Over a Damask Cloth

Innovative 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 held what was nominally called a “Wine Tasting. Venue: the posh Sheraton-Belvedere hotel. After the wines were named 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 latter had the trade name Wej-Cut, a cream cheese, the other was a cheddar-type called Vera-Sharp. Both were from the Borden creamery. That’s Borden of the contented cows.

The ingenuous, 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 here, Dorothy, but it’s not the Left Bank of the Seine either.

Of the cheeses only 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, or more nearly than the last two listed likely were.

I have discussed earlier, see for example here, wine and cheese events the 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, any time, and then some, judging by the soigné design and informed commentary of the program. There was, first, a photo of the wines tasted, then detailed notes on each wine, and a concluding section that explained the origins of the Baltimore branch and 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 held all the promise the writer hoped for. It makes sense that someone could write in these very terms in Baltimore. The city had an older, and native epicurean tradition. It was based on crabs and other sea food, the turtle, the hoecake (from corn), planked shad, and much else. It was being recalled consciously or otherwise by these words.

The Wines

The 1948 program is a gem that was digitally archived by conservators at the Enoch Pratt in Baltimore. It was generously contributed by the Baltimore Wine and Food Society, hiccup continues to this day.

The program is fascinating, as first, each wine is an original of its type, from France or Germany in this case. But each is followed by one or more American analogues, either made from the same grape, e.g., 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 wine, 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 any of the committee hesitated before including this one in the tasting, but tasted it was. Indeed 1943, for Mosel wines at any rate, was said to be a “great year”.

While not billed as a comparative tasting one can see it was exactly that save only in the name again. The program notes are very useful 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 complimented the local wines for their own merits. Of one, he thought it better for “steady use” than its European parent.

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 in that 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 something of this nature happened. Indeed the program notes tend to the opposite conclusion.

Still, the goal was the same, to taste and compare wines made similarly but one set of them in the Old World, the other in the New. The context was quite different too. The Baltimore tasting was an early stab at reviving epicureanism in a rebooted consumer economy, whereas in 1976 post-Marshall Plan Western economies were generally doing well, subject to the oil shock. Anyway the world was by then more mondo, to coin a phrase.

But even admitting all these differences, one can’t exclude that perhaps Baltimore had a … Revolution of ’48, intra-mural to the hotel or still hidden in the archives of the Baltimore Wine and Food Society.

Summing Up

You have to give it to the founders of the Baltimore branch. Their New York colleagues had held wine events for years and probably comparative ones, including some during the war. I doubt any showed the sophistication and élan of the 1948 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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