In this Part, I wish to explain the public attitude to consumer tasting events in the 1930s. Part III will discuss in detail the 1938 beer tasting held by the Wine and Food Society of Los Angeles.
Food and wine tasting by members of gastronomic societies, or citizens buying tickets to events organized by these groups, was seen as something new.
News reports on both sides of the continent commented, often mordantly, on the novelty.
What had characterized professional circles, including judging at exhibitions of wines, beer, and spirits, was simply being transferred to the public at large, a process that has only accelerated since the 1930s.
But at the time, it puzzled many, even clever journalists seemingly – i.e., some probably appreciated the exercise for its inherent value but knew a good story when they saw it. Newspapers have to sell, after all.
An October 1936 item in the Healdsburg Tribune described an event of the Wine and Food Society of San Francisco in slightly bemused tone:
Connoisseurs and socialites of northern California will gather for three hours next Thursday afternoon, October 15, at a new kind of social function —a “wine tasting”—at which they are expected to taste some 100 kinds of fancy California wine without swallowing a drop.
The “tasting” is sponsored jointly by the Wine and Food Society, an exclusive organization of winelovers and gourmets, and the Wine Institute, organization of California wine producers. It will be held in the Palm Court of the Palace hotel.
Approximately two thousand epicures, including many leading social figures as well as amateur and professional wine experts, will attend the function. It will last three hours, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., during which time the guests are expected to sample most or all of the fancy vintages submitted for their approval by the wine producers of the state.
Note how the term wine tasting is placed in quotation marks, and called “a new kind of social function”. It was new because the tasting was not incidental to another occasion: a speech, entertainment, business or civic function, or the like.
The event occurred so people could learn about the products being sampled, to be sure in a relaxing social setting, but primarily to learn. The fact that 2,000 were expected shows the impressive scale these events attained even before World War II.
Some branches of the Wine and Food Society, including the New York chapter, sold tickets. I would think this was the case for the San Francisco event, given the attendance mentioned.
Not all branches operated in this fashion, but still news reports of this nature are helpful as revealing the general public attitude to such events.
Another example is furnished by a report of June 6, 1937 in the San Bernardino Sun by Harry Ferguson of the United Press. The story appeared in newspapers across the U.S. and probably originated on the East Coast.
He described a tasting of Virgin Islands rum by the Broadway producer Crosby Gaige. Gaige was a key early figure in the New York Wine and Food Society. It was formed, as the other branches I’ve mentioned, in the wake of Andre Simon’s crusading visit to America in 1934.
Gaige had poured rum neat into a jigger, then emptied it. The story continued:
“Now,” he said, “I hold the empty glass in my hand. That warms it, and I am able to attain the basic smell – the odor of the essential oils without the smell of alcohol.”
He smelled it, and droned.
“A bit light,” he said.
He poured a half inch of rum into the jigger, filling it up with lukewarm water. He said ice water kills the taste of liquor and that the rum is too strong to take straight. At last came the breathless moment when he tasted.
“A little young.” he said, “but a pretty clean product. They used to make a supreme rum up in Medford, Mass.” Another sip. “Never could understand why they stopped making it.” Sip. “I certainly would like this better if they had kept the old Danish formula instead of veering toward the Jamaica.” Sip. “Times change, I suppose.”
While no doubt amusing to readers thumbing the paper with their morning coffee, the short exchange shows Gaige knew his onions. By “essential oils”, he was looking for distillery character, produced by distilling the spirit within a certain range (generally under 160 proof, or 80% abv).
As he found the rum light, it was probably distilled at much higher than that, close to neutrality, possibly.
By referring to Medford rum, Gaige showed his appreciation for the hearty rum of this historic American rum appellation, in Massachusetts. I discussed Medford rum in this post.
His reference to Denmark referred to the era when Saint Croix was a Danish possession. It was sold with other islands to the United States in 1916. Clearly he found the rum, when distilled under Danish auspices, of better quality.
The rum he was tasting was called Government House, although not stated in the story. It was an unusual product, in that it resulted from a financial investment made by the U.S. government in the Virgin Islands to stimulate sugar production and rum manufacture, which had suffered in the Depression.
The following is from a group of images at the United States Library of Congress recording activities at the distillery in 1941:
Manufacture commenced in 1934, so the rum Gaige drank was three years old. A good account of the government’s rum venture, with evocative images, may be had in the blogpost “New Deal Rum” from the blog, New Deal of the Day.
Today, public opinion is more advanced, or nuanced, as to the value of tasting spirits, wine, and beer or indeed any comestible or drink. Tasting, that is, with discrimination, to learn something, as well as enjoy the experience of amity and relaxation.
The pioneering work of the nascent 1930s gastronomic societies helped make it so.
Part III follows.