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Civil War wine: What we drank 150 years ago

civilwar

Civil War wineThe Wine Curmudgeon will be in East Texas over the weekend doing a freelance piece about Civil War re-enactments. This means two things: First, very little wine for three days, because East Texas is both rural and still dry in many places (which offers the prospect of going cold turkey). Second, though the U.S. was not a wine drinking country 150 years ago — we drank twice as much beer and 20 times as much spirits as wine — there was a thriving wine industry.

The heart of Civil War wine country was the Ohio River near Cincinnati, and its Robert Mondavi was a lawyer named Nicholas Longworth. As with all American wine pioneers, from Thomas Jefferson to Mondavi, everyone thought he was crazy, but for some 40 years Longworth produced quality wine despite the difficulties of grape and terroir. His best wines, including a semi-sweet sparkling, were made with catawba, a native hybrid grape that needs to be sugared to overcome its flavor flaws, and the Ohio River Valley is too humid and too hospitable to grape pests and diseases for long-term success.

But by 1860, Ohio made one-third of the country’s wine, Longworth farmed 2,000 acres of grapes (by comparison, we have just 8,000 in Texas today), and produced almost 10,000 cases in a country where the total production was probably less than 100,000 cases.

In the end, the difficulties caught up with Longworth. Diseases, including powdery mildew, destroyed the vines, and the Civil War took care of the rest. The area saw some fighting, which is never conducive to grape growing, but more importantly, there was no one left to pick grapes after the work force went off to fight the war.

Longworth, though, turned out to be more than footnote in U.S. history. His law practice, as well as his real estate speculations, made him one of the richest men in the 19th century U.S. His great-grandson, Nicholas III, became speaker of the House of Representatives and married Alice Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s oldest child and of whom T.R. said: “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”

Cop shows and European wine culture

European wine culture

European wine cultureA country’s pop culture — its books, films, music, and TV — often provides a better insight into its values and beliefs than any number of academic studies. Want to learn about the Red Scare in the U.S. in the 1950s? A couple of Mickey Spillane novels, which sold tens of millions of copies, will probably tell you all you need to know. And any 21st century teenager can talk about sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll in the 1960s because their parents and grandparents listened to the Rolling Stones.

Hence the Wine Curmudgeon’s current fascination with European cop shows and what they say about the European idea that wine is part of everyday life. Watch a program from the continent, be it as ordinary as Britain’s “Midsomer Murders” or as intriguing as the Swedish version of “Wallander,” and wine is a fixture at the dinner table. In “Dicte,” a series about a female Danish crime reporter who is almost as tough as Spillane’s Mike Hammer and whose ethics would make Walter Burns of “Front Page” fame blush, the characters drink more wine than I do. And I drink wine for a living.

Compare this to U.S. cop shows, where wine is rarely seen and the best known characters, like “NYPD Blue’s” Andy Sipowicz and “Law & Order’s” Lennie Briscoe, are alcoholics. Even when there is wine, like “The Closer” and Brenda Leigh Johnson’s glass of merlot, there are enough drunks around (a cop on her squad and her husband) to make the point that wine is an exception.

Note, too, that the shows I’ve seen, mostly from Britain and Scandinavia, aren’t French or Italian, where you’d expect to see everyone drinking wine. Who knew the Swedes cared? But Kurt Wallander, the moody police inspector played to existential perfection by Krister Henriksson, treats wine the same way he treats the weather, his bosses, and his failed personal life. There is nothing out of the ordinary about any of them.

In one respect, none of this is surprising. Nine of the top 10 countries in per capita wine consumption are European; the average adult in France still drinks four times as much wine as the average American, despite all the laments about the collapse of Gallic wine culture. Which is why there’s more to wine culture than consumption statistics, or else so many in the U.S., currently the world’s biggest wine consuming country by volume, wouldn’t see wine with dinner as the next step toward an AA meeting. Like the Centers for Disease Control.

Culture is not something that can be manufactured by the Winestream Media rehashing those consumption numbers. Rather, it happens over time and in a way that no one really notices. The U.S. idea of rugged individualism, formed by the country’s frontier past, is still with us even though we haven’t had a frontier in 120 years. Wine needs to been seen as commonplace as the frontier once was, and we need to to accept it the way Wallander does — as ordinary as snow in a Swedish winter.

But that’s difficult to do when the people who oversee wine tell us we need special tools and a special language to drink it — and to accept their judgment about what to drink. That doesn’t happen in Europe, and if someone tried it, Dicte would probably slap them upside the head. And then pour herself a glass of wine.

Francis Ford Coppola, wine, and family

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Francis Ford Coppola, wine, and family

“I like to drink wine.”

Francis Ford Coppola spoke for 2 1/2 hours in Dallas last week, a monologue that covered his Academy Award-winning film career, his very successful wine business, and his grandchildren. But perhaps the most impressive thing was his modesty.

“I like to drink wine, but I don’t make wine,” he told the audience of 150 or so. “I don’t know how to do it. I suppose I’ve learned how it’s done, but that’s not why I do this. I like to drink wine.”

Which, in my 20-plus years of talking to celebrity winery owners, was the first time anyone has been that forthright. Talk to the entrepreneurs, actors, and musicians who get into the wine business, and they throw winespeak around like heart-shaped cards on Valentine’s Day. Maybe they figure that’s how they can make their bones. But Coppola didn’t say brix or clones, never mentioned scores or critics, and spent more time showing pictures of his family — and singing about them — than almost anything else.

There were literally dozens of wines available to taste at the event, but I’ll hold off writing about them. Conditions were not conducive to tasting, with so many people crammed into the lobby of a 1930s movie theater, and the more expensive wines were mixed in with the cheaper ones so it was hard to tell which was which. My general impression: the grocery store-style wines were solid, if a little ordinary.

And they weren’t the biggest attraction anyway. That was Coppola, not only the man who has made some of the greatest films in the history of the movie business, but someone who seems just as happy sharing snaps of his grandchildren as talking camera angles and gross vs. net. A few highlights:

• Coppola got into the wine business by accident, mostly because he liked the swing that was hanging from a tree when he and wife Eleanor wanted to buy a house in Napa Valley in 1975. The tree was in the front of the historic Niebaum mansion, and Coppola said he could see his 4-year-old daughter Sofia (yes, that Sofia) swinging on it. But the mansion included some of the best vineyards in California, and one thing led to another.

• The wine business has exceeded expectations, becoming one of the 30 biggest in the U.S. The 1.25-million case Francis Ford Coppola Winery includes the grocery store brands like Diamond, Rosso, and Bianco, while the high-end wine, including Rubicon, is part of the new Inglenook company, part of his effort to restore one of California’s first great wineries.

• “The biggest change in the wine business since I started? The number of wineries, and not just in Napa, where it’s gone through the roof. I traveled across the country once making a picture, and once we got past Virginia, there was no food and no wine. That’s all changed, and all for the positive. People are so much more knowledgeable, and have learned the more you know about wine, the more you enjoy it.”

• The best explanation ever for the mess that is “Godfather III:” “I didn’t want to make it. Whoever heard of ‘Hamlet III?’ But I had to pay off the bank.”

• Making “Apocalypse Now” taught him that past success never guarantees anything, and he told how he became so angry he threw his Oscars out the window and broke them. That’s because, given the piles of money the first two Godfather pictures made, he said, he assumed he wouldn’t have any trouble getting studio money for “Apocalypse.” Which is exactly the opposite of what happened, and he had to finance it himself.

• And That Movie? Coppola discussed it briefly, noting that it was both a financial and critical failure, and that he wasn’t too happy with it, either. I felt better.

Photo credits: Lisa Stewart

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