Saturday, January 18, 2014

Lily Haxworth Wallace and "natural" wine, 1941

Little did she know she was seventy years ahead of her time. Lily Haxworth Wallace -- and really, with a name like that, what else could she do but write a book called The New American Etiquette (Books, Inc., 1941)?-- does not define natural wine as in-the-know people do today. She doesn't define it at all. In chapter 50, "Sensible use of Wines and Liquors," she simply catalogs the wines that her readers are likely to encounter at table. They are:

Port --
  • vintage 
  • tawny 
  • ruby
Claret and the wines of Bordeaux --
  • the Médoc
  • the district of Graves
  • St. Emilion
  • the district of Sauternes


Hocks and Moselles

the Rest --
  • Alsace 
  • Hungary (Tokay)
  • "the rich, fine white American Catawba"
  • Chianti
  • Muscatel
  • Marsala

Throughout this short chapter, "natural" is only just inserted as a descriptor (like "red" or "white"), very casually, first in the paragraphs on Claret and the Wines of Bordeaux and then afterward whenever appropriate. She assumes we understand. Since Claret follows upon sherry, Madeira, and port, we must infer that a natural wine was the opposite to these -- a wine untampered with, so good and pure it needed no blending or additions of extra alcohol to make it drinkable. Sherry, madeira, and port are all blended and fortified and, in Madeira's case, nearly pummeled to death with heat and exposure to air, because experience hath shewn that mankind must so treat these wines to bring the humble grapes making them to their full, bedizened glory. The same is true of Champagne, which is not only "artificial, fortified, and blended," Miss Haxworth Wallace almost sniffs, but also " 'superficial and gay.' " Natural or "true" wines went straight from their own vines to the press to their own barrels to bottle, and that was all.

Today's "natural" wine enthusiasts seem to tout similar virtues in their production lines, but when they praise a wine as un-tampered with, they are talking about its being organic and eco-friendly. They are talking about avoiding the use of technologies that keep the product hygienic or uniform in (often heavy-bodied, jammy) taste and mouthfeel. Probably a modern natural winemaker could still make a "natural" port or sherry, eschewing pesticides, sulfur, or weird enzymes, or at least he could understand the attempt. Lily Haxworth Wallace would merely look quizzically at the suggestion, and say, "No. Your touriga nacional grapes could never become port on their own. By definition it is unnatural."

All this reminds us how iffy a thing good, fresh wines were for our parents and grandparents, not to mention remoter forebears. Port, sherry, Madeira, and Champagne were all lovely, but what did you drink when you tired of their pungency, high alcohol, heaviness, or even their gay and superficial bubbles? Reading Miss Haxworth Wallace, it looks as though you turned in hope to the two great regions of France, Bordeaux and Burgundy, and you sighed along with her and her experts: Mr. H. Warner Allen, or Professor Saintsbury. (Incidentally, she freely admits that most of the material in Chapter 50 comes from something called "Notes for an Epicure," published by the Libbey Glass Manufacturing Company.) You sighed for a taste of these regions' Clarets, Volnays, and Pommards. You sat up and took notice at her vocabulary: these natural wines are delicate, harmonious, subtle, balanced, "generous and splendid." Or, at the very least, "wholesome." After all, "only a vulgarian would desire to drink the great wines at every meal. Even the greatest would pall ... therefore, the connoisseur thanks the gods for the sound wholesome wines of St. Emilion [a notch below the great Médoc or Côte de Beaune]."

Interestingly, Miss Haxworth Wallace also stipulates that the name and vintage year of a natural wine must be "considered before its perfect place in the meal can be decided." Not so, it seems, with the artificial heavyweights; Grandpa and Grandma and everybody knew sherry accompanies the soup, champagne the roast, and port or Madeira follows dinner in all the R months. Pure wines, delicate and "absolutely individual," demanded more thought. We can easily imagine the advocates of today's eco-friendly natural wines claiming the same thing. Pairing a steak with a Napa merlot might be child's play, but to find some entrée to show off an organic Sagrantino would be a much nicer challenge. Bless us all, how far ahead of us Lily was. She is even up on her wine-as-health knowledge, and she is frank about it. "...for wine acts as a mild stimulant on the digestive organs and is a solvent for pasty accumulations that are prone to clog the intestines and retard elimination."   

And never once in Chapter 50 does a single grape variety rate a mention. Our authoress knows nothing of chardonnay or pinot. Perhaps seventy years from now, it will be the same. Then again, "the dry cocktail of simple mixture such as gin and vermouth or gin and bitters" is also not even granted its identity as a Martini. If we read carefully we may pick up a few other truths, as that pork is not a part of formal dinner menus (too peasantish?), whereas ham may be, and of course for dessert, one calmly enjoys sweet wines, fruits, and nuts. "The majority of sweetmeats, confections and preserves are considered dull by the ardent connoisseur."

If ever you encounter The New American Etiquette in an antique store or library used book sale, by all means treat yourself and pick it up. Published by Books, Inc., "endorsed by the National Institute" (and why ever not?), it is a sharply written and sometimes wise encyclopedia of any and all possible behavior among any people doing anything anywhere in 1941. Here you will learn how not to be cheap, how to write letters to the Pope, how to stroll in the country, how to word a wedding announcement issued by a married sister and brother-in-law ("Mr. and Mrs. Walter Phipps Snow announce the marriage of their sister, Madelyn Ethel Fisher, to Mr. Norman Russell Forester").You will learn the right color scheme for a Formal Regency living room -- lemon ice, black and gold, silverglow, olive green, and faded amethyst -- how to get ready for bed in a Pullman sleeping car and how to go gunning. The photographs are marvelous. The bride-to-be admires her new towels, young couples dance on the yacht club porch.

And you'll even learn bits of wisdom for life. Etiquette books seem to have a surprising amount of wisdom in them, because even though their authors may be no wiser than we, the best ones have done their research into the human comedy and have found rules which served previous generations well in bluffing their way through the performance. Some of the good advice is practical. Don't be a "plinker" at a shooting party; no such party "can thoroughly enjoy a day's activity when it must always be concerned with the antics of some totally ignorant, careless, or 'smart' member." Some of it is moral. Don't mope. "Chronic sad thinking signifies an almost constant thinking of self -- a definite bar to poise." Do not be critical of a man (bold print in the original). "Never make him the target of your jokes or barbs of sarcasm. Every man has a feeling of superiority to women and jokes and sarcasm directed at him, while they may seem funny when they come from men, always hurt if a woman fires the shot."

Ah, there we are. You have only to open the book to the frontispiece, a color photograph of a magnificent bride sitting at ease on a striped sofa, to sense that the heart and soul of The New American Etiquette is the careful guiding of female readers  to the great goal -- the wedding day. Well, and why not?

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