Planet Underwined

Cameron was recently honored by the Explorers Club at the Waldorf Astoria with a wild and weird lavish dinner described here in the NYTimes. Well deserved.

Planet Underwined is the favorite article I’ve unearthed so far in the old WineMine quarterlies I’ve been collecting.  Thanks James!

by James Cameron from WineMine no. 24 Winter 1972

When I see the phrase ‘All the world’s wines’ I detect a fallacy; it is like promoting the International Haggis Company, or Caviar from the Four Corners. Drink is ubiquitous, thank God, but wine is specialised. I suppose at a guess that something like seven-eighths of the world’s surface doesn’t make, sell, or know anything about wine. Wine is a European phenomenon (with North and South American descendants, as with people, and a cousinage in Australia). If you quote scripture at me to prove it originated in the Middle East, then I can only say they lost the trick some millenia ago.

It is true that in the days when Cairo and I were on speaking terms I once got a present of a half-case from Egypt, if you please. I liked to decant it and watch people huffing and snuffing and screwing up their vocabularies to identify this awful stuff; I would then say it was an unpretentious little Omar Khayyam from the south slopes of the Great Pyramid, which it was. Talk about unassuming; after a while we used it in salad-dressing.

So all the world hasn’t got wine. The earth’s greatest land mass, Africa, has none at all south of the Mediterranean littoral, until you come to the Cape (and I do not come to the Cape). I see that now even the Algerians are tearing out their vineyards and putting the land back to the plough, partly to do their late French owners in the eye and partly because they want grain more than grapes, silly them.

However, what has always puzzled me is that the most extensively varied and populous region in the world, Asia, never caught on to viticulture at all in any serious way. My mother-in-law, who is a South Indian, makes a fair quantity of wine at home in Bangalore, but it isn’t what you’d call wine; more of a kind of curried Dubonnet. The fact of the matter is there is no wine known to man that doesn’t taste like poison with Indian food. The only thing is beer or coco-nut water. Great chunks of the sub-continent are Prohibition now anyway, and even with a Permit you will find your whisky costing some nine or ten pounds a bottle. In these distressing circumstances the thing to remember is the great Cottage Industry, pot-still arrack. Do not be put off if it comes in a coco-cola bottle or and old oil can; it is very excellent indeed, particularly when there is nothing else. Ask Peter Dominic to lay down a gourd of two for you and see what he says.* [* 'Oh Gourd!' -Peter Dominic]

So why is there no native wine in the immense stretches of Asia, where there is every kind of geographical and climatic condition, and several hundred million people of subtle and cultivated taste? I do not know. In the French days vast quantities of wine were imported into what was then Indo-China and is now Viet Nam : where did it go? A year or two ago, in Hanoi, I made enquiries at the Reunification Hotel–which had been a reasonable wine-bibbery in the colonial days when it had been the old Metropole–and after a long search they dug up for me two very, very archaic bottles of burgundy; something like twenty-five years old. After we had filtered it through the cork-dust and batshit it was so dreadful we had to pour it down the basin, where it slopped and gurgled resentfully all night. And that, according to the people’s democratic butler, who was a capstan-lathe operative by trade, was all there was or ever would be. Why don’t you make your own, since you could? Because we have better things to do. In the circumstances, with the American bombs dropping on the ricefields, that seemed reasonable.

So in Hanoi you have to make do with beer, which in Vietnamese is considerately called ‘bia’, or a lethal distillation called leu moi, the ‘new rice’; one gets quite a start when one sees customers filling their lighters with it.

The great mystery to me is China. I have spent some time there, and long ago conceded their gastronomical dominion over the rest of the world, once you acknowledge that there is no such thing as ‘Chinese food’ any more than there is a ‘European food’, and that from one end to another it differs every bit as much as say, Scandinavian food and Sicilian food. But why no specific Chinese wine? They have highlands an they have lowlands; they have tropical coasts and Siberian hinterland; there seems to be no convincing reason why they haven’t been making wine for five thousand years, except: It is not our custom. It is not their custom to drink the grape any more than it is their custom to wear wool. Cotton, yes, and silk, yes; wool no. The Chinese are a great and sublime people, in my view, and (despite the Cultural Revolution) Conservatives of the deepest die; when they start making wine they will start wearing Harris tweed, and that is no-when.

Instead you will drink huang chou, which is food-wine made of rice like sake, tasting of lukewarm Cyprus sherry, or mao-t’ai, which is the stuff all the fuss was about when President Nixon appeared on the world’s telly trooping round the banquet-hall drinking hundreds of toasts out of a glass the size of a small thimble: no wonder, mao-t’ai is a splendid spirit; it is said they put it up in flasks made of granite because it dissolves everything else. It has saved me on many an Arctic evening in Peking. But it will never replace the lingering glass of plonk.

When I was staying in China, which was not too many years after the revolution and the advent of Chairman Mao, there was a great legend, or rumour, about some semi-forgotten community of French Benedictine missionaries somewhere in the interior who had been growing vines and making real wine for years; indeed some said for a generation or two, and that not only was it of uncommon quality but it used to be on the market in the abominable days of the Shanghai Imperialism. I tried in vain to track these brothers down. Some said they were up by the Mongolian borders, but when I got there I realised that the only thing you could make in those parts was ice-lollies. The brothers were reported up in Szechuan, somewhere around Chungking, but nobody there had ever heard of them. I never landed these people; their famous vintage is Chateau Feu-Follet as far was I am concerned. Yet the legend persists; a friend of mine, who is a  professional China-watcher in Hong Kong, told me the other day that he had actually seen a bottle of this mystic brew, labelled: Bo Chou-lay 1970; Domine Mao Dirige Nous. This friend is a notorious liar, however. How else would a China-watcher live?

We must therefore conclude that the most populous nation on the planet, with some seven hundred million potential customers, knows nothing about wine. The Foreign Languages Press of Peking is not hanging on edition-time to translate this WineMine into Mandarin, Cantonese, Hunanese, and all the rest. They could not, in short, give a monkey’s. Nor could the Bengalis, the Rajputs, the Annamese and Tonkinese; leave them their rice-wine and their lighter-fuel.

‘All the world’s wine’ means, truthfully, ‘The wine of the small portion of the world that knows anything about it.’

But, my masters, what a proportion!

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