November 26, 2013 0 comments Articles & Reviews, By Jonathan Cristaldi

The Wines of the Waldorf-Astoria: 1950

When darkness settles over the bustling New York metropolis, a mustachioed scoundrel; ginger in appearance; personality of Jekyll and Hyde; gangster of Williamsburg; believer in the spirit—infused spirits, shaken, stirred and smoking spirits—bartender by vocation; journalist by education; novelist at heart; patriot of Long Island—that place where future Presidents are reared along the beaches and between grape vines—a prowler striding over the incandescent brick streets of dangerous Brooklyn neighborhoods; mixologist and resident bar impresario of The Whisk and Ladle Supper Club; late night companion and therapist at Booker & Dax who answers to the name Nicholas Bennett when called upon.

That man wrote me a letter; an old wine list from The Waldorf-Astoria accompanied the garrulous chicken scratch. To say that I was pleased by Bennett’s selflessness and willingness to give up a coveted prize in honor of his friends assured excitement speaks volumes of the man’s integrity and I fully endorse him as City Controller, should he ever run for such a position. Let this open letter to Mr. Bennett serve as a public thank you. Now to the menu itself:

I tore through the plastic wrapping that concealed this little gem and poured over its contents with the same excited astonishment of a young boy at Christmas who receives more than he had requested in his letter to Santa. My enthusiasm was pulled slightly into check by the realization that I was cooing over the “American Wines” section where the red and white wines were listed by varietal in a truly French-style: “Burgundy, Christian Brothers, $3.00; Chablis, Colcombet, $3.00” etc. While the sadness of my excitement seems sad only juxtaposed to my once-in-a-lifetime, boyhood innocence and jubilations at the sight of a new Mario Brothers video game or Lego set, the whole thing provides a sobering shap-shot of yesteryear and America’s near-disdain of it’s own fermented grape juice. Here it is, glorious to the eye:

Waldorf Wines_1 Waldorf Wines_2 Waldorf Wines_3 Waldorf Wines_4 Waldorf Wines_5 Waldorf Wines_6

Read on, dear friend! For this menu and its employment and relegation of American wines to French wines (a practicality given the year of 1950 when the idea of American wine was sure-fire joke) I am reminded of a remark by David Bova, the GM of Millbrook Winery situated in the Hudson River Region of Upstate New York, who said (and I paraphrase): Don’t ever compare upstate New York to California’s wine growing region with any kind of Napa-like hyperbole in some blatant marketing effort to entice consumers to our region. We’re unique, we make our own wines and we are proud of it.

Wine regions in the U.S. are seeing remarkable improvements in vineyard management, production, aging, pest control and the attainment of organic and biodynamic certifications, all resulting in better and better U.S. wines. Those employed by the industry are aware of the greatness of American wines, yet the general consumer of wine is lacking in this enthusiasm; and it is the mere result of a lack in education. The consumer is at fault. Thanks to Google the ability to peruse a myriad wine blogs and reviews or to read about wine regions on Wikipedia is easier than making excuses and feigning ignorance. Yet, the American consumer is intent to relish in his laziness, it seems evidenced by the continued marketing speak aimed at the novice consumer, employing that very hyperbole which Bova warned was useless and demeaning to wine regions that are not Napa, but which compare themselves to the region merely because of Napa’s celebrity status—it is the Hollywood household name of wine regions. If I say, “Name a famous actor,” you might say “Vince Vaughn” or “Julia Roberts” and if I say “Name a wine region” you say will undoubtedly reply, “Napa,” even though the Central Coast of California produces most of the wine from the state.

I found this awful cached PDF of a recent wine list from the modern-day Waldorf’s Bull & Bear steakhouse. While progress in the form of genuinely thoughtful wine lists that bare a cache of boutique producers may be infiltrating the hip restaurants of New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Burlington, VT—thanks to younger (generally) and enthusiastic, eager-seeking sommeliers and managers—there’s much ado about nothing still at the old five and dime that is the Waldorf-Astoria. On page 7 of this wine list there is an abominable, deplorable, despicable explanation of the terms “Old World” and “New World” with reference to the world of wine.


“New World wines are showy and expressive. They are fruit forward and full of ripe flavors. At times, they are more difficult to pair with food because they are so robust and strong in flavors (and even higher in alcohol on occasion.) They tend to please the American palate because they have greater fruitiness than the Old World counterparts.”

And now, here is a brief, open letter to the person responsible for this gaffe:

Dear Sir or Madam:

While your claims hold some truth in saying that New World wines are “showy” “fruit forward” and “tend to please the American palate,” your decree that Old World wines are better food companions than New World wines is outdated. Again, while there are half truths to both statements, you are doing a disservice to all Americans by employing downgraded marketing speak aimed at providing the novice with fodder for when the sommelier approaches: “We’d like a food friendly Old World wine, rather than one of those fruity New World sacks of juicy-juice …blah!”

Revolution is nigh and one day when I am dead and gone the New World will be a safe place for those who enjoy the finer wines in life. Temperatures are rising and New World wine-growing regions are rising in status and demand along with with these spikes in heat, cool, rain and drought.

Remember when a bottle of 1945 Chassagne-Montrachet was $4.25 a bottle at the Waldorf-Astoria? Well, a good Chassagne-Montrachet today fetches ten- and twenty-times that rate. Look however to the Central Coast of California or the cool climate regions of New York State and Oregon and you will find gems at prices manageable, agreeable even enjoyable.

Mr. Bennett, may I suggest that you seat yourself upon one of the many bars within the Waldorf-Astoria, there in your bustling city, and drink ‘em dry before declaring war on everything they stand for? But declare this war when sitting down, for future Presidents must maintain their composure.

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