by Charlie Leary

A Wine Time Capsule

In October 1972, New York magazine published a special issue on wine called the “Whole Grape Catalogue.” Noting that “the past few months have seen enormous growth in the New York wine market,” the special section covered 34 pages.

This issue recorded a unique period in wine history. Bordeaux was ebullient over the 1970 and 1971 vintages. A California wine renaissance had started. German wines held firm in the market for quality. People still drank “Sack.” And New York had just become a powerhouse of international wine commerce, reflecting 1960s US prosperity. Most importantly, perhaps, this was just before the 1973 Oil Crisis. A peak before the precipitous fall. The special issue offers a time capsule of wine. Some things in the wine world have changed; others not so much.

The New York Wine Establishment in 1972

The lead article by a young feminist called Ann Geracimos — who as of last year remained an active journalist — started with the line, “Wine goes where the money flows.”

As the European Common Market had yet to solidify, at least for wine commerce, the money had flowed to New York from London by 1972. The members of the city’s Wine Establishment — the “prime movers” —  still ring some bells: Frank Schoonmaker (“unofficial dean of the Establishment”), Alexis Lichine, Peter Sichel (linked to writer Alexis Bespaloff), Robert Haas (then an independent importer, who would later found Tablas Creek), the opinionated critic Gerald Asher, the indefatigable businessman Sam Aaron (of Sherry-Lehmann), and Harvey Feinberg (aka “Monsieur Henri”) counted amongst them. “Few professions are so male-oriented,” penned Geracimos. They were the “men who sell wine, men who write about wine, and men who talk about wine.” The “Establishment” (note the early Seventies deprecatory lingo) constituted “the cosiest group of friendly enemies in town.” Many had served in the Allied intelligence services during World War II and after.

Significantly, as today, consolidation formed a major theme. “Importing firms . . . bought out by large corporations” helped measure “wine’s growing strength in the American market.” Chilean wine appeared briefly in the article, but handled by bulk wine specialist Feinberg, who controlled 80% of imports. Pepsi-Cola had just bought his company.

Innovation in production and marketing was beginning to raise its head. Peter Sichel had introduced a wine called “Wang Fu” or 10,000 Happinesses, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, “marketed as the ideal wine to go with Chinese food.” Perfect for Manhattan.

While large corporations entered the market, so too did independent importers, a trend that continues to this day. “Headstrong independents,” Geracimos called them. Her example was 43-year old Robert Haas, who had left Manhattan for Vermont. “His empire consists of a Telex, files and a desk,” she noted, exemplifying how technology enabled a new kind of international wine trader. He had worked in the trade since the mid 1950s.

By contrast with the independents, mass marketed wine had made a noticeable entrée in the US. This was a concern. “What will it mean for consumers when wine is sold like toothpaste?” she queried. It would be a struggle to maintain both quality and quantity. Sound familiar?

Finally, the Wine Boom of the early Seventies had brought wine investment into practical reality. US per capita wine consumption followed a steady trend upward. So did prices. “Speculators of all stripes and sizes are grabbing up the wines and pushing up prices further.” Within 18 months some French wines, mostly Bordeaux, showed a paper profit of 200%.

The Finger Lakes

The next article, a travel piece, presciently covered the Finger Lakes, proclaiming it as an upcoming region of “smaller, quality producers.” The Boom that the previous article noted had spurred industriousness Upstate. Of course the giants — Taylor Wine Company and Great Western — churned out vast quantities of table wine and “champagne” (as it was still allowed to be called). The most interesting glimpse here, however, was of Dr. Konstantin Frank.

The Ukrainian immigrant hand landed at the Experiment Station in Geneva, New York, and then set out on his own. Conventional wisdom was that only hybrid grapes could survive there. He proved that wrong. “He is emphatic on the subject of French hybrids, feeling that they are toxic to the stomach.” Nine years prior he had planted 100 acres and now made wine “with the zeal of a perfectionist.” He also had “violent prejudices,” but proved that “Koroleva Vindogradnikov [“Queen of the Vineyards”], a big yellow Hungarian grape, the Bulgarian Kara Burny [probably Kerazuda] and the Sereskia Rosodja [probably Sereksiya Charni], a Ukrainian vine, can grow in our soil,” wrote Clara Pierre. He also made a Trockenbeerenauslese Riesling “from grapes picked one-by-one late in the season.” He sold the sweet wine successfully for $45 a bottle.

Frank, in fact, innovated what is now recognized as one of the best Riesling growing regions in the US without mechanisation but with “scarecrows to flap away the birds.” That’s the only glimpse of perhaps “eco-friendly” practices. His experimentation with new varietals in this marginal climate may seem familiar to those of us thinking about climate change’s impact on viticulture. Keuka Lake’s McGregor Vineyards still uses Sereksiya in its blends today.

