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Wine Wise - Choosing Wines

( Originally Published 1933 )

In choosing wines for his table, the person who is honest with himself will sooner or later select those that please him most. His selection may not be the best from a technical point of view, but if his wines please himself, his family and his guests, his judgment is good. It is a wise selection. In the final analysis the only way to find out which wines you like best is to try them. So, irrespective of brand names, price or popularity, I would select for my cellar the wine types that warmed the cockles of my heart most easily. As one wine judge has said :

"Wine should please the eye, flatter the olfactories, give relish to the palate, quench the thirst and respect the head. If it does not fill these conditions, you had better drink water."

Nevertheless, when you set out to stock up a wine cellar-as most Americans must now do under somewhat adverse circumstances-there are certain things to keep in mind. You must begin with sound wines, or they will not keep. You must probably take new wines and age them yourself. I think I am safe in saying that half the wine used by inexperienced wine drinkers is at least partly spoiled before it reaches their lips because they do not observe a few simple but important precautions in buying and storing the wine.


Good sound wine and when a wine man says sound wine he means wine with well-balanced component parts, properly fermented and with good keeping qualities-contains only what Nature gives it, except that in the case of sweet wines grape brandy is added. Nothing that is not a product of the grape is included in dry wines. In fermentation nothing has taken place except the processes of Nature which eliminate impurities and that part of the juice of the grape which would make the beverage cloudy or pre-vent it from keeping. The juice of the grape has been converted by a process of Nature which transforms a part of the sugar into alcohol and part of it into gas which escapes. In reality the wine contains nothing that the grape juice did not have originally.

One of the real catastrophes of "the noble experiment," in my opinion, was that it practically eliminated the old-fashioned wine merchant from the picture in this country. The wine dealer of the pre-prohibition days was not merely a merchant. He was well informed regarding all types of wines and he was clever at suiting wines to people. He knew, for example, that different dispositions and temperaments required different wines. He knew that persons of phlegmatic disposition should drink white wines, which promote nervous bodily energy, with a tendency toward mental activity. On the other hand, persons of nervous or excitable temperament should partake of Clarets or red wines only, which act slower on the nervous system and tend to soothe both body and mind.

Some of these old-time wine dealers knew the wine tastes of their patrons better than did the patrons themselves. Wine selling was not merely another form of merchandising, but it was something of an art, since the wine dealer was an authority to whom the customer could turn for information regarding the kinds of wine, how to keep them, and how to use them. He knew his wines and he knew his customers, too.

During the prohibition era, most Americans learned to buy wines illegally from bootleggers, or legally from their druggists, or they made their own wines in their homes. Standards by which to judge wines were lost. The druggist handled wine merely as a medical item. He will continue to be a wine merchant, but in the future it is probable that much of the wine will reach the consumer through the retail liquor and grocery stores. Neither the druggist nor the grocer has the time nor the background to become a wine authority in the sense that the old-time wine merchant knew his wines and his patrons.

This is an important change in the scheme of things for the wine user, because it means that for some time at least he must be his own judge of the wine he buys. He must purchase his wine stock more cautiously. He must learn the various tests of sound wine and must apply them before he pays out good money for any kind of wine. My suggestions for a method of stocking a cellar today would be about as follows:

First, try to fix up a large enough storage place for wines so that you can anticipate your future needs for some years. Later on, I will make specific suggestions regarding the home wine cellar. If you have a cellar, you can save money by buying young wine and aging it a few years before using it. An honest and sound young wine will prove a good investment, provided you select it wisely and care for it properly.

Right at the outset, in building up his cellar, the American wine drinker will come up against the European-versus-American wines controversy. In spite of the fact that Europe has long enjoyed the distinction of producing the finest wines known to commerce, it must be realized that only a very small percentage of this output consists of the Chateau and Grand wines of which we hear so much. Of the vast gallonage of France only about five per cent really is outstanding wine. The bulk of the output is ordinary wine and that is what the rank and file of the people drink. Only a very small part of the finest foreign wines ever reach the United States, because the whole world is seeking the limited supply.

For that reason I would advise every American wine drinker to familiarize himself with wines produced in this country. He may want to buy some fine foreign bottled wines for special occasions, but for his regular consumption the chances are that he can get more for his money and have a much better wine if he buys wines made in the United States, either those of California or the eastern states.

It is not a good plan to judge wines by their names alone. The real test of good wine is the wine itself, and since there will be a limited supply of fine aged wines on the market, the best thing to do will be to experiment with all varieties of California and American wines and discover for yourself which ones you like best.

Fortunately, out of the great variety of available wines no two people will select exactly the same list for their cellars. Everyone has his particular favorites among wines, and often these tastes change in the same person. Wine drinking is like reading or music. Your taste develops as you have more experience with wines.

In building up your stock the thing to do, of course, is to look for good sound wines which will meet the requirements of your household. You will want Dry table wines for everyday consumption. You will want Sparkling wines for parties or festive occasions, and in all probability you will want a limited supply of sweet wines for liqueurs and cooking and for medicinal purposes.

There are a number of things that you must consider when you select your wines. You will want to study the color, body, flavor and taste. Color is important not only because it acids to the beauty of the wines, but because the depth of the color and clarity are an indication of the condition of the wine. A desirable wine is clear and colorful. It should be sufficiently aged so that you will know you are drinking a smooth, wholesome product. Wine that has stood up for two years or more will probably continue to stand up well for a good deal longer if kept under the proper conditions.

In judging wines remember that a good wine can be ruined by a poor cork. If you are buying wines by the case you should not judge the wine by the bottle you sample. You should sample several bottles to make sure that the wine is uniformly good. One bottle may have a corky taste due to a defective cork, but all of the other bottles in the case may be sound.

