Dear Dr. Boli: Why have Americans let lapse their knowledge of teas and wines? They seem to have become anti-snobs, if that is a thing. On TV, you can tell someone is drinking tea because the telltale tea bag tag is dangling from their mug. Also on TV shows, you see people having a conversation about wine that only asks them to decide between red and white, then they pour a large amount of wine into a giant glass. Are all Americans less subtle than they used to be? If so, how can we tell the difference? —Sincerely, Canadian in Canonsburg.

Dear Sir or Madam: It is true that Americans were once a very subtle people. When, therefore, did the people of North America lose their subtlety? Dr. Boli is of the opinion that it happened in 1607, when the first English colonists landed at Jamestown; but certain evidence that the Indian tribes south of Jamestown were already aware of both the whoopee cushion and the pie in the face may suggest that the so-called “Lost Colony” of Roanoke might already have polluted American culture several years before the arrival of the Jamestown settlers.

As for tea and wine, however, Dr. Boli, whose memory is rather longer than the average citizen’s, is not convinced that Americans ever had much knowledge of them. Consider this wine list from 1870:

Note that the American of 1870 was willing to pay $2.25 for a “Bogen’s Seedling Dry Catawba,” but only a dollar and a half for a Saint-Julien from Bordeaux. Without unduly disparaging native American grapes, Dr. Boli would say that this pricing does not indicate an extraordinarily well developed taste in wine.


  1. Sean says:

    What would a Dry Catawba taste like? Every catawba I’ve had has been half a step down from cough syrup on the cloyingly sweet scale.

    I do now, though, have a definite desire to find some record of what ‘Old Monongahela’ whiskey tasted like and give this information to one of Pittsburgh’s distillers. It’s quite conceivable that a whiskey made in SWPA in 1870 would still be produced by the sons of the distillers of the product for which the region was famous before Alexander Hamilton’s thugs gutted the industry.

  2. Clay Potts says:

    Perhaps the American of the 19th century was more savvy about the biggest alcohol bang for the buck – i.e.: $2.25 of Bogen’s may have purchased you more alcohol than, say, $3.00 of Saint-J.? – I know this was always a consideration when I was at university.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      Mr. Potts may be correct here. It is a little-known fact of American winemaking that many of the cheap and cloyingly sweet wines, the ones that are often used by churches to indicate that Holy Communion ranks lower on our scale of reverence than a dinner at the Olive Garden, are made by adding grape brandy to sweet grape juice. The resulting product may legally be called “wine” in the United States. Today certain regulations control the amount of alcohol that may legally be present in “wine,” but the industry was mostly unregulated in 1870, and one way to vary the sweetness of a Catawba “wine” would be to vary the proportion of brandy in it.

      • Clay Potts says:

        Quite true, another common trick is to add water to the expensive stuff to make it last longer, or to trick the owner, (a trick quite common in 19th Century Bad Pun, Montana Saloons – also, the preferred method of American teenagers lucky enough to have found the hiding place to the key to their parent’s wine cabinet). Of course, there is also the “old switcheroo” method of pouring the cheap stuff into the good stuff bottle – also a common method of defrauding Heinz Ketchup enthusiasts…

  3. Personally, I think the ancient Greeks were right: wine should be diluted half-and-half with water. Drinking wine “Scythian Style”, or straight and undiluted, is for uncouth steppe barbarians and those looking to get smashed out of their skulls (frequently in an all-too-literal sense by those same steppe barbarians). Those looking for something pleasant and cool on the palate in between bites of roast leg-of-lamb cut their wine with water.

    Mixing wine with brandy should be left to the Iberians, not the Greeks, who are more likely to mix in pine tar for some bizarre reason.

    • markm says:

      Martin: Retsina allegedly originated in the centuries that the Ottoman Empire ruled Greece. As Muslims, the Turks were forbidden to drink. They didn’t ban alcohol outright for their Christian subjects, but they did require the wine to be aged in pine barrels, so it would be flavored with pine sap. The Greeks drank it anyway, and over the centuries they eventually convinced themselves that they liked the turpentine flavor.

      Or perhaps they keep the tradition just to see foreigners suffer from drinking it – which I’ve long suspected accounts for my Scottish relatives’ taste for haggis and bagpipes[1], and for Minnesota Swedes continuing to eat lutefisk long past the time when treating cod fish with lye was necessary to preserve food to survive a Swedish winter.

      [1] Irish bagpipes are quite musical, but it’s often not clear whether a Scottish piper is trying to make music or to make his enemies drop their weapons and cover their ears.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *