Well-placed Witnesses to Beverage History with Ruth Teiser

Long ago I had read one of these interviews as a plain text file not really understanding what it was. It turns out to be a giant treasure trove of interviews collected by the astoundingly brilliant Ruth Teiser. Lately this blog focuses on distillation and quite a few of the interviews tell the story of distilling in California, particularly brandy. Wine making is also covered but it is important to note that mainly they discuss ordinary wines as opposed to fine wines which there were very few of until relatively recently. Most of the distillates this country made until recently were also intended to be ordinary rather than the super premium we are seeing today. Beverage alcohol, for a long period of our history, was just food and budgeted from the food category as opposed to the larger food + hobby budget category we see today. There is a definite rise of fetish drinking these days and it might actually be a return to fetish drinking that was seen pre-prohibition when imbibers willingly paid particularly high amounts for alcohol.

These interviews should definitely interest the anthropologist. One of the most important ideas to note running through some of the interviews is how the wine industry went from producing dry wines before prohibition to producing mostly sweet wines after. Prohibition had a big role in warping the American palate and orientating taste towards sweetness. It is often thought we are hardwired to pursue sweetness like we do, but it may just be the product of highly malleable culture.

I’ve read quite a few of these interviews but not all of them. In some I learned technical things, in others history, and others still the business. One, Antonio Perelli-Minetti’s, was just a plain thriller and covered everything plus adventure.

“The California Wine Industry Oral History Series, a project of the Regional Oral History Office, was initiated in 1969 the year noted as the bicentenary of continuous wine making in this state. It was undertaken through the action and with the financing of the Wine Advisory Board, and under the direction of University of California faculty and staff advisers at Berkeley and Davis.

The purpose of the series is to record and preserve information on California grape growing and wine making that has existed only in the memories of wine men. In some cases their recollections go back to the early years of this century, before Prohibition. These recollections are of particular value because the Prohibition period saw the disruption of not only the Industry Itself but also the orderly recording and preservation of records of Its activities. Little has been written about the Industry from late In the last century until Repeal. There Is a real paucity of Information on the Prohibition years (1920-1933), although some wine making did continue iinder supervision of the Prohibition Department. The material In this series on that period, as well as the discussion of the remarkable development of the wine Industry In subsequent years (as yet treated analytically In few writings) will be of aid to historians. Of particular value is the fact that frequently several individuals have discussed the same subjects and events or expressed opinions on the same ideas, each from his own point of view.”


I think I am slowly going to quote my favorite passages from each link and that will hopefully pull together a narrative.

[As of July 2015, some of these are missing from Archive.org but I have them saved on a drive if anyone ever needs them. They are also available here from the Bancroft Library]

Interviews Completed by 1988
Leon D. Adams. Revitalizing the California Wine Industry 1974
Maynard A. Amerine. The University of California and the State’s Wine Industry 1971
Maynard A. Amerine. Wine Bibliographies and Taste Perception Studies 1988
John B. Cella, The Cella Family in the California Wine Industry 1986
William V. Cruess, A Half Century of Food and Wine Technology 1967
William A. Dieppe, Almaden is My Life 1985
Alfred Fromm. Marketing California Wine and Brandy 1984
Joseph E. Heitz. Creating a Winery in the Napa Valley 1986
Maynard A. Joslyn. A Technologist Views the California Wine Industry 1974

“Well, I was told very frequently, as appears in my previous interviews, that the big difference between wine making in California pre-Prohibition and post-Prohibition is the fact that the basic principles of wine making, which were traditionally kept as an operating secret by the old winemakers, became so widely disseminated by the teaching and extension activities that largely initially came from Berkeley that knowledge which was available to a few became available to all. This has characterized the wine industry as a whole.”

Amandus N. Kasimatis, A Career in California Viticulture 1988
Louis M. Martini and Louis P. Martini. Wine Making in the Napa Valley 1973

I feel, really, that unless a wine has a distinctive character and is desirable there’s no
point in putting it out as a varietal. We make our burgundy out of Petite Sirah, for instance, and what we now call burgundy we could call Petite Sirah. But what would be the advantage in it, really? It’s not that distinctive a wine.

This is taken out of context but I encourage you to pursue the context.

Otto E. Meyer. California Premium Wines and Brandy 1973
Norbert C. and Edmund A. Mirassou, The Evolution of a Santa Clara Valley Winery 1986
Robert Mondavi, Creativity in the Wine Industry 1985
Myron S. Nightingale, Making Wine in California. 1944-1987 1988
Harold P. Olmo, Plant Genetics and New Grape Varieties 1976
Antonio Perelli-Minetti. A Life in Wine Making 1975
Jefferson E. Peyser. The Law and the California Wine Industry 1974
Lucius Powers. The Fresno Area and the California Wine Industry 1974
Victor Repetto and Sydney J. Block. Perspectives on California Wines 1976
Edmund A. Rossi. Italian Swiss Colony and the Wine Industry 1971
Arpaxat Setrakian. A Leader of the San Joaquin Valley Grape Industry 1977
Elie C. Skofis. California Wine and Brandy Maker 1988
Andre Tchelistcheff . Grapes. Wine, and Ecology 1983
Brother Timothy. The Christian Brothers as Wine Makers 1974
Ernest A. Wente. Wine Making in the Livermore Valley 1971
Albert J. Winkler. Viticultural Research at UC Davis (1921-1971) 1973
Louis Gomberg. Analytical perspectives on the California wine industry, 1935-1990
Miljenko Grgich. A Croatian-American winemaker in the Napa Valley1992
Warren Winiarski.  Creating classic wines in the Napa Valley 1994 [alternate link]

“That was also there. All of those things. We didn’t talk about the major ingredient, the accumulation of scientific information and things that people did at Davis. Maynard Amerine’s work with grapes and where they grow best –that bulletin of the Agriculture Experiment Station at the University of California1 that I used as a Bible, reading it in a devotional way. Every day you read a little bit of this, at night you read a little bit of that, getting intimately immersed in the contents. You read another chapter and tried to figure out what these must analyses could mean and what their significance was. The existence of such a rich body of knowledge was certainly another major ingredient. And I think the other thing was the people, among whom I count myself, whose taste and aspirations were formed elsewhere and who brought in the ability to actually accomplish the coming together of these several elements.”

Paul Draper. History and philosophy of winemaking at Ridge Vineyards 1970s-1990s 1994
Louis Trinchero. California Zinfandels, A success story
Margaret and Dan Duckhorn. Mostly Merlot, The history of Duckhorn vineyards
Albert Brounstein. Diamond Creek Vineyards: The significance of terroir in the vineyard 2000
Richard Forman. Launching Bordeaux-style wines in the Napa Valley: Sterling Vineyards, Newton Vineyard, and Forman Vineyard 2000
Augustine Huneeus. A world view of the wine industry 1996
Joseph Phelps. Joseph Phelps Vineyards: classic wines and Rhône varietals 1996
Justin Meyer. Silver Oak Cellars: focus on Cabernet Sauvignon 2000

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