A poor cork and careless handling of wine can sometimes play havoc with the beverage. I am reminded of an incident that occurred when I was a member of the State Board of Viticultural Commissioners. Four members were having dinner on a Pullman. We selected our dinner and were trying to decide on the wine we should order from the steward. All wine men know it is risky ordering a bottle of wine on a train, for the wine travels through all kinds of climate and in the old days the cooler was not always to be depended on.

"Let's have a bottle of your Champagne," said one of the Commissioners, who specialized in the manufacture of Sauternes.

"No," said the other, "I'd prefer a Sauterne."

A vote was taken and Champagne won out. The Champagne chosen was a brand put out by one of the Commissioners. He asked to examine the bottle before the wine was served.

It seemed that on the back of all his labels was printed the month and year when the wine was bottled. He held the liquid sunshine to the light, but the label was wet and dirty and it was with difficulty that he deciphered the date, which he read aloud. Reluctantly, he passed the bottle to the waiter.

The wire hood was released and the cork attacked. We listened for the pop. But the waiter pushed and pulled while we watched the look of disgust on the countenance of the Champagne manufacturer, who, oblivious to our close scrutiny, was following every motion of the struggling waiter. Presently he exploded. "Give me the bottle," he commanded. "Don't you know how to release the cork?"

And then he strained while we exchanged knowing glances. With a Herculean effort, he succeeded in freeing the cork, which refused to pop. "It's flat," he said tersely. Then he poured a thimbleful of the wine into his glass and tasted it. "Take it away," was his only comment.

"But what are we going to drink?" I asked.

"Champagne, I hope," he said gamely, "but don't expect too much. They have no facilities for keeping Champagne properly on a diner. Heavens knows how many miles this bottle has traveled and through what temperatures it has gone."

The second bottle had the necessary bubbles, but the wine did not show up to advantage because of the poor handling it had received.

Before you buy wine, give it what is popularly known as the "eye, nose and mouth" tests. These tests will tell you whether or not the wine is sound and agreeable on the day that you bought it and they should protect you against the common faults of poor wine. In making these three tests, pour out about a third of a glass to sample the wine you contemplate buying. Always test wine in a crystal clear glass which will not alter the true color of the wine. Otherwise you may be misled on color.

1 . The Eye Test. First of all hold the glass of wine up to the light and see if the color is clear. Good finished wine is transparent and brilliant, particularly when it is held before a light. Wine testers describe it as being "candle bright." Look first for clarity, then for shade and depth of color. There should be no loose sediment moving about in the wine when it is served.

American wine buyers are accustomed to wines which are bottled crystal clear and which are used before they have a chance to throw a deposit or collect a crust on the side of the bottle that is lying horizontal. The uninitiated may look upon a deposit in the bottle as something objectionable. As a matter of fact, this deposit is a guarantee of age, because wine never has a crust until it is aged. Wine with a deposit or crust must be decanted before serving.

Claret and Chianti should be a rich red, Burgundy a deeper ruby shade. Among the white wines Chablis and Moselle are straw colored, Riesling, Sauterne and Eastern American white wines are amber. But remember, in the eye test the main thing to look for in table wines is perfect transparency and the proper degree of color.

2. The Nose Test. Before you taste any wine, give the glass an easy rotary motion so that the wine will whirl gently, moistening the inside of the glass. This releases the volatile acids producing the aroma or bouquet of the wine. Then pass the glass under your nose, to determine the peculiar or characteristic odor of the wine, the bouquet, to use the term of the trade. Good wine always smells clean and fragrant. There should be no vinegary odor and no musty or unclean "mousy" smell. There should be a delicate but lingering bouquet which is pleasing to your sense of smell.

3. The Mouth Test. After your nose knows it is good wine you are sampling, taste the wine by sipping only a thimbleful. When the wine is in your mouth, swish it around upon your tongue, underneath your tongue, over the gums and lips, and on the roof of your palate, so that all your organs of taste have had a chance to pass upon it. Look for any tastes which would make it objectionable to you. Ask yourself if it is too acid or too sweet. Does it taste clean and pleasant? After you have had an opportunity to get the flavor, swallow the wine slowly. Then note the after-taste, which should be clean, smooth and velvety. This is the final test and if the wine has impressed you favorably by all of its qualities, it is a suitable wine to buy.

In general, in selecting wine you should avoid those which taste thin or which lack flavor. Good wine leaves your mouth full of flavor. Good wine also tastes clean, alive and full of vigor. You should bear in mind, of course, that sweet wine is more alcoholic, has more body than dry wine, but both types should be full of vigorous taste.

In his splendid book, "The Romance of Wine," H. Warner Allen, one of the world authorities on wines, stresses the point that wine gives especial enjoyment because it appeals to all the senses except that of hearing. But even the ears enjoy the proper pouring of wine. The appeal to that sense might be added also on the grounds that good wine leads to enjoyable conversation and merry song, and nothing is more pleasant to the ear than the clinking of glasses as the toasts are drunk on festive occasions.

"Apart from its elusive bouquet and complex aroma," says Mr. Allen, "a great wine presents to the eye the joy of color and through the sense of touch flatters the palate and throat, not only with a refreshing sense of coolness and a grateful feeling of satisfaction due to its temperature and the fineness of its alcohol, but also with the incomparable softness of its velvety texture. Wine lovers, though they are fully alive to the artistic perfection of a well-designed well cooked meal and are prepared to consider with an open mind any art of perfumes that the future may devise, claim that wine provides to the connoisseur the perfect harmony of what are generally called taste sensations. They regard food as a background to the picture or rather as a setting for the jewel of many facets-wine."

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