Perhaps Americans who care about wine romanticize the notion of a European wine culture. You know what I mean, the image we carry around in our imaginations that depicts a long table set outside under ancient olive trees — this would be in Provence, of course, or Tuscany — with three or four generations of the family partaking of utterly fresh and simple yet wonderful food while sipping from glasses of a tasty unpretentious local wine. The kids get a little wine diluted with water in their glasses, and the teenagers are allowed one glass and no monkey business, thank you very much! See, these people know that learning about drinking starts at the family table, with Grandma and Grandpa looking on benevolently as the youngsters are gradually initiated into the knowledge that so many Americans can’t comprehend: That wine is part of life and is inextricable from the enjoyment of food. Gosh, wouldn’t we like to be in that movie!
Because the truth is somewhat different. In Great Britain laws governing the consumption of alcohol have become draconian. Germans are turning away from wine and drinking more beer. The French — sacre bleu, the French! — have become almost hysterically puritanical about alcohol consumption, though now that their non-drinking prez has been booted out perhaps the atmosphere may lighten up a bit. In any case, America traditionally looks to Europe for its lessons about food and wine and life the way that an ingenue looks to a wiser, more sophisticated older man for instruction in love. Oops, not anymore! That’s a different motif from a different time and a different movie!
So, to the question “Could America become a country with a genuine wine culture, in the sense that wine is accepted as a foregone part of household and family existence, that wine is a natural accompaniment to food and belongs on the table, that wine, moderately consumed, is an enjoyable, even celebratory aspect of life,” I have to answer — “I think not.”
I’ll provide a tiny admittedly isolated though, I think, potent example of why I believe this is so. Here’s the background:
To the east of Memphis lie the smaller towns of Germantown and Colllierville, all these contiguous cities and towns running up against each other, so you could drive on Poplar Avenue from downtown Memphis, on the Mississippi River, east to the Shelby County line and seldom be out of a major shopping area. When I was in college, a drive from the center of Memphis out to Collierville felt like an all-day expedition; now the road is six lanes all the way and in a sense the drive is even more tedious.
Germantown and Collierville began as villages, and they each grew and grew, so that even these suburban towns have their own suburbs and malls and shopping centers and civic plazas. The heart of Collierville, however, is the old town square that retains a bit of original quaintness and a group of 19th and early 20th Century houses that surround it. Like many old villages that expanded into the era of urbanization and its growing pains, Collierville tries to hold on to its heritage, especially through an annual town fair that celebrates its history and its present.
Here’s the point of this preamble, quoting from a recent story about the Collierville town fair in Memphis’ daily newspaper, The Commercial Appealr: “It’s just part of Collierville. It is family-friendly, you know there isn’t alcohol served, and Collierville is all about family,” said Twentieth Century Club president Karen Ray. (Serendipitously, the article was written by reporter Chelsea Boozer.)
Anyway, there you have it: “Family-friendly” and alcoholic beverages are antithetical. The town of Collierville and its fair are “all about family,” and family values and alcohol don’t mix. (Though a good name for a cocktail would be “Family Values.” I’ll let you contemporary mixologists work on that.)
Now you may be saying, “FK, don’t get hysterical. This is one comment from one person.”
And while you would be right, I cannot help thinking that the statement epitomizes the attitude of a great deal of America’s conservative population regarding alcoholic beverages, whether we talk about beer, wine or spirits. The case doesn’t merely reflect a lack of sophistication; it’s more a matter of real apprehension about alcohol in its old-fashioned guise of Demon Rum. In truth, alcohol has been more and more demonized lately, not only in this country but, as we have seen, in Europe, the great home of vineyards, winemaking and food and wine culture. I would never downplay the real harm that excessive alcohol consumption can result in nor the devastation visited on some families and society generally by alcoholism; the physical, emotional and financial losses are tremendous. Alcoholic beverages, however, are designed to give pleasure, and used legitimately and with common sense they indeed impart a great deal of pleasure, yes, occasionally of a heady, giddy sort, to our lives. Americans, though, have historically fostered a love-hate relationship with alcoholic beverages, viewing their manifold pleasures as well as their deleterious effects with equal suspicion. Never will the dual nature of this contingency be resolved, because these suspicions, anxieties and alarms have been hard-wired into the consciousness of certain portions of the population for generations.
I wish American families could take as their models the Reagan family on the CBS dramatic series Blue Bloods — re-signed for a third year — in which three generations of New York police officers, centered around the police commissioner portrayed by Tom Selleck and including his long-retired father and his two sons, one a beat policeman and the other a detective (a daughter is an assistant district attorney), along with spouses and children, gather for family dinners at least twice during each broadcast. And there on the table always stands a bottle of wine, and there on the table stand wine glasses from which the adults sip throughout the meal and pause to refill those glasses. No one ever mentions the wine because there’s no need to; wine goes with food and is obviously a natural part of their daily life. It’s so damned refreshing!
Some of my readers may say, “Oh sure, and the Reagans are Irish Catholic, and we all know about them.” All right, then, perhaps it’s time that a whole lot of Americans should learn a lesson from these very loving and family-oriented Irish Catholics.
Al fresco dining image by Alexandra Rowley for sbchic.com. Collierville town square image from tnvacation.com. Blue Bloods image from tvfanatic.com.