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San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)

 

 

July 1965

Wine — French versus Californian
A Great Romeo and Juliet by the Royal Ballet
More on Ballet
John Handy
Symposium, Sixteenth-Century Style
More on Wine
FSM’s Inconsistent Defense
And Yet More on Wine

 


 

Wine — French versus Californian


Sydney Harris’s column on California wine was certainly one of our most successful bits of journalism these last few months. That night at the Spring Opera everybody was talking about it. All sorts of people have written me letters — “Have at him!”

If he had advocated joining the Trotskyites, or come out in opposition to Mother, or preached anti-Semitism, he couldn’t have raised near the ruckus. Of course he doesn’t know what he is talking about, generally and in detail.

In the first place, almost all French wine is very bad indeed. It is not raised in the great wine country — Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, the Loire, the Rhone — but in western Provence and southern Languedoc, from the Spanish border to Marseilles and Nîmes and westward to Toulouse, and it is much worse than any California wine whatsoever.

This is the wine the ordinary French workingman drinks if he does not drink Algerian port, a more lethal, muddy syrup than anything to be found in the Bowery or on Howard Street. As for the peasant — he drinks the stuff produced by the peasant cooperatives, so heavily dosed with sulfuric acid that it is the only wine I have never been able to drink at all, not even two ounces.

Ordinary middle-class people in France drink third and fourth grade wines from the famous wine districts or first-class imitations thereof produced in Algeria.

Except for southwest France with its coarse wine, all of France lies at the geographical limits of uniformly successful grape culture.

It is precisely because Bordeaux, the Moselle, Burgundy, are not good grape country that the wines produced there have “character.” However, this means that some years they are hardly produced at all and most years they are deficient in natural sugar.

In the first case, wine or juice from the same or similar varieties of grapes is imported from Spain — in the same huge tank trucks you can see hauling juice in the San Joaquin Valley — mixed with or entirely substituted for the local product, and “bottled in Bordeaux” or wherever.

In the second case, and somewhere in France this is true practically every year, the wine is “chaptalised” — sugar is added before fermentation. These processes are supposedly regulated by strict laws, but people are constantly being tried for evading the laws. Needless to say, sugaring does not improve wine, but produces something like the stuff we drank in Chicago in Prohibition.

The first and second class wines of France — the great châteaux — do not bottle wines under their own label if the vintage is abominable.

It is usually said that California wines do not have vintage years. Napa, Sonoma, Santa Clara, San Benito counties and the Livermore Valley are optimum regions for the growth of table wine grapes and the weather hardly varies at all from year to year during the ripening season.

Our problem usually is to keep the natural sugar content of our grape juice down.

Our wines tend to be a little rich and stout and highly flavored, certainly in comparison with Rhine wines, or those of Bordeaux, the Cher and the Loire. As a matter of fact, certain vineyards have had a few extraordinary “vintages” with individual varieties of grapes.

1949 saw some of the greatest wines of all time, wines that are still improving and reach fantastic heights. Inglenook Charbono 1949 is coming to resemble the finest Château Ausone.

Roosevelt was a whiskey drinker and to him wine was something produced by those Republicans in upstate New York who never received him or any of his family socially. Since repeal our federal and state tax system has discriminated against wine — in favor of whiskey — in comparison with France or Germany.

It is expensive to keep wine very long in America. But you can always keep it yourself. Even so, all the reputable table wine producers in northern California turn out wines as good as the best French troisièmes crus — the third growths — and our best wines compare favorably with the second growths, which number many of the world’s most famous wines.

Some of our stouter reds, if kept for 20 years, are spectacular. Very few European wines can be kept that long and still be drinkable. Similarly, our whites, even the driest, will keep and improve steadily long after all but French dessert wines like Château Yquem have gone off and become unpotable.

Our best producers no longer market their wines under French or German names, but as the variety of grape. Each conscientious producer, without exception, has at least one really excellent wine on his list.

