- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 3, 2006

HISTORY IN A GLASS: SIXTY YEARS OF WINE WRITING FROM GOURMET

Edited by Ruth Reichl

Modern Library/Random House, $24.95, 375 pages

REVIEWED BY STEPHEN GOODE

For more than six decades, Gourmet has offered its readers tempting recipes and tips on how the good life is to be lived. Almost invariably the writing was (and still very often is) as good as the food whose handsome pictures fill the magazine’s pages.

Now Ruth Reichl, Gourmet’s current editor in chief, has put together a collection of the magazine’s best writing on wine from the past 60 years. She’s chosen 43 pieces by 16 authors, and she’s selected well, which must have been a difficult task. She had much good material to choose from, and no doubt left many gems on the cutting room floor.

The writers Mrs. Reichl has assembled (and provides an introduction to) cover every aspect of the world of wine, from the arduous task of planting and maintaining vineyards through the aging, bottling and presentation at the table of the finished wine.

No wine-growing region — from France to Hungary, and from Chile and Australia to California — is ignored, and no variety left untouched: Reds and whites of many kinds, roses, sherry, champagne, tokay — all get their due.

The science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, author of “Fahrenheit 451,” has an essay on dandelion wine, which his family made at home when he was a child. In a marvelous piece, “The Two Faces of Chianti,” Gerald Asher writes about the variety that has been many a person’s first introduction to wine.

(Did you know that those romantic straw baskets Chianti bottles once came wrapped in are called “fiascos” in Italian, and that they’re no longer made because Italian country women have found more profitable ways to spend their time than weaving them?)

Inevitably, in writing about wine, a great deal of history gets told, because the development of good vineyards yielding a worthy wine takes time, often a great deal of time, and the most interesting and telling parts of the story are in the details.

In the April 1941 issue of Gourmet, for example, Frank Schoonmaker (whose “The Encyclopedia of Wine” is a classic) described how Franciscan missionaries in the 1770s brought vine cuttings to California from Europe and planted them at their missions “from San Diego up the old Camino Real as far as Monterey and Sonoma.”

But “the wine they made was nothing to boast about,” Schoonmaker wrote. Nevertheless, it was the beginning of wine culture in California. In the first half of the 19th century, Count Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian nobleman (in California he was known as Colonel Haraszthy), introduced Zinfandel grape cuttings and “the cuttings of this variety, carried off and planted all over the state undoubtedly changed the whole trend of California viticulture,” according to Schoonmaker.

Then in the 1870s, phylloxera, the disease that destroyed many vineyards in Europe also struck California, wiping out much of the state’s grapes. Still, by the early 20th century, recovery had taken place and California had many acres devoted to the vine, only to have those acres fall prey to Prohibition.

Grape-growing families destroyed their vineyards rather than face prosecution, and California’s wine industry went into deep decline, from which recovery was slow and uneven. It’s a sad story well-told by Schoonmaker, who is a master of the interesting anecdote.

He described, for example, a California vineyard that was “the largest vineyard in the world, 3,060,000 vines that never produced anything worth drinking.” And Schoonmaker also noted that the state had “the largest small vineyard, a single vine planted in 1783 by a Mexican woman named Maria Marcellina Feliz, and known to have yielded upward of five tons of grapes.”

Wine, of course, can be sipped, but above all most wines are made to go with food of one kind or another, and the authors in this book are often at their best when they describe the meals they’ve had near favorite vineyards, and the wines they enjoyed with those unforgettable meals.

In “Adrift in a Sea of Vines” in a 1975 issue of Gourmet, Gerald Asher, the author of “The Pleasures of Wine,” described a visit he’d made to Provence when he was a dinner guest of one of his favorite wine growers. At the meal’s beginning he was served a local white wine. He wrote, “We drank it with the typical hors d’oeuvres of Provence: cold spinach omelet, puree of eggplant, tapenade of olive and anchovy.”

This first course was followed by fish, poached and served with lemon and olive oil as sauce. The fish came with another local wine, “delicately fruity, crispy dry, and with a fresh, lingering aftertaste.” Then came a leg of lamb, “fragrant with garlic and … pungent herbs.” To accompany the lamb there were red wines, a 1969 and a 1970 bottle of Domaine Tempier, “dark, with a bouquet,” which Asher imagined had “an echo of the thyme and pine perfume” of the hills where its grapes had been grown.

The strongest essay in the book may be Everett Wood’s “Thirteen Rows of Baiken.” Wood was an airline pilot based in Germany in the 1950s who wrote beautifully about wine. In the February 1959 issue of Gourmet, he described a visit he made to a tiny vineyard (13 rows) named Baiken, near the Rhineland town of Rauenthal in Germany.

During the past 100 years, Baiken had won a number of important awards for its wine, including the honor, in 1863, of having 16 barrels of its incomparable ‘58 vintage purchased for the Congress of German Princes, held in nearby Frankfurt. One royal guest, William III of Holland, was so enamored of the wine that he paid a huge sum for a barrel to take back to his court.

Wood described his visit to Rauenthal and meeting lifelong wine-grower Christian Sturm and his son, Otto, whose family had been part owners of Baikel (and other vineyards in the region) for generations.

Wood joined young Otto in tasting the dark golden wine in storage to see if it was ready for bottling. He recalled hearing “the harvest bells ringing in October when the grapes are ready to pick” and the “sound (eerie beyond belief when you first hear it) of barrels mumbling aloud as the juice ferments into wine… .”

A devout Catholic, Herr Sturm complained to Wood about the number of vineyards bought in recent years by the German government. Sturm saw this as the destruction of an irreplaceable tradition. Government simply could not, in his view, care for the vineyards in the way families could, and had for centuries.

Christian Sturm told his guest, “A vineyard is more than a possession … It is an obligation to cultivate, to sacrifice, and to care.” And, he added, “If one cares deeply enough, it’s a reason for being alive.”

Reading “History in a Glass” may make you a wine lover, if you’re not one already. It will certainly increase your understanding of why wine, when it is good and used as it should be used, is one of mankind’s extraordinary creations.

Stephen Goode is a writer and critic in Milton, Del.

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