The bitter truth

Official health warnings about wine are hard to swallow

Every now and then, I become exasperated with cheap American wine. I recall our modest cellar back home, with those bottles of Burgundy and Claret, each tasting of a place and a terroir, sometimes with the aftertaste of some deeply rotted saint. Then I visit the little wine store here in Culpeper, Virginia, and go the extra few dollars for a bottle of something French. And I am always disappointed.

The old aromas are there, the old sense of the soil and of the labour that has wrestled with it over centuries. But there is a bitter aftertaste, as though a few drops of gall have been inserted into every bottle, just so that the Americans can know what the French really think of them.

I used to think that the problem was the second-rate growths that get to Culpeper, where nothing entirely first-rate ever happens. Then, finding my favourite Château Potensac on sale in Washington, I rushed to buy a case. Heaving this wooden box on to the Metro, carrying it in my arms around Union Station and eventually falling exhausted on to train 51, which makes it all the way to Chicago but will stop, if you ask it to, in Culpeper, I managed to bring my prize home. I drew a cork from one of the bottles as we sat down to our hamburger and fries, and we looked across at each other expectantly. Then our smiles quickly turned to frowns. There it was again, that bitter aftertaste, like a bad memory that constantly returns.

The explanation is surely not the Atlantic crossing: the trucks that rattle to Washington from California do more to shake things around than any boat from Bordeaux. What then is it that distinguishes a bottle of Potensac sold in Washington from one obtained in France?

Suddenly the answer is clear: there, on the bottle, is that mendacious stamp that you will never find outside the United States, telling you that, according to the surgeon general, pregnant women should not consume alcohol, which can produce birth defects, and that alcohol can affect your driving, and may cause health problems.

Who is this surgeon general? And what does he know about it? Why doesn't he warn those pregnant women against television and computer games, which cause far more birth defects than are ever likely to be caused by a glass of wine over supper? Somehow the mean-minded puritanism of this guy is able, once stamped on the glass, to find its way to the stuff inside, turning sunlit joy to chill apprehension.

We pour the rest of the bottle down the sink. But a troubling question remains; why doesn't the surgeon general's stamp poison the wine of America? The answer eventually dawns on us. American products, like the American people, have suffered puritanism for so long that they have developed antibodies. The conclusion is obvious: when in America, drink American wine.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and countryside campaigner as well as an author and broadcaster. Widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading right wing thinkers, his publications include the Meaning of Conservatism. He has also written on fox hunting.

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis