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Great Wine Books: “The Romance of Wine”

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I blogged the other day about “California’s Great Cabernets,” Jim Laube’s book that had an influence on me. Another book with a far more lasting impact is “The Romance of Wine,” which H. Warner Allen published in 1932.

Herbert Warner Allen (1881-1968) was an English dandy and polymath, the son of a Royal Navy Captain and grandson of an Oxford don; Allen himself attended Oxford, where he specialized in modern languages. His passions (there were many) included journalism, Greek and Roman literature, detective books (which he also wrote) and, of course, wine. Of his multiple wine books, “The Romance of Wine” is considered his masterpiece. I put it beside George Saintsbury’s “Notes on a Cellar-Book” (1920) as one of the important wine books in the English language of the early 20th century, and it’s noteworthy that Allen and Saintsbury were friends.

H. Warner Allen, a good-looking man

Allen wrote in a style which has completely disappeared from our language: Victorian, floral, perfervid, allegorical and verbose. His greatest fondness was for pre-phylloxera Bordeaux, the older the better. Of an 1869 Latour he drank when it was 50-something years old, he wrote, “The palate recognized a heroic wine, such a drink as might refresh the warring archangels, and the perfection of its beauty called up the noble phrase ‘terrible as an army with banners.’ The full organ swell of a triumphal march might express its appeal in terms of music.”

You don’t get that kind of literary overdrive anymore!

Allen’s penchant for the Classics resulted in frequent insertions of Greek and Roman quotes (without translation), as well as poetic references. Concerning the joys of old Port, he wrote, “There are many wine-lovers who prefer the vigour and splendour of a younger wine to the more subdued and complex charms which make its old age as radiant and peaceful as that of old Cephalos in the Republic”; readers not familiar with Plato will not know that the Master asked Cephalos, already at that time a very old, wealthy man, for his definition of “justice,” which he offered as “giving what is owed.” But even if most of the Classic references go over one’s head, the language is haunting and lovely; we may not be familiar with old Cephalos, but knowing that he is “radiant and peaceful” in his dotage tells us something vital about what Saintsbury called “centennial Port.”

What can the contemporary wine writer learn from H. Warner Allen? That writing can be a vast labyrinth of meaning and beauty. It’s one thing to write, as Anthony Galloni recently did, “The 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Leopoldina Vineyard is powerful and heady, with all of the intensity that is typical of this site on the eastern hills of Oakville. Dark, savory and powerful, the 2017 has so much to offer. The balance of intense dark fruit and muscular tannins makes for an absolutely compelling Cabernet.” Workaday enough; I might have written it myself for Wine Enthusiast. Contrast it with Allen, once again writing of that 1869 Latour:

“The tapestry-like purples…contained that sheen of molten gold which only comes after many years of secret ripening in the still darkness of the cellar. The French call it ‘pelure d’oignon’…which recalls the homely simile in the Nineteenth Odyssey when Odysseus’s purple tunic that glistened like the sun is compared to the sheen upon the skin of a dried onion.”

Or this, concerning an 1871 Margaux: “Its magic bouquet envelopes the senses in a cloud of airy fragrance, raspberry-scented like the breezes from the Islands of the Blest, a dream of grace and delicacy, the twinkling feet of dancing nymphs, suddenly set free in our tedious world.”

Well, you won’t read that sort of thing in Wine Enthusiast, or Wine Spectator, of the Wine Advocate, or anyplace else anymore. H. Warner Allen’s Victorian, donnish world was already over when he wrote “The Romance of Wine,” although he perhaps did not know it. History was rushing on; ordinary people no longer studied the Classics, and modern publishers demanded simpler, more easily-digestible fare for their impatient readers. But for me, “The Romance of Wine” had an indelible impact, reminding me that wine writing once was the garden in which esthetes cavorted with delight in the English language.

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