Over a Damask Cloth – an Important Early Wine Tasting

The 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 held an event called simply “Wine Tasting”. The venue was the posh Sheraton-Belvedere hotel. After a description of the wine program five cheeses were listed, described by type and attributes. There was no other food.

So this was really a wine-and-cheese event except in name.

The Cheeses

There were Swiss, Camembert, Roquefort, and two strictly American cheeses. One of the American cheeses had 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 American trade names have a charm of their own and sit nicely against the impressive foreign ring of European wine and cheese names. We are not in Kansas, Dorothy, but it’s not the Left Bank of the Seine either.

Of the cheeses only the Roquefort was actually imported. The Swiss and Camembert were American imitations. Today of course there would be a great choice of artisan domestic cheese equal to Europe’s best, and an almost unlimited supply of exotic imports.

I discussed earlier, see for example here, wine and cheese events held by this culinary Society in both New York and England of the late 1930s. Clearly the Baltimoreans took their cue from such earlier, path-breaking events.

Reviving the Gastronomical 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 then detailed notes on each wine, with a concluding section on the origins of the Baltimore branch of the Wine and Food Society, with 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 prose, the American culinary scene of the future has fulfilled all the promise wished for by the writer. It makes sense that someone could write in these terms as the city had an older, native epicurean tradition based on crab and other sea food, the turtle, the hoecake (from corn), planked shad, and much else. This tradition was evoked, consciously or otherwise, by these phrases.

The Wines

The 1948 program is a gem of gastronomic history digitally archived by the Enoch Pratt museum in Baltimore. It was generously contributed by the Baltimore Wine and Food Society, which continues to this day.

The program is certainly fascinating. Each wine is an original of its type, French or German. But each of these is followed by one or more American equivalents (or offered 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 usually denotes, with details noted.

The same was done 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 tasted it was. Indeed 1943, for Mosel at any rate, is known to be a great year, so there you have it.

While not billed as a comparative tasting one can see it was exactly that save in name. The notes are very helpful and the writer must have tasted the same or similar wines in advance. He gives us, therefore, a good indication of their attributes and the differences. Generally, he was deferential to the imports but also praised the local wines on their own merits. For one, he thought it was better for “steady use” than the European wines that inspired it.

One sees the seeds of the American wine appreciation that has burgeoned since the 1970s.

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. The sensational results of the 1976 event – an American Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon trumped the 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: to taste and compare wines made similarly, one from the Old World, one from the New. But the context was different, too. The Baltimore tasting was an early stab at reviving the epicurean spirit in a rebooted economy. Whereas by 1976, well-post-Marshall Plan, times were good, subject to the looming oil shocks. In a word by 1976 the globe “mondo” so to speak.

Summing Up

You have to give it to the founders of the Baltimore Wine and Food Society. Their New York colleagues had held wine events for years, some during the war. Probably comparative ones, too. But I doubt any showed the sophistication and élan of the 1948 Baltimore wine tasting at the Sheraton-Belvedere Hotel.

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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