty many people have adjusting to “dry” wines with food. Two historical moments significantly effected American’s tastes in wine: 1) The Paris Tasting of 1976 when California wines one against French wines in both the red and white wine categories, and 2) 60 Minutes episode on the “French Paradox” in 1991 which suggested that the reason the French have such low heart disease even though they ate ridiculously high levels of saturated fat in their diet, was due to their consumption of a few glasses of red wine per day. Add American’s relative wealth, travel to foreign countries, increased interest in gourmet food and fine cuisine and last but not least the movie Sideways, and it becomes clear why America is now the number one consumer of wine by total volume a year – Cheers!
Charlie “I Drink On the Job” Adler
I’m working on the chapter on “Terroir” for my upcoming book “I Drink On the Job” and I’m trying to figure out a simple way to explain to people that basically “terroir” means..well, uhh, sort of…poop! Very few people I know love the smell of..well, crap, but in essence that what terroir is – it’s the stink of the earth..well sort of, it doesn’t necessarily have to stink, I mean when I think of the terroir of a runny washed rind cheese, I think of…there it is again, barnyard! So how do I try to convey in language the natural, earthiness of terroir without getting stinky about it?
So here’s my idea: rather than try to connect terroir with “earthiness”, I’m going to write about “placeness” or “somewhereness” – Terroir is the character of a place, the effects of taking two identical living things and bringing them up in a totally different environment. If I plant the same Chardonnay vine, identical in every way right down to the DNA and I plant them in totally different “places” then I will come up with two totally different wines. An analogy I use in the book is the story of two identical twins. Let’s say I separated soon after birth two identical twin baby girls and brought them up in two different places with completely different parents, say one was brought up in Los Angeles by a wealthy family, and one was brought up in Tokyo, Japan by a lower class family. Twenty years go by, and they happen to meet each other..would they be the same? I mean, would they have the same personality and character, would you mistake the two of them for the same person after being around them for a few minutes?
This is very difficult to convey in simple language, because I think terroir is really a concept less scientific and way more philosophical, maybe akin to explaining “biodynamic” to someone who has never heard of it. I’ll put some real effort into explaining the “placeness” concept, I just hope that people will read my book and realize that terroir is not only vague, but it is also difficult to detect in a wine.
And maybe one person’s terroir is another’s terror..
Charlie “I Drink On the Job” Adler
Editing my first Chapter of my book I Drink On the Job I realized that I’ve met thousands of first-time newbie wine drinkers, but I know very little about their demographics and characteristics except for two facts: they have high incomes and they are well educated. But what does that mean?
My Wine Basics 101 class has taught literally thousands of people in the Washington, D.C. area about wine and the wine culture, but most of the information I have on the consumers attending is only anecdotal. So I always ask people, what was your first wine experience that made you want to learn more about wine? The answers vary quite a bit, but I’ve come up with a “picture” of the general newbie wine drinker in the DC area:
- Well-traveled or at least has been outside the U.S. a few times,
- Enjoys good cuisine and likes to eat in a variety of restaurants,
- College educated and very likely an advanced degree as well,
- White collar worker with a decent income
So the criteria is income, education, likes to eat and travel, that’s a good start to figuring out who is and who isn’t a consumer wine drinker. This also fits across the U.S., I’m pretty sure no matter what city you travel to here from LA to Portland, to Miami and back to DC, you will find a similar type person drinking wine. So how is this signficant to my book? I base my book on the European concept of food and wine: food and wine were meant to be consumed together, and wine is simply part of most meals. A truck driver in France will grab a glass of wine with his cafeteria lunch just like an office worker might grab a glass with lunch at a cafe–drinking wine is simply no big deal and no major decision in most of Europe, particularly France, Italy and Spain.
I’ll leave with this thought: many Americans drink wine for a variety of reasons such as its sophisticated, complex and it is the drink of choice at formal affairs; their European counterpart barely differentiates the experience of drinking wine from grabbing a baguette! Another factor to consider of course is that a standard glass of wine in France is a few dollars or so, about the cost of a Coke, while in the U.S. most wines by the glass sell for around $7 or more. This may not seem like a big deal, but the markup in wine here is so high that it becomes clear why American wine drinkers need to have more disposable income: it simply costs more in the U.S. than Europe to enjoy the wine lifestyle..
Almost forgot, some workplaces in Europe allow workers to drink wine as part of their lunch, but that’s a separate Blog entry – cheers!
Charlie “I Drink On the Job” Adler
I love when famous people scorn the artificiality that exists in so much of the world! How often do people want to say something negative but fear retribution because: 1) they might hurt the affected party, or 2) (more likely) they’re worried that people will no longer respect/like them and possibly will condemn them?
Take a recent article in Decanter about French actor-winemaker-restaurateur Gerard Depardieu who “disdains biodynamics, Jamie Oliver and ‘bullshit industrial wines’”. The brief description of the upcoming article in Decanter depicts Depardieu as an enemy of the biodynamic movement in France because he considers it to be a poor use of resources available to the winemaker. Since this is only a description of his upcoming article, it doesn’t go into specifics, but it’s still fun to read about those who don’t shy away from controversy. Natural, organic and biodynamic wines are better for the sustainability of the earth – right? If you believe members of the wine “naturalist” movement like Alice Feiring who recently wrote a book called “The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization” you would believe that only
“natural” wines (wines that have not been “over-manipulated” by chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides or any conditions set by man such as overuse of oak or sulfites) would be better tasting, better for you, and ultimately make the universe a better place to live? As much as I enjoyed Ms. Feiring’s point of view in her book, and her very entertaining style, I’m still a skeptic: can you taste the difference in a wine untouched by man’s alleged intervention? Isn’t wine in fact a man-made product and today’s wines are actually better tasting, with less bacterial issues than ever before?
To answer my own question–I’m really not sure of the answer, but I think pointing the finger at winemakers that use new technologies to get a product to market that the market actually wants to consume is not in itself a bad thing. Give the people what they want as the saying goes. On the other hand, I am TOTALLY impressed by winemakers who attempt to use natural methods such as the phases of the moon and nature’s cycles to make a quality product. Personally, I grew totally organic vegetables this past summer just for that reason – I know I could have gotten higher yields and had less problems if I had sprayed and used other chemicals and soil agents, but I chose not to..why? Because the challenge is to work with what nature gives you. Sure, I could grow massive tomatoes, but I wanted tomatoes that had intense flavors and plants that figured out how to resist disease on their own. This was a personal decision, not a decision I would suggest on others – if you want to eat organic, natural foods, go for it, I eat a mix of foods from natural to “manufactured”.
I started with Gerard and ended with my take on the “natural” wine movement’s main motives. In the end, to each his own, but at a minimum allow those on both sides to express their opinion. Liberal, conservative, radical, whatever, Gerard has taken a pretty racy unpopular view, heck he even condemns chefs like Jamie Oliver, my God, that’s the Naked Chef (or originally was)! Gerard, I’ll forego going “au naturel” in order to express, my own beliefs like you have – touche!
Charlie “I Drink On the Job” Adler