Over a Damask Cloth – a Vital Early Wine Tasting

Historic 1948 Wine Tasting in Baltimore

The Event

On a wintry day in February 1948 the newly founded Baltimore branch of the Wine and Food Society mounted an event called, simply, “Wine Tasting”. The place was the posh Sheraton-Belvedere hotel. After describing the wines, the program listed five cheeses, by type and attributes. No other food was tabled.

So this was really a “wine-and-cheese” party, an early one as discussed below.

The Cheese

They had “Swiss”, Camembert, Roquefort and two strictly American cheeses. One of the Americans bore the trade name Wej-Cut, a cream cheese. The other was a cheddar-type, Vera-Sharp. Both were from the Borden creamery. That’s the Borden of the contented cows.

The nifty, entrepreneurial trade names have a pre- “greening of America” charm that contrasts nicely with the impressive-sounding French names. We are not in Kansas, Dorothy, but it’s not the Left Bank of the Seine, either.

Among the cheeses only the Roquefort was actually imported. The Swiss and Camembert were American imitations. Today of course there might be a great selection of artisan, domestic cheese equal to Europe’s best, or from an almost unlimited supply of imports. Here, though, it’s not long after the war – early days, generally speaking, in modern American food culture.

I discussed earlier, see for example here, that the International Wine and Food Society held wine and cheese events in both New York and Britain in the late 1930s. The Baltimorean branch probably took its cue from these earlier, path-breaking events.

Reviving a Local Gastronomic Heritage

The wine tasting was as sophisticated as any held anywhere at the time judging by the careful design and informed commentary of the program. A photo of the wines was included, with notes on each wine including their taste attributes. A section concludes with the origins of the Baltimore branch of the Society, and this:

We who have lived in these United States through the past three decades have experienced two devastating world wars, prohibition, an unprecedented depression and rationing.

Little opportunity has been afforded to indulge in the amenities of the table. The appreciation of wines over the damask cloth has been denied us. It is time we sought again to re-establish a realization of the gentlemanly art and prerogative of proper wining and dining together with their inevitable corollary, the almost lost art of conversation.

The enjoyment of wines has ever been associated back through history with those who have most contributed to the human race in literature, music and art. Royalty, diplomats, international financiers and peasants have shared through centuries the glowing inspiration of the grape.

If the Wine and Food Society of Baltimore can recapture for us a modicum of the “joie de vivre” that comes from the vine, and from viands well prepared and served, to re-establish the standards of the table as gentility and dignity through the ages have partaken of it, we shall feel our “raison d’etre” has been justified.

Setting aside the old-fashioned (even then) yet charming prose, the U.S. culinary scene as it developed over the next 70 years surely fulfilled the promise implicit in these words. Modern culinary America has a more democratic, even anarchic shape than the patricians of the 1948 event envisaged, but such are the vagaries of culinary history.

The vision made sense as Baltimore had a long-established, native epicurean tradition. It was partly obscured by the Jazz Age, the Depression, and WW II but was still remembered. The kitchen was based on crab and other sea food, the turtle, the hoecake (from corn), planked shad, and more. It was this older tradition, consciously or otherwise, that was referenced by the orotund phrases in the program.

The Wines

Characteristic French and German wines were tabled, each paired with a proffered American equivalent. The Stateside wines were made from the same grape as the foreign mate, or if made from a different grape, with an explanation.

The same approach was followed for sherry, Riesling, and Champagne. A top German Riesling, a Mosel (Piesporter) in this case, bore the rather strange vintage year of 1943. At least I thought it was strange. Germany must have continued some winemaking while their main cities were being reduced to ashes by the Allied air forces.

I wonder if the committee hesitated before including it in the tasting, but taste it they did. Indeed 1943, for Mosel at any rate, was apparently a great year, so maybe the usual sensitivities were disregarded.

While not billed as a comparative tasting one can see it was exactly that. The wine notes are very helpful and the writer must have tasted the same or similar wines before. He gives us, therefore a good indication of their attributes. He was generally deferential to the imported wines for best quality but praised some American wines on their own merits. For one such wine he thought it better for “steady use” than the European type it emulated.

Tabling American wines  in 1948 at a posh culinary event surely helped to spur the appreciation of American winemaking that developed in the next 60+ years. Other branches of the Wine and Food Society, especially in New York, were engaged in a similar process.

The Spirits of 1976 vs. 1948

The 1976 Paris Wine Tasting, aka the Judgment of Paris, took place 28 years later. The Baltimore and Paris events are quite different, yet still related in my view. The sensational results of the 1976 event – an American Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon trumped the French equivalents – did not occur in 1948. At least, there is no reason to think that happened. Indeed, the Baltimore program notes tend to the opposite conclusion: Europe won out.

Still, the goal of both tastings was a shared one: to taste and compare New and Old World wines fashioned on similar lines. But the context was different. The Baltimore tasting was an early attempt to revive a depleted epicurean spirit in a still-recovering, postwar context. Whereas by 1976, well after the Marshall Plan, for one thing, times were buoyant, subject to the looming oil shocks. By 1976 we can already recognize the “Mondo” character of today’s wine and culinary scene.

In 1948 there was still an insularity, even in sophisticated circles – both tastings got at the same thing but in a different way.

Summing Up

I salute the founders of the Baltimore Wine and Food Society. Their New York colleagues had held many wine events since 1934, even during the war (stripped down as I’ve written elsewhere, but still they were held). Yet, I doubt any Big Apple affair outdid the sophistication and visionary aspect of the 1948 tasting at the gracious Sheraton-Belvedere hotel in Baltimore.

Note re image: the image above of the Sheraton-Belvedere hotel was sourced here from the website of www.Etsy.com. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable.  Image is included for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.