The sane approach advocated by founder André Simon for wine in one’s lifestyle fit naturally into the aspirational American ethos which took root from the 1930s – as indeed it did for England where the first branch was founded, in London in 1933.
This way of life was conditioned not just by the new (or perfected) element of Madison Avenue and West End advertising, but by the essence of the bourgeois morality: enjoy life but everything in just measure. Don’t drink too much, drink quality not quantity. If you can, learn something useful, or interesting, as you go.
Before Prohibition, a few epicures in big cities apart, drinking meant boozing, not necessarily continual but with the idea of excess encoded.
In Britain too, from Georgian times at least to the gin palace and workmens’ pubs of the 1800s, the use of alcohol in social life often was often synonymous with heavy drinking.
André Simon brought a new sensibility to this picture, informed by his French background.
The message: indulge in wine, one of life’s pleasures, but with enough discretion so you will last a reasonable time and continue as an upstanding citizen: a bon père de famille. Enhance your life over its normal span but don’t abbreviate it in the psycho or cirrhosis-treatment wards of your local hospital.
Where does the self-improvement come in? From the pedagogy that was implicit in Simon’s message from the beginning. Wine is worth learning about, pondering, studying. It’s a matter of culture and history; gastronomy is, in general.
Yes drinking is for relaxation and socializing but do it with food and try to learn something at the same time, be useful.
Previously, a tiny minority had this perspective, the George Saintsburys and Alfred Barnards in the U.K., the L.J. Vances in America: Simon opened it up to the upwardly mobile middle classes and after WW II it spread beyond. Lots of people know today about “Chardonnay”, not just a tiny privileged coterie in the largest coastal cities.
To be sure the initial members of most of the Society’s branches were probably grandees of one type or another; that’s how things get started, often*. But can anyone doubt that at bottom the group was and remains democratic in spirit?
Had this not been so it would never have spread around the world as it did, to Melbourne, Liverpool, Toronto, Auckland, New Orleans, Pasadena, and far beyond.
When you examine the some 100 menus of the New York Wine and Food Society in the NYPL menu archive covering the period from 1934 to the mid-1970s, these values resonate from its pages.
The menus were well and carefully written, but not baroque or affected in tone. The influence of the wine and liquor agencies which often supplied some of the table is there, but so is the need to speak literately to people without abstruse literary or other affectation, a tendency of pre-1930s drink literature.
Indeed some of the books issued in the 1930s in the U.S. to explain wine and alcohol to a newly enfranchised populace show those older traits. Selmer Fougner’s is one, IMO; I wrote about him earlier in these pages.
At day’s end, the style of the wine and food notes of The Wine and Food Society, forged in the 1930s and continuing for decades with a decided influence on the wider culture, were a kind of magic formula. They struck just the right notes of practicality and pleasure, of commercial reality and romantic history.
The influence is there to see in the work of countless food and wine writers post-WW II, in tv food shows, and in the colour weekend supplements and their current online equivalents.
The template still informs most consumer wine writing today. The same applies to beer and spirits which were greatly influenced by wine writing in their development.
*Christel Lane, in her 2014 study of the fine-dining industry, puts it that upon formation the Society in London sought members from the “professional classes”. The New York group could not have been very different.