Try: Reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Inglenook or Buena Vista; Zinfandel, Assumption Abbey; Charbono, Inglenook; Pinot Noir, Berlinguer Brothers or Charles Krug; Gamay (this is a light Beaujolais type), Paul Masson or Digardi; Barbera, Sebastiani or Louis Martini; Grignolino, I.V.C.; I see I’ve left off Souverain and Martin Ray, try them for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Whites: Sauvignon Blanc, Wente Brothers; Semilion, Beaulieu, Cresta Blanca or Concannon; Chardonnay, Stony Hill or Wente; Pinto Blanc, Almaden; Chenin Blanc, Souverain; Johannisberger Riesling, Hallcrest; Gray Riesling, Mirasou; Traminer, Krug; Sylvaner, Buena Vista; Emerald Dry, Masson; Green Hungarian, Souverain.

That had ought to hold you, and you too, Mr. Harris.

[July 4, 1965]

________

NOTE: This column features a photo of Rexroth in tux, chatting with a smiling woman, wine glass in hand. The caption reads: “ ‘Good Taste Editor’ Rexroth with ballerina Jocelyn Vollmar at recent Ballet Guild party.”

 


 

A Great Romeo and Juliet by the Royal Ballet


Normally I leave things like art, music, ballet, drama, to the Sunday column, where I can expand and relax about culture — but the visit of the Royal Ballet raises some editorial questions, besides demanding a rave notice as soon as possible.

Since they were here last, this company has undergone a revolution. They have moved from way back, behind the Danes, the Bolshoi and New York, to a place second only to the Kirov. Since they do things quite unlike the Kirov, it might be better to say we now have two companies in the world’s first rank.

Their Romeo and Juliet was an absolutely astounding experience, one of the greatest evenings I have ever experienced in the theater, and I’ve seen them all — Bernhardt, Duse, Mary Garden, Jeritza, Pavlova, Danilova, Ulanova — you name her, I was there. I have never before liked Margot Fonteyn very much, she is too unsophisticated, too square a dancer for my taste. Her Juliet was the greatest Juliet I have ever seen, in any form, the play, the opera, the several ballets. No actress in the long roster of Juliets in my lifetime comes anywhere near her.

There are rumors Margot Fonteyn plans to retire soon. Every great lady of the theater has hoped to pull off the tour de force of a Juliet on her farewell tour. Even Bernhardt, senile, with a wooden leg, went out playing Napoleon’s little son. Mme. Schumann-Heink, who looked elderly in her teens, did Juliet to giggles in her old age. Margot Fonteyn is the only girl I’ve ever seen who is totally convincing as the real Juliet, a fourteen-year-old child suddenly awakened to sex. Margot Fonteyn has nothing to worry about from the competition of history. If she wants to leave the stage as a heartbreaking child killed by puppy love, she will never be forgotten.

Acrobatics were left to the men, and in Nurayev’s case, carefully concealed. The kneeling lifts in the bedroom scene and the pas de deux with the lifeless body of Juliet are close to impossible to do, but he makes them look easy. In Juliet’s role, everything is concentrated on interpretation, and less obviously, so too with the three harlots. Everybody dances as though dances were the normal form of human motion. This enables the whole company to reach heights as actors and actresses approached by few repertory or stock companies of the legitimate stage anywhere in the Western world.

Finally, all the decor is sumptuous, but the ballroom scene is the most splendid ensemble on the contemporary stage.

Now, for the editorial conclusion. Let us hope that Lew Christensen is now convinced of the virtues of dramatic ballet, and that he insists that the San Francisco Ballet people learn to act. Let us hope that The City is now convinced that few things pay off in public relations like a good ballet company, but that they cost money.

You don’t buy the costumes for Romeo and Juliet at the Goodwill, nor do you hold great dancers unless you can offer competitive salaries.

