Home > History of Wine > “[W]arm weather is on us, and what better refreshment than a cold sparkling wine”: The forgotten wine columns of Jane Nickerson from the 1940s and 1950s

“[W]arm weather is on us, and what better refreshment than a cold sparkling wine”: The forgotten wine columns of Jane Nickerson from the 1940s and 1950s

I spent some of my free time this winter reading recent newspaper articles about wine.  One particular article focused on the wines of Domaine de la Romanee Conti stating that “bottles are so rare from the smaller vineyards that drinking the wine is always a great event.”[1]  The domain in general produced “the greatest of all the red Burgundies”.  This was much in part due to the domaine being the first to estate bottle the wine a practice that was “revolutionizing the wine industry of Burgundy.”  I should add that I consider anything published in the 20th century as recent.  This particular article was published by The New York Times in 1951 and the vintage of focus was 1947.  This was an “outstanding” vintage but the wines were not yet ready to drink.  Sam Aaron of Sherry Wine and Spirits was quoted, “Assuming their potential of 100, one might say they have achieved at this point seventy-five”.  Sadly I could not find other instances of this scale but it was briefly thrilling to think that the 100-point scale for wine was used in New York during the 1950s!

Empire State Building at night. c.1937. [0]

Empire State Building at night. c.1937. [0]

Far more important than the contents of the article is that it was written by Jane Nickerson.  She was the first food editor at The New York Times from 1942 through 1957.  Jane Nickerson wrote frequently and extensively about food in all forms but she also wrote about wine.  Sometimes her column was a mixture of short news on wine, food, and restaurants but other times the column was dedicated exclusively to wine.  For this post I surveyed over 100 wine related articles she published between 1946 and 1957.

I have only remotely looked at wine journalism in the 20th century let alone culinary journalism.  A quick investigation into Jane Nickerson reveals that she is a highly regarded food editor; if somewhat overshadowed by Craig Claiborne.  Strange enough there seems to be more attention to her writing on food than wine.  In reviewing her wine writing it is clear to me that she developed a deep interest in wine.   Yet she seems to be missing from the history of wine journalism.  In this post I do not try to place Jane Nickerson’s writing into a larger context.  For that I recommend you read Kimberly Voss’ book “The Food Section” as well as check out her website Women’s Page History.

Robert Lawrence Balzer related that he begin writing the column “Concerning Wines & Foods” for the Beverly Hills Citizen in 1937.[2]  This was “the first regular wine column west of New York City.”  Perhaps he was alluding to Jane Nickerson in mentioning New York City.  Robert Lawrence Balzer eventually wrote about wine for the Los Angeles Times from 1964 through 1995.[3]  Thomas Pinney wrote of Robert Mayock’s efforts in the early 1940s and that Hank Rubin, Bob Thompson, and Jefferson Morgan were amongst the earliest postwar wine writers.  These authors were all in California.  Frank Prial began his wine column for The New York Times in 1972 and is the first east coast author to be mentioned by Thomas Pinney.

Jane Nickerson’s wine writing is so different than that of today.  She began to write about wine when the wine market in America was redefining itself.  Her articles track the return of the American armed forces, effects of rationing, national efforts at promoting wine, and the increasingly diverse selection of imported wine.  The stage for post war wine journalism is clearly set by the title of one Nickerson article, “War Brides, Beware! The GI wants a wife who can cook something tastier than dehydrated eggs”.[4]  Before World War II, Americans only drank an average of half a gallon of wine per year as compared to the French at 40 gallons per year.[5]  Consumption had steadily increased with the repeal of Prohibition but the wartime rationing of grapes for raisins and tankers for transportation stymied the increase.  By the spring of 1946 the Wine Advisory Board was planning for an increase in wine consumption because “many men who were in Europe learned to drink wine, and undoubtedly will continue to do so.”

Simultaneous to a changing domestic wine selection, the importation of European wine had to be redeveloped.  Hampered through the two World Wars many German wines had largely been absent for decades in America.  Within France there was wine rationing and transportation issues that had to be resolved before long-favored wines could be enjoyed again.  Frank Schoonmaker, the wine importer turned spy and writer, chronicled the postwar wine scene in France in the pages of Gourmet magazine.  During the German occupation and even in the years afterwards, transportation was deeply impacted.[6]  Both people and goods traveled slowly by gasogene, a car or bus powered by boiler that burned charcoal or wood.  Though wine rationing was in place, there were areas were the wine could not be transported from.  As a result, the one bottle per week ration could entitle you to “as much vin ordinaire as you can carry away.”

It was not until the Spring of 1946 that Frank Schoonmaker anticipated the return of “magisterial clarets…gay, crackling Vouvray…venerable Hermitage…pale Chablis”.[7]  He wrote that there was “probably about as much fine wine in France as there ever has been”.  The French had done an extraordinary job of hiding these precious bottles by “bilking, cheating, duping, and deceiving the Germans on every possible occasion and in every possible way.”  He foresaw that these better bottles would be released in small parcels at a time and at strong prices.  There was to be no cheap French wine in America for some time.  He felt, then, that Californian wine would have no competition.  It was in the fall of 1947 that Frank Schoonmaker felt that “at last, a potable American vin ordinaire is not altogether a mirage”.[8]  He did admit he felt “it will probably be more difficult than it sounds” to find satisfactory wine.

Jane Nickerson helped people select and find good wine.  She began to write about wine for The New York Times when there was a growing thirst for both domestic and imported wine.  There was a need to educate the public not only on how to store and serve wine but also on narrowing down the best selections from new Californian wineries and those of returning European estates.  To educate herself, Jane Nickerson attended tastings such as those held by the Wine and Food Society of New York.  However, she primarily interacted with the leading wine experts in the city.  This group included the legendary wine importers, writers, and retailers Frank Schoonmaker, Alexis Lichine,  James Beard, Sam Aaron, and Robert Haas.  There were but few post-Prohibition wine books published in America so the importance of Jane Nickerson’s columns should not be neglected.  In this and future posts I hope to shed light on the forgotten early history of American wine journalism.

[0] Empire State Building at night. c. 1910. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. URL: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003677456/
[1] News of Food: Red Burgundies of 1947 Vintage Here From the Domaine de …By JANE NICKERSON New York Times (1923-Current file); Nov 26, 1951; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2010) pg. 26
[2] Volumes of Taste : A Collection of Old and New Books to Grace Any Wine Lover’s Library. By Robert Lawrence Balzer; July 01, 1990. Los Angeles Times. URL: http://articles.latimes.com/1990-07-01/magazine/tm-592_1_wine-library
[3] Robert Lawrence Balzer dies at 99: L.A. Times wine writer. Elaine Woo. December 09, 2011. Los Angeles Times. URL: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/dec/09/local/la-me-adv-robert-balzer-20111209
[4] War Brides, Beware!: The GI wants a wife who can cook something tastier than dehydrated eggs. New York Times (1923-Current file); Jun 17, 1945; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2010) pg. SM11
[5] News of Food: American Vintners Plan for Resumption Of Pre-War Rise … By JANE NICKERSON. New York Times (1923-Current file); Mar 23, 1946; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2010) pg. 9
[6] Schoonmaker, Frank. “France A.D. 1945”. January 1946. Gourmet Magazine.
[7] Schoonmaker, Frank. “New Wines of France”. May 1946. Gourmet Magazine.
[8] Schoonmaker, Frank. “Vin Ordinaire in America”. October 1947. Gourmet Magazine.

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