Wine of the Country

I’m going down the country, where I’ve never been before

I’m going down the country, where the beer tastes like water.*

Before craft beer and craft anything, before pumpkin latte and iron chefs, there was (of course) an appreciation of fine beer, food, wine. It took different forms, generally more elitist, more exclusive, at least as mediated through the general culture.

The preoccuption characterises the West back to ancient Rome and Asian and most other cultures too.

In these earlier times a lover of food was often “epicurean”, a word that sounds suspiciously old-fashioned now, or suspiciously anti-democratic. He or she might be an essayist, poet, traveller, ethnologist. The world was simpler then (tell me about it). There was no hospitality industry to speak of, no field of food science, no university departments of food history, no or few newspaper columnists who specialised in food and wine, never mind beer.

But there were serious students of the palate, and people have always written books or essays on food that studied its esthetics, social context, and history. It is idle to recite the names, google Gastronomy and that will clue you in. I’ve written about mid-20th century gastronomic societies as well as some 19th century proto-beer critics as examples of this distant past.

This old school elucidated or entertained into the 1970s when suddently appreciation of food and drink took on a democratic spirit. This coincides with the growth of the consumer society, itself an outgrowth of liberalisation of economies and triumph of industrial capitalism in the West and elsewhere.

Overlooked cuisines, Jewish food, say, or soul food, or regional Chinese cooking, came in for close scrutiny and became the stuff of commissioning editors (talk about old-fashioned!).

And so we’ve ended, or so far, with cooking and travel shows, national cooking competitions, the Gordon Ramsays, the Jay Rayners, the Rachel Rays. The tone varies now from braying to babying, but the preoccupation is same as it ever was: good things to eat, where they come from, how to find or prepare them.

In the older period, before pocket guides much less online information available at a keystroke, the idea was prevalent that when travelling, you should drink the “wine of the country”. Of course the idea persists, and has even grown. Ideas such as terroir, “drink local”, and ethnic food exploration all give expression to the same notion.

In other words even in a more elitist time, when gastronomic societies abounded, when writing seriously about food required a private fortune (e.g. as Julia Child had) or a day job of some kind, the idea existed that wine, and by implication other comestibles, had value simply by being local, hence authentic.

Even if one didn’t have the money to order a classified growth in a grand hotel, one could sup the local vintage, perhaps in company or view of those who made it or their kin.

It might be a Cahors, a Rioja, a minor Friulian wine. It might be Bohemian Pilsener, or a British “bitter”. You drank what you found on the ground, almost literally.

Where did this idea of wine of the country originate?

It goes back at least to the 1800s, as citations in the sense understood today – today meaning here, c.1975 – go back to 1900. Ernest Gilbey, the English wine merchant whose name famously adorns a brand of gin, used the term in Parliamentary testimony on additives in wines. He stated some Portuguese “red wines of the country” were never exported, due at the time to the difficulty to preserve them (a clue to why things changed later).

The term wine of the country became part of the cultural acquis by WW II, a chattering class staple.

The American novelist Hamilton Basso, Louisiana-born but based in New York most of his career, used the term to title his 1941 novel of southern Gothic, Wine of the Country. Here, the words were a metaphor for a regional ethos he contrasted negatively with the cultured if emotionally less fevered northeast.

With the spread of a worldwide foodie culture as well as a sophisticated food and beverage science, the idea of the local is today qualified. It still exists of course, but is influenced much more so by developments in other places than ever before.

Hence ironically if you ask for IPA in London, you will get the American type that was developed from about 1980, not the English original that inspired it. If you ask for a glass of red wine in Europe, you might get something tasting rather of California – in that style – than anything from a Continental canton. Mondo vino, it’s been called.

Still, local still means something, it does exist, sometimes with a little searching.

What is the wine of the country in Florida?

It is unquestionably mass-market, adjunct beer. Walking miles through suburbs and seaside towns these last weeks, the litter on lawn and waterways confirms it: Natural Light (or Ice); Busch; Modelo; Bud Light; Corona. I never saw a craft beer container discarded that way. The highest order of beer treated that way was Heineken – just the carton wrapper, actually.

The crushed cans – well, crushable you know – attested all to the regional taste. The beer might be made in Florida (the Buds and Busch, say), it might be made in Central America somewhere, but it all offered light taste, relatively low alcohol content, and generally low price.

The ranks of those beers in the supermarkets, the beer lists in the restaurants, simply confirm this. Of course, there is a vibrant craft brewing culture here, and some 300 breweries in fact that churn out craft beer as good as anywhere. But it’s still decidedly a minority taste, I’d estimate not more than 10% of state sales, 15% maximum.

The “wine of the country” in Florida is one of the beers mentioned, or another of that type, Presidente, Victoria, Dos Equis, Miller Lite, Old Milwaukee, the list goes on.

And so in line with the old injunction, I am drinking the wine of the country. The implication of old was, the local stuff might be good, but if bad or indifferent drink it anyway because it is genuine, the people’s choice.

I’ve tried as well numerous craft beers, but also this wine of the country, to see what the old learning could teach me. Well, not that much really. The mass market adjunct beer seems less palatable than ever.

I’ve tried Budweiser, Corona Familiar, Presidente, Foster’s Ale (brewed in Texas), and from a beer specialist point of view, it’s all rather uninspiring.

The craft sector, as well as certain quality imports, are where the action is for the student of beer, but these are not the wine of the country. Not yet.


*With apologies to Canned Heat, c.1970





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