[July 7, 1965]

 


 

More on Ballet


The Royal Ballet has left and the San Francisco Ballet has opened its summer season, “Ballet ’65.” The English have never toured so splendid a road show, no matter now good they may have been in London.

The San Francisco Ballet’s summer season, seven weekends in all, is the only thing of its kind in the world. No other company gives so much “exposure” to new work. Every Friday and Saturday there will be two new ballets, mostly the choreography will be by the young members of the company. In fact there are only five altogether by the boss, Lew Christensen, and two of them are new and the others are reworked for new casts.

Why does the public accept ballet with an enthusiasm, and increasingly with large numbers, that it does not give to the contemporary theater?

As in ancient Rome and Hellenistic Greece, dance, mime, silent performances, are replacing theater. The reason is so simple. Dancers, as my daughter says, do what they are told, or they break their necks.

Lifts, sautes, pas de Basques, are not for Allen Ginsberg or Andy Warhol, or the stage-struck hobohemians from whose ranks the modern little and eventually the big theater is recruited. This is why Method acting has replaced “theatricalist.”

A dynamic theater requires exhaustive training in motion, dance, tumbling, mime, even old-time eurhythmics, as well as the special study of characteristic life styles of motion — how to move like a sophisticate of the twenties, a German weaver, an 1890 British fairy, a neurotic Swede. You can’t just pile off your motorbike, take a reach behind your ear, fire up and signify.

There are several people in the Royal Ballet who are better actors in the theatricalist sense than most anybody in the movies or legitimate stage.

Monica Mason is extraordinary. She doesn’t just project, she reaches out and possesses each person in the audience, because, of course, she is possessed herself. This is what we mean by theatrical hallucination. The same is true of Deanne Bergsma, who also just happens to be one of the most gracious pure dancers alive. David Blair is another, Desmond Doyle is another.

Fonteyn and Lynn Seymour in Romeo and The Invitation move on from being great dancers to great interpreters. This is the reason the first act of Giselle was so bad. Nobody except the culturally inhibited Russians can believe physically in such stuff anymore. As a colleague remarked, you keep visualizing Joan Sutherland in the lead role.

Nureyev is a case in point. This boy is an agile dancer with a certain over-projected grace and originally only an infantile style and no mimetic ability. He is gradually becoming a sort of John Barrymore of ballet, a great theatrical personality constructed with consummate care from shocking faults. When he is really hallucinated, he already throws you — he’s a sort of balletistic Antonin Artaud. When he’s not, he’s horrid, with his mop on his forehead.

When are we going to get a comprehensive school of the performing arts in San Francisco? The high school of that name in New York is an inchoate mass of delinquents, it’s just a dopey way of “dropping out.” We are far from the maddening throng of New York hard habits, studs and silks, foxes and wolves.

We have the San Francisco State drama department and the San Francisco Ballet to build on. We can put together a really disciplined school where people will come because they want to be taught to mind. You’d be surprised how powerful a drawing card this would be in our naughty age.

Instead, what happens? The only company in town that attempted to do things that old-timey hard way has fallen on trouble. Ernest Lonner tells me he’s quitting the International Repertory Theater. The problem is discipline.

I don’t want to take sides. Maybe he couldn’t enforce consistent discipline even though his people wanted it. Maybe he couldn’t get enough good people. He certainly was never able to put together good classes in motion study, tumbling, fencing, dance and mime, something absolutely essential to the kind of theater he was trying to create.

And then there’s the problem of creating good taste in your actors, not just appreciation of good drama and rejection of the meretricious, but good taste, style, in acting, that ability to always look at yourself from beyond the footlights and find good diction, inflection, and motion.

Oh, well. Here I’ve gone on and on and not written that piece about Father Monihan’s show at U.S.F. on Luther, Thomas More and Erasmus, come August 12-14 — on guess what subject? Freedom and Authority. Next week all the details, or write Fr. Monihan.

