Over a Damask Cloth – a Vital Early Wine Tasting

A Historic, 1948 Wine Tasting in Baltimore, Maryland

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: the posh Sheraton-Belvedere hotel. After a description of the wines five cheeses were listed, described by type and attributes. There was no other food.

So this was really a wine-and-cheese event, an early one as explained below.

The Cheeses

They had “Swiss”, Camembert, Roquefort and two strictly American cheeses. One of the American cheeses 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 pre-greening of America charm (we think) that sits nicely against 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 choice of artisan, domestic cheese equal to Europe’s best, and an almost unlimited supply of exotic imports. Here though we are not long after the war, and it’s early days, speaking generally, in American culinary culture.

I discussed earlier, see for example here, that the Wine and Food Society held wine and cheese events in both New York and Britain in the late 1930s. The Baltimoreans probably took their cue from such earlier, path-breaking events held by sister branches.

Reviving a Local Gastronomic Heritage

This 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 taste attributes. A section concludes on the origins of the Baltimore branch of the Wine and Food Society, and these thoughts:

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) but charming prose, the U.S. culinary scene as it developed in the next 70 years surely fulfilled all the promise implicit in these words. Probably modern culinary America has a more democratic, even anarchic shape than the patricians behind the 1948 event envisaged, but such as the vagaries of history.

It makes sense one could write in the way seen above, as Baltimore had a long-established native epicurean tradition. It was partly obscured by the Jazz Age, the Depression, and WW II but still existed. It was based on crab and other sea food, the turtle, the hoecake (from corn), planked shad, and much else. This older tradition was evoked, consciously or otherwise, by the orotund phrases of the program.

The Wines

The 1948 menu is a gem of gastronomic history, digitally archived by the Enoch Pratt Museum in Baltimore. It was contributed for its historical value by the Baltimore Wine and Food Society, which continues its mission to this day.

Each wine served was an original of its type, French or German. And each of these was followed by one or more American equivalents (or proffered as such) either made from the same grape, say a chablis-style or pinot noir from California’s Beaulieu Vineyards, or if made from a different grape than the style typically denoted, with an explanation.

The same approach was followed for sherry, Riesling, and Champagne. A German Riesling, a Mosel (Piesporter), bore the rather strange vintage date of 1943. At least I thought it was strange. The Germans must have continued some winemaking while their main cities were being reduced to ashes by the RAF and U.S. 8th Air Force.

I wonder if the committee hesitated before including this one in the tasting, but taste it they did. Actually 1943, for Mosel at any rate, is said to be a great year, so maybe the usual sensitivities were elided.

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

Including the American wines surely helped spur the great appreciation and development of American wine in the two generations following. Other branches of the Wine and Food Society, especially in New York, were doing something similar at the time.

The Spirits of 1976 vs. 1948

The 1976 Paris Wine Tasting, aka the Judgment of Paris, occurred 28 years later. The two events were quite different yet not unrelated. The sensational results of the 1976 event – an American Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon trumped their French equivalents – did not occur at the 1948 event. 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 was the same: taste and compare wines fashioned on similar lines, the Old World next to the New. But the context was different, too. The Baltimore tasting was an early stab at reviving the epicurean spirit in a rebooting, postwar social 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 to today’s wine and culinary scenes.

In 1948, there was still an insularity, even in sophisticated circles, that 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 held). But I doubt any Big Apple affair outdid the sophistication and visionary aspect of the 1948 tasting at the old Sheraton-Belvedere 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.

 

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