Tag Archives: wine history

Julia Child and wine, both local and cheap


Julia Child is rightfully credited with making American cooking more than steak, baked potatoes, and a dinner salad of iceberg lettuce, rubber tomatoes, and bottled French salad dressing. What’s often overlooked is her role in helping us figure out this wine thing, and especially her advocacy for American wine, which was pretty much unknown 50 years ago.

Child was passionate about wine, and it’s worth watching the grainy black and white episodes of the original “French Chef” public television show to see just how passionate. In the second episode, aired in 1963, she prepares her classic Boeuf Bourguignon, and it includes a very intelligent discussion about wine to serve with the stew. You can see it at 25:58 of the linked item; she recommends mountain red, a California jug wine made with zinfandel, and explains why it’s not necessary to buy an expensive bottle of red Burgundy. No wonder, as Jacques Pepin once told me, “what you saw with Julia was what you got.”

Child did a wine and cheese episode in 1970, and the array of bottles — six French wines with their American counterparts — must have been as confusing as molecular biology to most of her audience.  That’s because dessert wines were the best-selling wine in the U.S. until 1967 (part of the discussion in Chapter II of the Cheap Wine book), and the first U.S. wine boom was still five years off.

Some of the best wine advice ever written is in “The French Chef Cookbook,” published in 1968. Rose goes with anything, says Child, and she does not have kind words for retailers who offer less than helpful advice. There are also wine and food pairing suggestions, still relevant today, and she explains why there’s nothing wrong with cheap wine for everyday meals. My favorite part, though, is this: “The simplest way to start in on this pleasant hobby is to buy wines, start sampling, discussing, keeping notes, reading about wines, thinking about them, and enjoying them.”

Sounds like a great plan, no?

When Blue Nun ruled the wine world

In the 1980s, the German company that produced Blue Nun exported 2 million cases of the cheap, sweetish white wine, making it the YellowTail of its day. In this, it was supposed to be the fabled gateway wine — something that would introduce non-wine drinkers to wine. Then, they would progress from Blue Nun to dry wine wine and eventually turn into smart, sophisticated, and savvy wine drinkers.

That never happened (and, as I discuss in the cheap wine book, probably never will). Blue Nun, like all potential gateway wines, whether white zinfandel or YellowTail, reached its peak and hit a plateau, and consumers moved on to something else. Blue Nun is still around and still sells millions of cases, but it’s not what it was.

How big was Blue Nun then? I had dinner at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans in 1982 in the swanky upstairs dining room, and six or eight people at the table next to us were drinking Blue Nun. That they ordered it at one of the world’s great restaurants and which had an equally great wine list speaks to how comfortable it made those diners feel. Because, of course, Blue Nun was the white wine that’s correct with any dish – a brilliant marketing slogan for U.S. wine drinkers hung up on wine and food pairings, and just as true now as then.

Not all of the wine’s marketing was that good, as this TV commercial from 1985 – when it was on its downhill slide — demonstrates (courtesy of xntryk1 at YouTube):

A brief history of wine

image from openclipart.org

Those Roman wine critics were a hoot; Columella complained about low prices.

These things really happened. Sort of, anyway.

3000 BC: Egyptians and Chinese are the first to ferment grapes to produce wine. Pyramid hieroglyphics show winemakers bemoaning three-tier system, since they can’t ship direct to other parts of ancient world.

2000 BC: Greeks and later Romans spread wine culture throughout the Mediterranean, and Romans produce first wine critics. Roman Empire collapses 2500 years later – certainly not a coincidence.

35 AD: Jesus turns water into wine. Wine Spectator gives His effort an 84, noting lack of oak and fruit.

12th Century: Henry II of England marries Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose dowry includes Bordeaux, to form pioneering multi-national wine company. The first cute labels, with names like Maiden’s Merlot and Days and Knights, appear on store shelves.

17th century: European colonizers fail to successfully grow grapes in North America. Among the most noticeable flops is Thomas Jefferson, which paves the way for Todd Kliman’s best-selling book, “The Wild Vine.”

1855: French announce first wine classification system, rating best wines in Bordeaux. Napa winemakers are furious and say they will wait for Robert Parker to invent scores before they make world-class wine.

1919: Prohibition, which outlawed the sale and manufacture of liquor in the U.S., begins. Hardly anyone stops drinking, and alcoholism rates may have increased.

Mid-1980s: Cranky ex-sportswriter starts writing about wine. Cosmos yawns, but the cosmos never did like cheap wine anyway.

21st century: Wine consumption in U.S. is at record highs. But no one seems to be very happy, do they?

Cartoon courtesy Bocian at OpenClipArt, using a Creative Commons license


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