[July 11, 1965]

 


 

John Handy


Ever since he came to town I have been an enthusiastic fan of the young alto saxophone player John Handy. It was a struggle to get the official jazz critics on the other papers to bother to listen. Now he has been discovered. Who am I to holler, “I seen him first!”

Still, I remember when he first showed up with Charles Mingus in New York. After the first set I asked Mingus, “Who on earth is that?” Said Charlie, “Pretty nifty, hunh? He’s a cat with brains.”

Cats with brains on alto aren’t common, they usually go far. Parker, Ornette Coleman, Konitz — what distinguishes these musicians is sheer brain power, even though the brainiest of all, Charlie Parker, didn’t know what to do with his intelligence. After all, facility in this day and age comes cheap.

If you have any interest in contemporary music, jazz or unjazz, go to the Both/And and hear Handy’s quintet. He has two musicians from Vancouver, Don Thompson, who is sort of the Ramon Montoya of the bass, and Terry Clarke on drums, who seems to be able to do any kind of drumming, percussion or melodic, The Man wants, and always says something clear. Mike White is one of the new far-out violinists who are getting a hearing since Ornette took up the fiddle. Freddie Redd on piano is just the sonorous, wild chorale pianist who can tie all this together.

I say flatly that this is the best jazz group to originate in San Francisco in many, many years. Handy is going to make history, like Brubeck and the Lou Waters revivalists, and I, for one, prefer by much his kind of music.

He has several record companies sniffing around. Let’s hope he discourages the executives who suffer from delusions they are band leaders. One of them, for instance, doesn’t like the violin. Whoever records him, lets him do what he wants, and gives him proper promotion and distribution, is going to make money as well as history.

Sitting in the Both/And on Divisadero Street, just around the corner from my home, I got to thinking about the sociology of all this. The Mob is driving the Bohemes out of North Beach, and with them will go de-slumification and rising real estate values. The Blue Unicorn is now the livest literary hangout, the Both/And the home of the most creative musicians.

Once the writers, artists and such ilk hung out in the Latin Quarter. I think for the next generation, in all the big cities of America, this population will shift to the middle-class Negro districts, and with them will go a natural, unfederalized urban renewal.

Every week a fine old Victorian house in my neighborhood is remodeled and soon Haight and Divisadero Streets will be the Main Streets of the intellectuals.

[July 14, 1965]

_____

A little serendipity: The night before I typed and posted this column here, I went to a poetry-jazz reading by Ruth Weiss at the Mythos Gallery in Berkeley. Among other things, she read a poem about John Handy, who was right there in the audience. He said he has very fond memories of Rexroth, including parties at Rexroth’s home. —KK

 


 

Symposium, Sixteenth-Century Style


There’s all sorts of stuff going on, come August, that I am intensely interested in and would travel far to see.

August 12 to 14 the University of San Francisco is holding a symposium on Freedom and Authority — Thomas More, Erasmus, Luther. Many of the country’s leading scholars, authorities in the 16th-century humanist renascence of the North, will take part. General Chairman will be Dean Emeritus John Burchard of the MIT School of the Humanities. Leading speakers will be Germain Marc’hadour on Erasmus, R.S. Sylvester of Yale on More, Lewis Spitz of Stanford on Luther and the religious Renaissance of the German Humanists.

Father Monihan, S.J., who is staging the whole show, plans to do his best to resurrect the atmosphere of the courtly symposiums of the Renaissance, with food, wine, music, and “pleasant, fruitful and witty” conversations anent the deep issues of man and his destiny and meaning.

There will be 16th-century singers, dancers and musicians to entertain the guests as they wine and dine at the Paul Masson Winery high above the Santa Clara Valley, in a setting so like the places where the philosophers and poets and ladies and gentlemen of the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent held those courteous and graceful conversations that ushered in a new civilization. At the final dinner at the Legion of Honor there will be not only 16th-century entertainment, but 16th-century cuisine. Does this mean Cupid and Psyche sculptured in butter and a hundred gold doubloons boiled with the soup? We’ll see.

