This column appeared in today's Abq Journal.
Reconnecting To Your Wine Roots
Many of us who have been around the block a few times, with a serious interest in wine
(and food), can trace our food and wine roots back to Gourmet magazine. Those columns
"On Wine" by Gerald Asher in the early '70's inspired me to search out some of his recommended
wines to try... back when even a college student could afford a Grand Cru or First Growth. My
early wine education owes a huge debt to Asher.
Ruth Reichl, current editor of Gourmet, has collected a set of wine essays in her new book
"History In A Glass: Sixty Years of Wine Writing From Gourmet". It offers a fascinating perspective
on the evolution of the wine world over the years, in addition to some highly entertaining
and educational reading. In this month's column, I'll share a few of my highlights from her book.
I first started reading Gourmet regularly about 1970, as my interest in wine was starting
to flower. Asher's writing style made for compelling reading; you could not digest an article
of his on great Red Burgundy without a serious hankering to crack open a Clos de Vougeot...
not an easy task out in the middle of the Kansas plains. Fortunately, hometown Kansas City was
not so far away, so that vinous curiosity was not difficult to satisfy....if you crossed into
the Missouri side and (illegally) schlepped back a bottle. My tee-totaller parents were
aghast..."You spent $10 for a bottle of wine??!!"
Oftimes, my first exposure to the great wine writers were their musings in Gourmet; icons
like James Beard, Andre Simon, Roy Brady, Frederick Wildman, and Hugh Johnson. Even science
fiction author Ray Bradbury waxed poetic in 1953 on his Grandma's dandelion wine, describing it
as the essence of summertime. Hummph.... the few examples of dandelion wine I've tried have been
pretty wretched brews.
Almost everyone who develops an interest in wine will, eventually, yield to the siren song of
Pinot Noir; be it from Burgundy, California's Sonoma Coast or Santa Rita Hills, Oregon's
Willamette Valley, or the mountains of Italy's Alto Adige. But, alas, Pinot, the most feminine of
wines, is a frustratingly cruel seductress. She will one time fire your passions with her whips
and chains, another time slyly beckon you into her boudoir with a knowing wink, and, often
as not, stampede you in the opposite direction with her dowdy, frumpy demeanor.
A year ago, James Rodewald described this all very well in his essay "Pinot Noir: A Love Story"
in the pages of Gourmet. He recounts his first, eye-opening experience with great Pinot Noir
in a bar he worked. He tracks down its (mistaken) winemaker, Merry Edwards, and falls
head over heels for her Pinots. Eventually, he discovers the actual winemaker of that memorable
Domaine Laurier, Terry Leighton, and goes gaga over his Pinots. It's a great read, an endearing
love story, to which I'm sure we'll one day read the sequel as it plays out in Rodewald's life.
That's what Pinot Noir does to you... it shatters your heart, but its allure is irresistible and
you keep going back.
Reichl also includes Rodewald's article on New Mexico's own Gruet Winery. Gruet has been making
some of the best, most well-priced, sparkling wines in the USofA and this provided considerable
national exposure for their efforts.
Rodewald is Gourmet's "Drinks" section editor and frequently appears there with various
beverage recommendations. In the "For What It's Worth" category, Rodewald grew up here in Northern
New Mexico and graduated from SantaFe Prep, was the bartender at Santa Cafe when it opened,
visits frequently, and his mother still resides here. Furthermore, fellow Santa Fean, Kate Winslow,
is an editor for the Gourmet Books section and has her office right next to Rodewald's. Small world!!
To me, the most fascinating reading in Reichl's book were the early essays of Frank Schoonmaker,
written during Gourmet's seminal years and continuing through the 1940's.... well before I
could even read, let alone, read Gourmet. Schoonmaker, deceased, is a legendary name in the wine
world. His Encyclopedia of Wine was one of the first written. It is frequently updated by noted
New York wine writer, Alexis Bespaloff, now a Las Cruces resident.
My first encounter with his name was a little greenish stick-on neck label "Frank Schoonmaker
Selections", an importing business he started back in the 30's. I started to notice a correlation
between the presence of his neck-label and the quality of the wine in the bottle.
Schoonmaker was one of the early wine writers in the 1930's, writing for the New Yorker magazine
before becoming Gourmet's regular columnist in the '40's. With the end of Prohibition in 1933,
he recognized a woeful American ignorance about wine and set about to correct that problem with
his prolific writing.
Although his specialty was European wine, particularly Burgundy and Germany, he was an ardent
proponent for American wines, then dismissingly called "domestic". Reichl features Schoonmaker's
essay "American Names for American Wines", appearing in March 1941. Therein he sternly castigates
the California vintners for their use of European place names (and even actual Chateau names) and
forcefully argues for specific place-name growing areas and labeling by grape variety. It is an
amazingly prescient essay. Varietal labeling and specific appellation identification are, of course,
now the norm for American wine labels.
During the war years, Schoonmaker's wine writings dropped to a trickle. After Pearl Harbor,
he was heavily involved with Colonel "Wild Bill" Donovan in establishing the Office of Strategic
Services, predecessor to the CIA (the "intelligence" one, not the "culinary" one) and actively
collecting intelligence through his European connections.
Reichl includes a handful of Schoonmaker's writings through the 1940's that offer fascinating
insight to the evolution of America's wine industry from its post-Prohibition depths up to the
threshold of its breakout in the late '50's to producing truly world-class wines.
Over the years, as my wine horizons expanded and Great Growths became unaffordable, I grew
apart from Gourmet. I would occasionally browse a copy on the newsstand, mostly to catch Asher's
latest essay. They always brought back fond memories. But the magazine seemed a bit dated,
stodgy if you will, and I no longer read it avidly. That's changed over the last year. Under
Reichl's editorship, the graphics have been seriously livened. The quality of the articles seems
much higher. It is, for me, once again, a necessary part of my food and wine education. It's nice
to reconnect with an old friend.... even if she's beyond 60 and just had a facelift.
Reichl's "History In A Glass" is a compelling read, both from its historic perspective, and for
plain old entertaining wine reading; highly recommended. And if you haven't visited Gourmet in
awhile, it's time to do so now.