Wine is the colour of…
Major Ben C. Truman, a long-lived newspaperman, author, and expert on California wines, wrote a prescient piece in 1911 for the Pacific Wine and Spirits Review. It is well-worth reading as he predicted accurately the future of the industry. The only difference, albeit not a small one, from his shape of things to come was the hiatus of Prohibition and post-Prohibition. This was an enormous setback for the domestic wine industry. It took years for vineyards to recover in the 1930s, e.g., re-planting grapes more suitable for wines than table-grapes, only to be set back again by Depression and WW II.
By the 1950s, European producers in a revived European economy – boosted by the Marshall Plan – were sending lots of wine to the U.S. and establishing good markets both at the popular and high ends. As a result and due to the lost momentum of 1920-1945, California achieved at most a jug wine image and perhaps for decent table wines, but not more. The natural ascendancy to wine stardom which would have occurred by the 1940s had Prohibition and war not happened took another generation to achieve.
Hence the phenomenon of many American gastronomic dinners into the 1960s featuring only European wines, and perhaps too the kind of event I described in my last post.
(This doesn’t mean American wines were ignored by gastronomes, as I’ve explained in earlier posts. A latent appreciation for the top end of California production later merged with an international acknowledgement which started with the 1976 Judgment of Paris. Together they created a surging confidence in local production).
And so the American industry proceeded from an insecure, apologetic view of its wines, finally gaining an increased confidence by the start of WW I, losing the momentum with Prohibition, the Depression, and WW II, and slowly re-building to where it stands now. While many regions of the world have become quality, not just bulk, producers including Italy, Chile, and Spain, California wines especially from Napa and Sonoma retain high prestige. But it was something hard fought for.
Truman must be counted a pioneer, someone confident in his nation’s produce and not afraid to say so, often with a dry humour, and not a little boosterism characteristic of the good salesman.
Forty years ago no pretentious club house in California, and not a score of genteel home entertainers placed native wines on their tables — partly because they were inferior and partly because they were cheaper, and their use “not in good form.” All this has been metamorphosed, as all the clubs keep dry and sweet California wines altogether for general use, while their use in families and hotels and restaurants is quite as general and in perfectly “good form.” There are clarets and hocks, burgundies and rieslings and other red and white dry wines in our leading wine and grocery stores at present, as good and much purer than many of those whose bottles are bedecked with pictures of some old chateau on the Gironde or old crumbling castle on the Rhine; while such sweeter offerings as Cresta Blanca, Angelica and many muscatels appeal to palates that enjoy a luscious savor without an undue exhilaration.
Much more praise, even, may be bestowed on our ports and sherries and brandies — and especially those made in Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California — whose flavors and other delicious qualities are quaint and fascinating, something one cannot describe any more than one can impart an idea of the different shades of mauve. The California port is the truest, the purest and best that can be obtained anywhere in the world at present, as all the imported ports have been sophisticated and most of them basely adulterated; and it is matter of fact that nearly all eastern physicians, in prescribing ports as a tonic or otherwise in a medicinal way, recommend California ports on the ground that they are honest and pure, while the Oporto ones are not.
Regarding our sherries, it may be truly said that, while they are honest and pure, and of great medicinal value, they do not as yet possess that nutty flavor given the “high-priced sherries” manufactured from cheap American whisky, water, burnt sugar, prussic acid and other chemicals in New York, and from potato spirit, maidenhair, capillaire, prussic acid, water and coloring chemicals in Hamburg, which sends out more “Genuine Amontillado” annually than leaves Cadiz in ten years. As a matter of fact, there is no such thing as pure sherry— except the California sherry — in England or the United States today, and there has not been for more than fifty years.
Truman is an English name, well-known I might add among beer devotees with an eye on Albion. But Major Ben Truman, just as his namesake President Harry Truman, was a quintessential American, despite his likely English blood.