I am very much in favor of all this. The church not only has a mission to the scorned and rejected, it also has the job of enticing the Power Elite through the needle’s eye . . . if possible. There is nothing churchy about this symposium. Walter Paepke thought he could reform the predatory morals of capitalism by just such activities in the Executive Seminars at Aspen. Just like Aspen, I am inclined to think that this show will find itself concentrating of the great problems of unlimited responsibility which face the leaders of the modern community. The Renaissance humanists knew that the way you did this was by shaping a certain kind of personality in the context of civilized interpersonal relations and heightened sensibility.

Chinese society endured so long and so well and has passed so many of its characteristic values on to even revolutionary China because, in the last analysis, it was founded spiritually on exactly this custom of fruitful, pleasant and witty concourse. The great statesmen and poets and painters of China foregathered often in the bamboo shade, listened to maidens play the lute, capped each other’s verse, and discussed the duties of the “human-hearted man.” If you’d like to do the same, write Fr. William Monihan, Librarian, University of San Francisco.

S.I. Hayakawa is staging another scholarly supercolossal at State College. This year the international conference of the Semantics Association meets here. Again, there will be music, dance, wining and dining. The big news is that for the first time the Communist countries are sending outstanding scholars, amongst them one of the most important Russian Academicians, a leader in the linguistics controversy of years ago.

Since Orthodox Bolshevism has always been anti-semantics, presumably they are coming to expose the bourgeois idealism and Menshevik mechanism and such of Western semanticists and linguistics analysts. Which is fine. Until we can get a dialogue going with these people, the intellectual world community is going to be crippled by schism. I’m glad to learn that the arrangements committee has adopted my suggestion of having a corps of student hosts and hostesses to make the guests feel at home. Our northern California schools have been until now notorious for their inhospitality.

All through August there will be doings at the Mountain Theater on Mt. Tamalpais. I have been trying for years to get this wonderful place used, and I am very happy to see things happening at last. The San Francisco Ballet, dance groups from all over, including the queen of the heroic stage, Ruth St. Denis, organized by Shela Xoregos, a harp festival at the Playhouse, the Mime Troupe, the composer Lou Harrison, folk music and dancers, John Handy’s quintet, Vince Guaraldi’s trio, every weekend they’ve got together the best of the performing arts in the Bay Area.

And last, from August 20 to August 29 there will be the Cabrillo Music Festival at Aptos, the most civilized music shindig we have hereabouts, and in one of the most beautiful settings in California; but of that more anon.

[July 18, 1965]

 


 

More on Wine


My goodness, that column on California wines stirred up a lot of interest.

The list of recommended wines was not copied from a book, but from memory and personal experience. One winery I omitted, entirely due to forgetfulness, was Beaulieu Vineyards — a good representative of their list is their Cabernet Sauvignon, a very rich claret that improves steadily over the years.

Another omission was Christian Brothers, who in the last few years have developed a remarkable line of “varietals,” some of them just coming on the market now. Watch for their Chenin Blanc, which will be on sale soon. This is a wine with a great deal of individuality and will stand considerable aging, unlike French and German wines of the same type.

Speaking of the wines — I should say something about the fundamental difference between Californian, Spanish, Italian wines and those of France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Our wines grow in optimum regions of grape culture, where the wine grape would grow naturally if let run wild.

American grapes of the sort that make New York and Ohio wines come from a different genus, fuscara instead of vinifera.

The “character” of Rhine wines and Moselles is entirely due to the fact that they are grown in regions where it is very difficult to grow wine grapes. We could not duplicate these conditions even if we moved our vineyards to the country above the Mother Lode, because even there the sun is far higher in the sky and the daylight lasts longer than it does in Germany, and there are many, many more sunny days in the year and far lower humidity.

The climate of our fine wine regions produces rich, brilliant wines of a high flavor and color unlike that of any other country. Traditionally, these have been thought of as questionable virtues, best tempered by long aging, both in cask and bottle.

