David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Wines And Vines Of California. By Frona Eunice Wait. Reprint of 1889 edition. Berkeley, Ca.: Howell-North, 1973. Illustrations. 215 pages. $8.50.
Reviewed by Rodney D. Strong, Chairman of the Board, Sonoma Vineyards, Windsor, California, whose “wines and vines” are popular with the book review editor of this Journal.
Reading Wines And Vines Of California by Frona Eunice Wait is like opening a packet of old love letters in the attic written by a young love full of enthusiasm, nobility, absolute and final definitions, enthusiasm and inevitably some inaccuracies. The book is indeed a love letter to the American wine industry of 1889. Wait traveled extensively in California vineyards and wineries and did her homework very well, even to the extent of listing by grower the existing vineyards through most of the counties in California. This certainly was an ambitious and admirable task which she accomplished with great success, particularly when we realize that travel in rural California in 1889 was more difficult than it is today.
Names of wine growers and wineries in 1889, which are still in existence today through the efforts of generations of devoted men and women, underscore the pride that California can take in the history of this venerated industry. Frona Wait truly loved wine and California wine in particular. She defends the California wines from the prejudice of the Eastern wine public who, then as now, often were oriented solely to European products even though they were mostly more expensive and often less good. Her enthusiasm and elan on this subject are so strong that it might be said she goes beyond the propriety of scholarship in this regard. But I’m not going to say it.
California was going through a wine boom in 1889 very much as we are experiencing now. Wait states again and again that the California wineries must be more concerned with quality than quantity. This is also true today. She lists twenty-five thousand acres of grapes in Sonoma County, which is about seven thousand more than exists today. Possibly there is something to be learned from all this. She also discusses such grapes as Traminer, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in existence in vineyards in 1886. These grapes had some acceptance then in the California vineyards, but were unfortunately ignored during the next fifty years despite the recognition they deserved in the premium wine field. She also lists Tokay and Muscatel grown in Sonoma and Napa counties. This has proven to be wrong and has been corrected by practice over the years in the industry so there would seem to be some hope for us.
There is a wine list reprinted that is very interesting-Mouton Rothschild 1878 (a good year) for $23.00 a case. This was considered a very handsome sum in those days, and I haven’t seen any lately for that price. She documents the devastation of the phylloxera epidemic of the 70’s and 80’s and one feels her genuine sorrow and sense of tragedy when she describes the beautiful vineyards that were struck down by this scourge of early California viticulture.
Wait’s pride in California, love of wine, and true and boundless enthusiasm shine through in every page with many fine illustrations that are collectors’ items. For anyone who is interested in California wines, this is a beautiful and historic volume to orient the reader to the how and why of the present exciting situation of our industry by someone who was there and had her eyes and heart open.
Steam crushers and presses, horses in the vineyard pulling plows, all these warm sensuous images jump out at you as the pages unfold. The book is beautifully bound and has a charming introduction by Maynard Amerine, Professor of Enology, University of California, Davis, who actually had the privilege of meeting this great lady in 1935. It is a fine book.