Thursday, August 02, 2007

Classic Wine Advice

In 1935, Huey Long was assassinated in Louisiana, Fred Perry won Wimbledon, It Happened One Night won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, and the Nazis enacted the Nuremberg Laws against the Jews. Also in 1935 Miss Bridget Herbert got married, and to celebrate her nuptials Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), the famous essayist and poet, penned a small book that contained classic advice on wine and housekeeping. Dipping into it in 2007 is a treat, and reminded me how much has changed in the world of wine, and how some things remain the same.

Like most wine lovers, Belloc was a man of strong opinions. The book opens: "Never warm Red wine. This deleterious practice is called by the vulgar 'taking the Chill off.'" Over the course of 37 pages Belloc discusses corkscrews, how to baptize wine, how to remove bad corks, where and how to buy wine, how to bottle it, and a score of other topics. He is a fan of white wine from Orvieto, and red wine from Burgundy. He likes his champagne with a bit of sweetness, and his white wines not to be served too cold. Nothing but sea salt touched his food, and his coffee-making standards were so high I imagine he never had a cup that satisfied him.

Reading Belloc's book of advice gives us a glimpse into a lost world of wine, where consumers tasted wine from merchant barrels before being bottled and where it was even conceivable that you might have a bottling operation in your own cellar (provided you could find 6 friends to help you and some garden trellis to temporarily hold the bottles). Belloc mentions long-dead wine merchants by name who he trusted to sell him the same wine in bottles that he had tasted from the barrel. He instructs Miss Herbert to stay in room 90 at the Hotel des Voyageurs in Nantes when she goes to visit his favorite wholesaler to buy French wine. And he put a lot of stock in the purchasing power of Mr. Heath who ran the wine department for the Army and Navy stores.

72 years on, it is hard to follow some of his advice ("never buy anything you have not tasted"), while some seems timeless and relevant ("divide your buying of wine into two clear departments 1) buying ordinary wine 2) buying special wine"). This mixture of past preoccupations and classic concerns is what makes this book so fascinating. In 1960, Belloc's friend Evelyn Waugh got permission to reprint the slim volume under the simple title Advice, and though it is out of print today you can still find copies (as I did) on Alibris for around $20. The book is beautifully bound, and printed in two inks (red and black) with reproductions of Belloc's original pen and ink sketches. If you need a gift for a wine lover (or for yourself) and enjoy taking a peek into the past, I highly recommend this book.


Orion Slayer said...

I don't know about the longevity of our electornic words, but it makes you wonder what our blog posts will look like in seventy years! How much of our advice will stand the test of time? :)

winedeb said...

Great post Dr. Debs! I really enjoyed. I do find it entertaining to go back in history. I collect cookbooks and have some original ones from the late 1800's. Too cool to look at then & now! I would like to imagine bringing someone from the past to the present and then me returning with them to their past.
Wow, sounds like a book in motion!

Dr. Debs said...

Orion Slayer, I'm confident our posts will be just as dated in some respects as his were! And thanks, Deb. I like these old books, too.