I am inclined to think that popular demand throughout the world is moving all wines in our direction. People want bright wines, rather fruity, and with low tannic acid content, even today in France. My father was a large wholesaler of wine and I never saw a bottle of wine that a gentleman would drink that didn’t have a heavy sediment and a thick collar and a brownish color until after the repeal of Prohibition. Today it is really no longer necessary to decant even the stoutest French wines produced since the Second War.

Wines like ours, and the fine wines of Spain, especially of the Riojas, will stand immensely long periods both in cask and bottle, and steadily improve. I have drunk both California and Spanish wines from Reisling and similar grapes which were over 20 years old and of uniquely delicious flavor. In Germany they are at their best in their third year.

Here’s the rub. In France the wine producer is subsidized by the tax structure in ever-increasing amounts for each year he keeps his wine. In California the wine is taxed in the vineyard’s cellars, in the warehouse bins, at the wholesaler’s, and on the retailer’s shelves. Each year the same taxes come around, so that a wine kept 10 years by the industry is priced out of the market. Your only recourse is to store your wine yourself.

Every time you find a California wine that fits your palate, buy some extra bottles and put them away in a cool place, on their sides, head down at a slight angle. You can be sure they won’t do anything but improve. I have drunk an unbelievable wine from the private vineyards and cellars of one of San Francisco’s oldest families which was born sometimes in the 1880s. Next time I do a wine piece — they seem to be popular — I’ll write about Spanish and other wines.

[July 21, 1965]

 


 

FSM’s Inconsistent Defense


The refusal of an increasing number of students convicted in Judge Crittenden’s court to accept the terms of probation, or, in some instances, any probation at all, raises interesting and fundamental questions in social ethics.

Fundamental is the central relationship between freedom and responsibility.

I am quite well aware that this phrase is not just the last refuge of a scoundrel, but of every mealy-mouthed trimmer since the beginnings of despotism. My sympathies go out to every figure of history who has defied the written law in favor of a higher morality — from Sophocles’s Antigone, to Socrates, to Thomas More, to Thoreau, to John Brown, to the sailors of Kronstadt, to Trotsky, to the youth of Budapest. Even a madly rash character like John Brown is worthy of respect. They acted with full acknowledgment of the consequences.

On the other hand, I agree with a writer of an independent radical magazine at the time the famous Hollywood Ten were being sent to jail for defying the McCarthy committee. One of them wrote an article saying, “Never, not once did one of us ever attempt to put across Communist propaganda in any film script we wrote.” To which the independent radical responded, “Why not? Either you believed in your principles and used such an opportunity to propagate them, or you were willing to lay them aside for bourgeois Hollywood gold. If the first case, you are now lying. If the second, you are simply what you accuse others of being, a common prostitute.”

Think of the terrible tragedy of the Rosenbergs, who went to their deaths writing letters to their very children, presenting themselves to their memories as sort of mildly left, old-fashioned LaFollette Progressives.

If you defy authority, you have to go all the way, and stick to your guns when the chickens come home to roost, to mix metaphors. Antigone at the last moment did not say, “I’m just a PR girl for the Morticians’ Association. If you don’t want to give my brother honorable burial, you shouldn’t punish me for burying him anyway. I wasn’t really defying your law, and besides, I didn’t mean it anyway.”

The policy of the Free Speech Movement and its allies has been to demand the abrogation of the right of the university community to police itself, short of gross public crime. This is a right for which heroes have gone to martyrdom from the founding of the university system at the beginning of the Middle Ages until this very day in our contemporary dictatorships, both Left and Right.

Traditionally, university discipline has covered all on-campus acts which would be classed as misdemeanors in the adjacent town. Even Moscow University is free from interference in its own domain from all but the highest levels of the Party and the political police. Even under Stalin, some people managed to escape that last paranoid purges, much more so the early political cannibalism of the Moscow Trials period, solely because there remained little enclaves of hidden resistance in Soviet academia.