Bespaloff and Aaron on Wine for Consumers

The charming writer Alexis Bespaloff came next with an article on building a $1,000 wine cellar. He advised against speculation in “investment” wines and noted that most Americans still opened their fine Bordeaux wines about ten years too soon, shocked by the “astringency.” Bespaloff gave detailed advice on Bordeaux vintages and estates, but his most intriguing comments concerned Burgundy.

They presented “something of a problem for most consumers,” he opined. “It is now difficult to find a village wine — Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, Vosne-Romanée, Nuits-St. Georges, Beaune, Pommard, or Volnay — for much under $5, and many now cost $7 or $8. Wines from such individual Grand Cru vineyards as Chambertin, Clos de la Roche, Bonnes Mares, Clos Vougeot, Grands-Echézeaux, and Richebourg cost $8 to $12 a bottle, and those from the most famous estates of all
cost $15 to $40 a bottle for current vintages.” (It’s always amusing to read what counted as “expensive” in years past).

The reasons given today and in 1972 for Bourgogne’s price inflation sound much the same. “Burgundy is expensive primarily because there is so little of it,” wrote Bespaloff. “The growers know that they can sell whatever they produce. I recall a grower in Pommard who explained to me that his prices would be higher for the current vintage because hailstorms had reduced his crop. ‘Last year it was frost. This year it’s hail,’ I said. ‘What will it be next year?’”

Sam Aaron agreed regarding Burgundy, stating “the situation for red wines is rather sombre.” He was a fan of Beaujolais, but never “doubtful examples that sell below $2 a bottle.” Recommended were Brouilly, Moulin-à-Vent, and Fleurie. Aaron’s most intriguing comments concern the world’s other regions. “I am aware of the eminently satisfying quality of the red wines of Rioja,” but he remained “unconvinced” of any red wines from elsewhere in Spain. He promoted CVNE, Peterinina, Yago, Murrieta, and Riscal. All sold for under $3 a bottle. Spanish vintage indications were “pure whimsey” and therefore irrelevant in most cases.

Moving on, he wrote that “the German vineyards produce the most flowery, remarkable, and dramatic white wines of the world.” Further afield, he briefly recommended “San Felipe red wine from the Argentine, Burgundy from Australia, Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile, Gamza from Bulgaria, Egri Bikovar from Hungary, and a Dāo from Portugal” (it didn’t matter which). He noted new releases were coming from Russia and China. Some things change, some stay the same. Next came an article noting that the universal wine glass was the way to go: “the All-Purpose Glass has emerged.”

The Sharp Pen of Gerald Asher

Finally, Gerald Asher contributed recommendations on California wines, not holding any punches. This seems to contrast with wine reviews today: be polite or say nothing. He lambasted Louis Martini. The “Pinot Chardonnay I did not like at all.” Asher continued: “I found all his wines to be soft, carefully contrived to offend no one, excessively bland.” Krug Chardonnay: “very poor.” Paul Masson Cabernet displayed “that jammy taste that dominates more ordinary commercial wines.” “Beaulieu has a disagreeable Pinot Noir,” he concluded. Asher was “sadly disappointed” with Hanzell. No numerical scores, of course.

By contrast he clearly loved Robert Mondavi, praising his recent efforts at Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir (“a little rough at the edges”), Fumé Blanc,  Pinot Chardonnay (“most curious”), and the 1971 Johannisberger Riesling: “sheer delight.”  “‘Riesling’ wines in California are confusing to anyone brought up with European wines,” he wrote. There existed “White Riesling” (which was “Johannisberger Riesling” on labels), “Riesling, which is really a Sylvaner,” and “Grey Riesling, which is anybody’s guess.” He mentioned familiar names: Almaden, Ridge, Freemark Abbey, Wente, Heitz, and Souverain. Today no longer, in 1972 Christian Brothers figured prominently in his coverage too.

In all, the 1972 “Whole Grape Catalogue” provides as a fascinating glimpse of the wine world at a pivotal moment in its history. From the ebullience over Bordeaux vintages to the vicissitudinal emergence of California as a wine powerhouse, and the rise of independent importers amidst the entry of large corporations, this New York magazine issue vividly portrays a moment of transition and innovation before the 1973 Oil Crisis. Remarkably, although Earth Day was first observed in 1970 — involving an estimated 20 million people nationwide attending the inaugural events — environmental consciousness regarding wine remained an obvious gap in the entire issue. No author delved into winemaking techniques or the personalities of individual winemakers either. Nascent wine tourism and direct-to-consumer sales (in the Finger Lakes) made brief appearances.

While some aspects, like the total male dominance of the wine establishment, have evolved, others, such as the quality/quantity tension, mass market wine, and Burgundy wine prices, remain as relevant today as they were over five decades ago. This “time capsule” offers a valuable glimpse into the past while shedding light on the enduring themes.

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

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