Imbiber's Bible

One of the great pleasures of going on vacation is browsing another city's used bookstores. I recently spent a blissful hour at the Bookery in Ithaca, New York, and there, amid the Wine & Spirits used-bookstore standbys (Hugh Johnson's Story of Wine, Alexis Lichine on the wines of France, etc.), I found Volume 5 of The Compleat Imbiber. The title alone was enough to charm me; the thought that the previous four volumes had been successful enough to warrant a fifth captivated me utterly.

Volume 5 was published in 1962 and edited by Cyril Ray. Not surprisingly, the book hailed from England. The American wine industry — to say nothing of its press — was still a ways away from arousing such lavish interest. The editor's introduction noted that "Raymond Postgate has gone to Yugoslavia to report on what is perhaps the most interesting and most promising of all the wine-growing countries other than France and Germany." Ouch. Though there was a lovely paean to the Five O'Clock bar in Denver, which concluded that "the American bar is more attractive than the English urban pub for an infinite number of reasons...Above all, there is an invigorating sense of sin."

As the tribute to the Five O'Clock suggests, The Compleat Imbiber was wise enough to show respect for its title and cover the whole world of beverages, and even their accompaniments. Besides wine, the book took in grog, the Irish barman, bar bores, the shocking combination of pork and prunes in a French restaurant, Crêpes Suzette, and even the Viennese Kaffeehaus, in forms varying from history to poetry to fiction to service piece to commentary. But wine was given pride of place — beginning and end, and the bulk of material in between.

I will spare you the historical pieces on When England Took to Port and the role of sherry in the writing of The Stones of Venice. I will avoid the investigation of '60s Yugoslavian wines, except to note that they made one they called Tigermilk. We can probably skip the bit on decanting, and the buying guide, and the food-pairing guide. But plenty of fun stuff remains.

I would have liked to hear the drinking songs sung in the music halls (themselves born of miniature in-bar theaters) of the late 1880s, here written about by Colin McInnes. And I was pleased that he noted the musical, if not lyrical, similarities between old music hall numbers ("Clicquot, Clicquot, That's the Wine for Me!") and Salvation Army teetotaling hymns ("Throw Down the Bottle and Never Drink Again") — similarities that led him to conclude: "So perhaps the Merrie Englanders and the Puritans are not so far apart as each imagines: if only because each, if for different reasons, thinks that life matters, that it could be better, and that such as it is, it should be lived out to the full."

I smiled at "The Syncopated Song of a Sour Sommelier":

Is it dry, man?

Is it dry?

They haven't got a clue what it means.

They seem to think that dryness in a wine is meant to rate as

A kind of handy measure of its gastronomic status.

Still, it's no use arguing with customers;

It only makes embarrassing scenes;

So, smothering my feelings with a veil of British phlegm,

I tell myself, Well, really, if you have to deal with them.

Then everything's the driest up to Château Yquem.

Yeah, it's dry, man, dry!

It was good to learn that the phylloxera root louse (which nearly destroyed the European wine industry) gave rise to the popularity of Scotch and even helped thwart communism: "...an England that had to live on its reserves or its memories for a decade, and had been forced to consider the possibility of a future without brandy, was certain to cast about for a substitute to meet a desperate case. The substitute was Scotch whisky. It had support in the highest places: Queen Victoria had drunk it in the Highlands, as her diaries attested, long before it became generally known in England. Dickens (who died in 1870) barely mentioned it, and in 1875 Gilbey's sold only 38,000 dozen Scotch to 83,000 dozen bottles of Irish. Phylloxera was therefore the reason the drink became popular south of the Border, where the Americans duly learnt about it. They now buy three times as much Scotch as we do in Britain: it has become one of our staple major exports — without Scotch we might have even been forced into the Communist camp. We have that to thank phylloxera for."

And it's always fun to read the wine prophets from the vantage point of their future and to marvel at their vision. Denzil Batchelor, author of the piece on phylloxera, wisely notes that "There are other enemies, deadlier than the aphid: among them vignerons with a nose for economics who consider that majestic, slow-maturing vintages represent capital locked up for far too long. Couldn't they be hurried along in the bottle — and down the throat? They could be, and in some cases, they have been. Perhaps it is unkind to blame those who gulped down the '47 and '49 burgundies in such a hurry: they had so recently emerged from the shadow of a war that had threatened survivors with a total deprivation of all the luxuries and many of the necessities of life. But in more recent times there have been attempts to hasten the maturity of the '59 burgundies, and possibly the clarets, too; for which the excuse is that it is legitimate to make a quick turnover in a jet-propelled world. It is useless to preach, but consciences are sometimes touched by simple stories of model virtue; so it may be worth reminding the greedy that in 1926 a party of the devout in St. James's tasted the 1811 Lafite and found it perfect. Who will drink a 1959 claret in the year A.D. 2074?" The jet-propelled wine world has achieved a great deal of hurrying along over the past four decades.

Auberon Waugh, son of Evelyn, contributes a darkly funny short story, but it is another piece of fiction that has stayed with me: "The Wine of the Tetrarch" by Isak Dinesen. In it, Peter, only days after the Resurrection, meets a stranger who does not know what to do with himself anymore. The stranger had been friends with the thief to whom Jesus said, "This day, you will be with Me in Paradise." Now, the stranger is uneasy. "I have been drinking many wines since Friday, and they have all tasted bad to me — poor stuff. I do not know what has happened to the wine in Jerusalem, it has no longer either body or flavour to it." He worries that the earthquake that shook the city on Good Friday may have affected women as well as wine, "so that by now they will have neither body nor flavor to them. If it can turn all the wines of Jerusalem insipid, it may well also be capable of turning life itself insipid, with everything there is to it. And what then?"

So what does he want? To try the wine served at the Last Supper, which he has heard possessed "some highly special body. Indeed — and I do not know why — I have been thinking of it as if nothing else did really exist in the world." Peter is horrified, but when he recovers himself, he offers, "I was a guest at a wedding feast where some most noble wine was brought forth in a most noble way. I shall set off tomorrow...to find out whether there might be any of that wine left."

But the stranger demurs and decides to go back to the wine and women that have filled his days until then. As he turns to leave, Peter asks his name: "My name was cried all over Jerusalem," answers the stranger. "There was not one of the curs and mongrels of the city who did not yelp it out with all his might. Not one of them who did not, on Friday morning, howl it out. 'Barabbas!' they barked. 'Barabbas! Give us Barabbas!' My name is Barabbas. That name shall be remembered."

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