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Come back, Alexis Bespaloff - and bring wine prices with you.

Posted by Stephen Meuse  November 3, 2011 01:32 PM

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Capture2.jpg Browsing for some information about a 1967 Chateau Beychevelle a friend is threatening to open on his birthday later this week led me to the 1973 New York Magazine story whose head you see at left. The author, Romanian-born Alexis Bespaloff, wrote about wine for the magazine from 1972 to 1996.

Bespaloff may be better known as the man who took over as editor of Frank Schoonmaker's Encyclopedia of Wine when Schoonmaker died in 1976. The book, which went through several editions under Bespaloff's guidance, has always been a favorite of mine. This mainly because it incorporates a feature lacking in every other compendium of vintage wisdom known to me: a pronouncing key. Knowing just which syllables to accent when slipping a word like Erzeugerabfulling (air-t'zoo-gher-abb-foo-lung) into the conversation makes all the difference.

The burden of Bespaloff's column in April 1973 was the shocking rise in prices for better quality Bordeaux. His brilliant lead paragraph for the piece draws you in like a magnet:

A hundred years ago, when the red wines of Bordeaux were not as highly regarded as they are now, an English writer recommended sound claret as "an agreeable substitute for tea or coffee at breakfast during warm weather." The price of Bordeaux is increasing at such a fast rate today that we may soon have to drink tea and coffee as a disagreeable substitute at every meal.

To help counter the effect, Bespaloff lists 20 wines from solid, reputable properties whose 1966, 1967, and 1970 vintages were then available at New York City retailers for between $2.40 and $3.99.

The idea of classed-growth Bordeaux selling for between $4 and $15 a bottle boggles our minds, too - but for an entirely different reason. In 1967 you could buy Beychevelle for something like four bucks; today you'll spend a hundred, easy.

What may strike the contemporary reader as even more marvelous than these prelapsarian prices is the absence of tasting notes or ranking of any sort in Bespaloff's writing. General observations such as "well-made," "balanced and mature," "more forceful than charming" is about as far as he goes with the descriptive bits. It's refreshing, I think.

But I'm not getting my hopes up that wine writing will back away from its florid excesses anytime soon. At least not until we see the return of four dollar Bordeaux.

Ellen Bhang

About By the Glass

Ellen Bhang writes about food and wine and reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe. Wine is the focus of her degree in the Gastronomy master's program at Boston University. She can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com.

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