Student leaders in Berkeley are on record as saying, “We want the fight thrown into the arena of public policy. We want the police, the state and the city of Berkeley to intervene. We want the issues in the courts.”

So now they have it that way. Judge Crittenden has applied the law of the non-academic community with relative mildness. I can respect anybody who wants to continue to defy that law by refusing to accept probation — if he says that this is what he is doing and he is doing it for reasons of a higher morality.

However, the individual who weeps publicly about the terrible injustice with which he is being treated, when he wasn’t defying anybody but just sitting on the floor eating a hot dog and humming along with Bob Dylan, in perfect innocence, when the nasty police came and carried him away — for this person I have only mild pity and contempt.

I think his defense is not only silly and fools nobody, least of all himself, but it certainly defeats the purpose of the entire movement amongst students, and only makes more confusing the job of getting to the bottom of the serious social sickness which affects all education, all universities, all youth, today.

Academia has always shown a genius for protecting itself against the ravages of democracy as well as dictatorship. It has striven manfully as well as failed shamefully to cherish the disinterested seeker for truth against the King, Church, Parliament, the mob in the street, and The Man on Horseback. Our educational system is in need of reform and overhaul, root, stock and branch.

If you believe this is a matter of public policy in which municipal courts and state legislatures should have a determining voice — well, you asked for it. When that state of affairs comes about, you can continue to rebel, but you have no right to weep with self-pity.

[July 25, 1965]

 


 

And Yet More on Wine


The bits I’ve been writing about wine seem to please the readership. There’s no question people would like to drink much more wine than they do. They don’t know how to buy it, how to tell good from bad; when they experiment they are often disappointed in the first few tries, especially if they just rely on the advice of the corner grocer.

Perhaps most important, most Americans look on all alcoholic beverages as intoxicants. Wine is far from being an intoxicant; it is a food, and it is a food that the people of wine-drinking countries look on as essential, at least as essential as bread or meat.

Intoxicated means literally poisoned, and as a poison, wine is quite unpleasant. If that’s what you want alcohol for, the safest and most efficient drink is pure grain alcohol mixed with plain water. The worst certainly is the cheap sweet reinforced wine. The wino is as much the product of the nonalcoholic substances in musky or third-rail port as he is of the alcohol.

The drinking of dry wines at meals, sweeter wines for dessert, dry sherry at cocktail time, a glass of port in the late evening — customs like this are the exact opposite of the slow acceleration of social alcoholism which is so typical of our modern world of tension and affluence.

I suppose I have drunk the equivalent of a pint of dry wine a day all my life. I haven’t been intoxicated in 30 years.

About 20 years ago I went to a New Year’s party, given by eminently civilized people, where the hostess served King Alphonses, only, and in conical beer glasses. The house was overheated and we were all dancing. Long about midnight I realized that I was getting drunk and went to the bathroom and put my finger down my throat. The people are dead now, so I can say that I have always remembered that episode as typical of the drinking habits so many Americans seem to have learned from the redskins.

This is all leading up to the answer to a question asked by many readers: “Can you recommend a cheap, palatable, safe, ordinary wine that ordinary people can buy in gallons?” Yes, there are several, although it is certainly true that this is the field in which we most need improvement.

We commonly use as an everyday and cooking wine Mountain Castle Chablis and vino rosso, sold by Safeway, and I presume blended from wines from all over northern California. Another good everyday wine is the more expensive Montebello label.

Never to be forgotten were Gopher Gulch Ranch and the wines produced in a vineyard now built over, within the town of Woodside, and sold only by the local grocery. These two were conclusive proof that it is possible to produce excellent bulk wine in California.

People have also asked for the back numbers of the wine columns — so far they’ve appeared on Sunday July 4 and Wednesday July 21. There will be more.

[July 28, 1965]

 


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.


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