Pasadena and Early Gastronomy

As California’s population and economy grew post-WW II, new chapters of the International Wine and Food Society were formed in the state.

The Los Angeles branch was first to be founded in 1935. Indeed 20 years later it reached a stage of maturity to warrant its first history being published as I discussed recently (in fact, two histories have been published to date). This is years before a foodie culture pervaded America as a whole.

Two members of the L.A. group formed the nucleus of a new Pasadena chapter in 1954, as explained on its website:*

… a second organizational meeting was held at the Stuft Shirt Restaurant. Each charter member was requested to invite a few good friends who enjoyed food, wine, and camaraderie to join the new Society. It was determined that there would be four annual dinners, a logo was designed , and annual dues of $50 per member were assessed. ($10 was allotted to each dinner, to include both food and wine). The minutes of the second meeting were closed by Mr. Goss, stating “the meeting was adjourned in a gentlemanly fashion, sans stagger.” The first full membership dinner of the Wine and Food Society of Pasadena was held at The Piccadilly Restaurant in Pasadena on 9 November 1954. It was titled “An Italian Dinner accompanied by Inglenook Wines”.

On the same website you may read its first menu, a simple affair for typography and design but which sets out an inviting Italian dinner held in a local restaurant.

The Piccadilly Restaurant was perhaps another name for the Piccadilly Cafeteria, long part of a small, southern chain. No restaurant exists today in the general area under either name, as far as I know.

All the wines served were from Inglenook, the famed California winery that opened in the late-1800s. The winery was founded – unconventionally, in typical U.S. fashion – by a Finnish seafarer and his American wife.

Inglenook winery took many twists and turns after the captain died. The business was revived after Prohibition and became one of four or five wineries of national scale to dominate the U.S. wine business. Inglenook’s fortunes declined, with other big names, after hundreds of small wineries took the momentum from the late-1960s.

Francis Ford Coppola needs no introduction. He bought the vineyards after a wending history that involved the mighty Constellation Brands. Initially he did not own the Inglenook name but later acquired that, too.

Hence, estate wines now appear under its original name. Before that Coppola had issued wines under the name Coppola-Niebaum – Niebaum was the founding Finn.

Almost certainly the Los Angeles Wine and Food Society, today called the Wine and Food Society of Southern California, had held Italian dinners, possibly with California wines, and in any case early in its history supported local wineries, as I discussed earlier. So the Pasadena group did not innovate in that area.

Still, to base an inaugural dinner on all-local wines in the mid-1950s showed the growing confidence of Eisenhower-era gastronomes in California wines. Most budding epicurean societies would have selected European wines at the time, and probably (we think) French or German before Italian.

Despite a period sound to the 1954 proceedings, for one thing it was all-male, the group was forward-looking and intrepid for the subject matter. It could have selected mostly Italian wines, but went all out for California. Possibly the wines were sponsored, but in any case an early focus on localism can be perceived, on terroir, in effect.

The Charbono on the list is an Italian-origin, red wine grape that goes by many names, and is still grown sometimes in California. It’s not the same cultivar as Barbera but offers some of its taste qualities, or of Zinfandel: vigorous and rustic.

Charbono was and still is used in blending, both in so-called field blends but also to buttress the noble Cabernet Sauvignon.

An Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon at said dinner speaks for itself and was vintage-dated 1946, as for other selections. The non-Cab wines on the menu mostly resonate today as well.

In fact, you can buy an Inglenook Cab Sauv in Ontario, with an 1882 mention on the label. It’s to suggest a character in the wine attributable to the winery’s early days. We like that, and will pick it up soon for a trial.**

Note re image: the image above was sourced from Pinterest, here. All intellectual property in the image belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*Unfortunately at December 6, 2019, the links in the text to these aspects of the chapter’s history appear no longer operative.

** Note added December 6, 2019: I later bought it and it was first rate, inky, pencil shavings, blackberry, all that good stuff.