Thursday, May 20, 2010


When we attend a reception here in California, we are often responding to an invitation which indicated (say) cocktails 6:00, dinner 7:00. It is rare indeed for cocktails to be featured, although anyone who askes for a "martini" may well be served with the traditional ingredients of a "dry martini".

No, most of what is offered is a choice of at least one red and one white wine, perhaps scotch, vodka, or gin; probably beer and non-alcoholic alternatives. Since I so rarely drink anything but wine these days, that's not a problem for me, I do like to know whether I am drinking chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel, and so forth. Cocktails? Never!

It was very different when I began to imbibe alcoholic drinks at the age of 21 (the delay was in fulfillment of a pledge I made to assuage my guilt at smoking when I was 11 years old. I pledged not to smoke until I was 18 and not to drink until I was 21). Admittedly, my fellow Naval Officers took me ashore soon after my 21st birthday, and I drank enough brandy and ginger ale (we called this concoction a "horse's neck", for reasons which remain obscure) to walk a little uncertainly up the gangplank, and endure a major headache that night. Oh, there have been a few instances of over-indulgence since, including one within the past five years, but heavy drinking is fortunately not part of my customary pattern of life.

However, there was a time in my twenties when I was very interested in cocktails, without actually drinking any. In fact, I had my own manuscripted book of recipes, copied from many sources, all neatly and orderly arranged in order of the principal ingredient, such as Scotch, Bourbon, Brandy, Vodka, Gin, etc.

Besides table wine, in my time I have sipped small quantities of fortified wines, including port, the preferred after-dinner drink of British males of a certain status in life. When it comes to aperitifs, I will take the occasional Dubonnet, but for the most part I stick with dry Sherry. In Sherry terms, that is "fino", the most famous brand of which is Tio Pepe , but my personal favorite is La Ina. For the occasional contrast, I usually have a bottle of Amontillado open. Purists will tell you that Sherry and Port should be consumed promptly once a bottle has been opened, but I don't buy that. Fortified wine stays pretty good after opening, if re-corked and stored at typical room temperature.

During the past 50 years, the quality of wines from many countries has improved greatly. I remember a trip to Banff over 30 years ago, when I learned that most Canadian wine then being produced was hardly drinkable. In a recent visit to Ontario, I discovered excellent wine. The same is true of California wine. We drink a fair amount of wine from South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand. I have learned to appreciate wine from Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Hungary, Georgia, Germany, and Austria. Well, wine from Switzerland, Romania, and perhaps other parts of Europe are certainly better than they used to be.

Almost every state in the US now makes some wine, including Colorado, where our second home is located. I know there are many other parts of the United States, including the Finger Lakes region, where good wine is to be found, although I cannot speak from personal experience.

If you don't live in the UK, you may not know what an "Offy" is, but the word is an abbreviation for "Off Licence", an establishment in the UK licensed for the sale of alcoholic beverages, for consumption "off the premises". There are parts of the country, devoid of such a fancy establishment as a wine merchant, where a citizen may buy a bottle of "cooking" (inexpensive) sherry or a bottle of wine for dinner. The term "off licence" puzzled me as a boy: I thought it must mean that the establishments license had been suspended for some offense, such as selling liquor outside the government-mandated drinking hours.

On one occasion, when I had business in Evanston, Illinois, I went into a Safeway store, and wandered around looking for the wine section. I wanted to take a nice bottle of California wine to a party given after a child's baptism. When the assistant manager asked me if he could help, I explained my quest. He laughed, and said "You must be from out of town". I admitted to this. He then explained that Evanston had been the birthplace of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and it was still a "dry" town. He helpfully explained to me that if I drove a few blocks down the street, I would enter the Chicago city limits, and I would find what I was looking for. Indeed I did, and I found one of the best wine merchants that it has ever been my good fortune to encounter. My bottle of "California Sunshine was greatly appreciated.

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