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.