1940s Archive

Old Bottles

Originally Published November 1948

As his name is, so is he,” the Bible states in I Samuel XXV, but this was surely not intended even twenty-five centuries ago, to apply to wine. For “Wine is a mocker. …” the Bible says in Proverbs XX, and certainly never more a mocker than when rigged out, these days, with a fancy label, a familiar name, and a singing commercial.

“Where a man calls himself by a name which is not his name,” said Lord Esher, “he is telling a falsehood.” This is even more applicable to bottles than to men, but before we go any farther into the subject of names and bottles, I wish to reassure my readers—the foregoing display of erudition is the fruit of a couple of profitable hours spent with Mr. H. L. Mencken's Dictionary of Quotations. What follows is my own.

Basically, all wine names exist only as guides or warnings or guarantees for the benefit of the consumer. If they are not informative, they are useless, however familiar; if they are inaccurate, they are dishonest; if they are too general and tell less than the whole story, they are to be avoided as suspect.

Up until about a hundred years ago, practically all wine names were nothing more or less than geographical designations—Burgundy, whether sold in Paris as vin de Bourgogne, in Hamburg as rot Burgunder, in Buenos Aires as Borgona, or in London as Burgundy, was a wine from a specific French province. The same sort of thing was true of sherry and port and Rhine wine and Chianti and champagne. South African Burgundy, California Rhine wine, and Australian port had not yet been born, to create for us a whole new series of complications. Still wines bottled at the vineyard and carrying the producer's name were so rare as to be almost nonexistent, and people were content, on the whole, to rely on their wine merchant's knowledge and good faith. Brands, in the modern sense of the word, were of importance only in champagne.

A good many of us may feel that what has happened since, in the field of wine distribution and merchandising, could scarcely be classified as progress. We shall have to accept it, willy-nilly, and here are a few of its implications. Retailers that can properly be described as wine merchants are to be found only in a few large American cities, although interstate shipments of wine, directly to the consumer, are prohibited by the laws of about forty of the forty-eight states. Americans no longer call on their wine merchants—they pick up a half dozen bottles at their local package store and find themselves up against a printed price list, a clerk who drinks wine rarely if at all, and a collection of the most complicated labels which the wine producers and legislators of seven or eight countries have found it possible to devise.

Theoretically, this self-service sort of shopping, for such it is, may perhaps be simpler; there is certainly a wider choice, but intelligent choice implies specialized knowledge. And how many of us can, at a glance, select the outstanding California claret when there are ten on a shelf, or put our finger unerringly on the best of a half dozen Pommards? Today, the American consumer is assumed to possess, and almost compelled to possess, if he wants a good wine, the sort of detailed information which wine merchants formerly spent half a lifetime in acquiring.

Wine by any standards is an exceedingly complex subject, and it is far beyond the pretensions of this article to cram what might be a four-year course into a few thousand words. On the other hand, it may be possible to set up a few signposts.

Wine fraud, of course, is as old as wine; it is probably no more prevalent today, and it is certainly easier to detect, than it was fifteen hundred or five hundred or fifty years ago. The Federal law requires that all bottles be clearly marked to indicate their net contents, the country of origin of the wine, and its alcoholic strength. The penalties for infraction of these rules are so heavy, and the possible gain through violating them is so small that you can forget about them. Your wine comes from the country that it says it comes from, you get full measure, and your wine is not watered. You are also effectively protected by the pure-food law against deleterious substances such as arsenic, and your wine, unless it says that it is made from blackberries or loganberries or cherries, is made from grapes. The rest, I am afraid, is pretty much up to you.

Originally, as I have pointed out above, wine names were geographical designations: Burgundy came from Burgundy, champagne from Champagne, port from Oporto, and Rhine wine from the banks of the Rhine. There were a few descriptive terms such as claret (originally clairet, a lighter wine) and two or three grape names (muscatel, Riesling, malmsey) acquired a certain amount of popular acceptance, but the basis of the whole thing was geographical—names of provinces, names of towns, names of specific hillsides.

Now in the last hundred years a good many of these names have, so to speak, got out of hand and have taken legal, if not moral, refuge in what is known as the public domain. It all started innocently enough. A Frenchman in California's Santa Clara Valley, let us say, started to make two red wines out of grapes that he had transplanted from France; the lighter he sold as “Lefranc's Claret” and the heavier as “Lefranc's Burgundy.” What else could he call them, in terms that meant anything to the public at large?

Another Frenchman brought back cuttings, when he revisited his native province, from the actual vineyard of Chateau Yquem. The name “California Chateau Yquem” which he gave to the wine from these grapes was intended as a tribute, not a fraud.

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