In Praise of Old Wine Books, Robert Lawrence Balzer

Ξ June 16th, 2010 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, Wine History |

How strange and jarring can be the experience when reading old wine books, especially those centered on California. But what might be meant by ‘old’ ? Is 1978 old? It can seem like ancient history when reading Wines of California, by Robert Lawrence Balzer. Yet that is the book’s great strength. Selling for pennies on the second-hand book market, Mr. Balzer’s book provides valuable insight into where we’ve come from, how far has the industry moved in 30 years. California’s first great modern wine writer, his Wines of California enjoys an unusual distinction of having been written on the cusp of California’s explosion onto the international wine scene, a fuse lit by Mr. Balzer himself.
Who is Robert Lawrence Balzer? From his Special Collections page at Cal Poly Pomona.
“Balzer is recognized for having had an enormous impact on the California wine industry, and on the acceptance of California wines worldwide. He began championing quality California wines in the 1930s, decades before the rest of the world realized their stature. In 1973 he organized a blind tasting with the New York Food and Wine Society, where California Chardonnays received the top four scores. That contributed momentum toward the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting where again California wines received top scores over French wines (portrayed in the 2008 film “Bottle Shock”). The acquisition of the Robert Lawrence Balzer Collection builds on an already significant Wine Industry Collection at Cal Poly Pomona Library and further strengthens the library as a research venue for the wine industry.”
A man of many talents (he played a small role in the 1975 film Day of the Locust), a practicing Buddhist, Balzer’s distinguished writing and teaching career earned him the enduring gratitude of Ernest Gallo, Robert Mondavi, and the California wine industry as a whole. A charming post from the Underground Wine Letter describes a recent March 2010 visit with the gentleman this way,
“Robert, the first serious wine journalist in the U.S., has been a wine writer for close to 70 years. I had not seen him since his birthday before last and he will be 98 in June. A true Renaissance man and an epicurean, Robert has been a retailer, an actor, a restaurateur, a Buddhist monk, a flight instructor during World War II, a wine instructor and the author of 11 books. While age is finally catching up with him, he is still charming, knowledgeable and articulate, especially when reminiscing about the earlier days of California wine. He stills drinks wine and Scotch regularly, which he partially attributes to his long age. An amazing man, he has known the rich and famous in politics, food and wine, Hollywood and more.”
Adding to his august reputation is the New York Wine Tasting he organized in 1973. Years before the far better known Judgement of Paris, the New York tasting
“assembled 14 leading wine experts including France’s Alexis Lichine, who owned two Chateaux in Bordeaux, a manager of the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City, and Sam Aaron, a prominent New York wine merchant. They evaluated 23 Chardonnays from California, New York, and France in a blind tasting before an assemblage of 250 members of the New York Food and Wine Society. California Chardonnays received the top four scores. Fifth place went to the 1969 Beaune Clos des Mouches Joseph Drouhin. Other French wines in the competition were the 1970 Corton-Charlemagne Louis Latour, the 1971 Pouilly-Fuisse Louis Jadot, and the 1970 Chassagne-Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche Joseph Drouhin.”
I belive much may be learned from older, out of print wine books. Mr. Balzer’s Wines of California is a case in point. There is a kind of innocence about his style. Free of technical, highbrow cant, we may read what are now almost tragicomic observations such as this about California Pinot Noir.
“Pinot Noir, both the grape and the wine, remains an enigma to California viticulturists and winemakers alike. [....] Pinot Noir in California seems to elude even the most intelligent application of enological science in the production of wines comparable in stature to those of the French Côte d’Or. [...] Few wineries can afford more than a year or so of bottle age before general release. That aging is the beginning of the refinement necessary to achieve a wine’s full potential. It is up to you, the wine buyer, to allow your wines the time they need to reach their peak.”
Or this (abbreviated) breakdown of California’s “own wine, unique, complex, and [...] varied” Zinfandel.
“1. A light, young, and fresh Zinfandel, its berry-like flavor suggesting the French Beaujolais.
2. A heavier-bodied, deeper-colored wine, capable of long cellar aging, comparable to the finest French clarets of the Médoc. Such wines are most likely to emerge from the cooler regions.
3. Late-harvest Zinfandels, with alcohol content as high as 17 percent by volume [!] and with minimal residual sugar. These have rare aging potential and suggest the results that will be possible when viticulture and enology marry in the science of winemaking.”

From rare pictures of youthful and noted California winemakers, Fred Franzia, Dave Bennion, Martin Ray, Joe Heinz, Warren Winiarski, Michael Mondavi, even Justin Meyer, to an excellent gloss on California wine history, this book has all that a contemporary wine enthusiast might want to learn about how the California wine world was understood in the late seventies. Mr. Balzer’s accounts of what he calls The Corporate Investment Period (1965-1974) and the Financial Adjustment and the Post-Boom Crisis (1974-1976) are especially insightful.
So, it is to Robert Lawrence Balzer, who will turn 98 on June 25th, that I offer my deep gratitude for his work. I strongly encourage folks to visit their local used book store and buy a copy of what will prove a classic, the Wines of California.


3 Responses to ' In Praise of Old Wine Books, Robert Lawrence Balzer '

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  1. Bob Fink said,

    on June 16th, 2010 at 9:08 am

    I have been a fan of Bob Balzer since the late 60’s. His best book, IMO, is “The Pleasures of Wine”, written in 1964. This is a landmark history of California wine and Balzer’s wonderful time of discovery in those years before most of us even knew there was a California wine industry. I have recommended this book for over 40 years, and still do.

  2. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on June 16th, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Thank you for the comment. I’ll read The Pleasures of Wine as soon as possible.

  3. Sherman said,

    on June 16th, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    I agree about the benefits of looking back to our past and how things have developed (or not). As you point out, one of the best sources for this information is out of print books on the subject. I coincidentally came across a copy of “Guide to California Wines,” the “new and revised” 14th ed. (orig. pub. 1955 with the revision printed in 1972) by John Melville.

    Full of interesting historical data, different perspectives and just plain cool stuff that either I never knew, or had wondered about.

    It certainly helps to connect the dots as to where we came from, oenologically speaking, and how we got to where we are today;perhaps connecting some of those dots will give us insight as to where we might be going.

    And all of this for the princely sum of $2 — gotta love it!

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