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

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

The Cheeses

There were Swiss, Camembert, Roquefort, and two strictly American cheeses. One of the American 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 Borden of the contented cows.

The nifty, entrepreneurial American names have a charm of their own and sit nicely against the polished prose and impressive foreigness of the European wine and cheese terms. We are not in Kansas, Dorothy, but it’s not the Left Bank of the Seine either.

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

I discussed earlier, see for example here, wine and cheese events that this culinary Society held in New York and England in 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 in the program. There was, first, a photo of the wines included, then detailed notes are given on each wine, with a concluding section explaining the origins of the Baltimore branch. It offered 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 future culinary scene fulfilled the promise the writer hoped for. It makes sense that someone could write in these terms in Baltimore. The city had an older, native epicurean tradition. It was based on crab and other sea food, the turtle, the hoecake (from corn), planked shad, and much else. This was being recalled consciously or otherwise by these words.

The Wines

The 1948 program is a gem digitally archived by the Enoch Pratt museum in Baltimore, and generously contributed by the Baltimore Wine and Food Society (it continues to this day).

The program is fascinating. Each wine is an original of its type, from France or Germany. But each 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 Beaulieu Vineyards, or if made from different grapes, with details noted.

The same was done for sherry, Riesling, and Champagne. The 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 said to be a great year.

While not billed as a comparative tasting, one can see it was exactly that except in name. The program notes are very helpful as 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 local wines on their own merits. For one, he thought it was better for “steady use” than its European parent.

One sees the seeds of the American wine appreciation wave starting in 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 – that 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 program notes tend to the opposite conclusion: Europe won out.

Still, the goal was the same, to taste and compare wines made similarly, but one from the Old World, one from the New. The context was different, too. The Baltimore tasting was an early stab at reviving epicureanism in a rebooted consumer economy. Whereas in 1976, post-Marshall Plan, times were good, subject to the looming oil shock. In general the world by 1976 was more “mondo”, to coin a phrase.

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 event at its Sheraton-Belvedere Hotel.

Let’s recreate it!

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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