Over a Damask Cloth

Prophetic Wine and Cheese Tasting in Baltimore

The Event

In wintry February 1948 the newly-founded branch in Baltimore of the Wine and Food Society held an event simply called “Wine Tasting”. The venue was the posh Sheraton-Belvedere hotel.

After describing each wine, the program listed five cheeses by type and attributes. No other food was tabled.

It was, really, a “wine-and-cheese”, an early such event for America and possibly anywhere.

The Cheeses

“Swiss”, Camembert, Roquefort and two American cheeses were featured. One of the latter was “Wej-Cut”, a cream cheese. The other, a cheddar-type, was Vera-Sharp, both from Borden creamery. That’s the Borden of the contented cows.

Grouped with grand-sounding French names the nifty coinages of Truman-era commerce have a pre-greening of America charm. We are not in Kansas, Dorothy, but the Left Bank is still far away.

Only the Roquefort was actually imported. The Swiss and Camembert were American imitations. Today of course one could field a selection of artisan domestic cheeses rivalling Europe’s best, or choose from an endless list of imports.

But Baltimore 1948 is not long after World War II. America was still recovering from the war. It is early days still for culinary sophistication, comparatively.

I discussed here that wine-and-cheese events were held by the International Wine and Food Society in the 1930s including in New York and Britain. The Baltimore branch probably took its cue from these path-breaking events.

Reviving the Regional Heritage

This tasting was as sophisticated as any anywhere at the time, judging by the studied design and sophisticated commentary of the program. A photo of the wines was included, with taste notes on each. The statement below was included when explaining the genesis of the Baltimore branch:

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.

Leaving behind such old-fashioned and courtly formulations, the American culinary scene as it developed over the next 70 years surely fulfilled the hope of this statement.

Modern culinary America has a more democratic, even anarchic shape than 1948 patricians envisioned, but they had the sense of the future.

Their vision was shaped in part by Baltimore’s long reputation as an epicurean centre. War and depression had dampened but not effaced it, at least the memory.

Their kitchen was based on seafood, especially the crab, turtle, hoecake (from corn), shad, fine rye whiskey, and more.

The Wines

Quality French and German wines were tabled, each paired with a suggested American equivalent, a kind of foil. These were made from the same grape type as the foreign wine, or if a different grape, an explanation was given.

The same approach was followed for sherry, German Riesling, and French Champagne. A top German Riesling, Piesporter Mosel, bore the rather strange vintage year of 1943. At least I thought it was strange, but evidently Germany continued some vintage winemaking during the war.

Possibly the chapter’s wine committee hesitated before including this selection but went ahead regardless.

While not billed per se as a comparative tasting, the Baltimore tasting amounted to much the same thing.

The program notes were generally deferential to the imported wines, but some American wines were praised. A California red (see program linked) was thought better for “steady use” than its European pairing.

Tabling American wines at a posh event in 1948 had to boost American wine fortunes in following decades. Other branches of the Wine and Food Society, especially in New York City, were doing something similar. Along with much else of course it all helped shape the future wine and culinary scene.

Spirit of 1976 vs. 1948

The 1976 Paris Wine Tasting, aka the Judgment of Paris, occurred 28 years later. The Baltimore and Paris events are different yet not unrelated.

The sensational results of the 1976 event – an American Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon trumped top French equivalents in voting – did not occur in 1948. At least, there is no reason to think this happened.

Indeed as noted, commentary in the Baltimore program clearly favoured the foreign wines; it is unlikely the tasters departed much from that judgement (no publicity suggested it, at any rate).

It is true both tastings shared the goal of tasting and comparing wines vinted on similar lines in different parts of the world. But the context differed fundamentally. The Baltimoreans had no idea to showcase American wines against the foreign. The industry was too young, for one thing, still in revival after Repeal in 1933.

The American consumer economy in general was re-starting after the war. The tasting must be viewed in this light and as an adjunct to the the chapter’s stated purpose of promoting the regional food heritage of Maryland.

Whereas by 1976 the economy had been buoyant for years, despite the looming oil shocks. As part and parcel, American wine had grown considerably in status and sophistication over that period.

We can recognize today’s “mondo” wine and culinary scenes by that time, essentially.

In a word, both events proposed comparative tasting but with less at stake for the winemakers in the 1948 event.

Note re image: the image above of the Sheraton-Belvedere hotel was sourced here,  the website of www.Etsy.com. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image is used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.