Monday, May 10, 2021

Stephen V. Bittner's "Whites and Reds"

Stephen V. Bittner is Professor of History at Sonoma State University. He is the author of The Many Lives of Khrushchev's Thaw: Experience and Memory in Moscow's Arbat and the editor of Dmitrii Shepilov's memoir, The Kremlin's Scholar: A Memoir of Soviet Politics under Stalin and Khrushchev.

Bittner applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Whites and Reds: A History of Wine in the Lands of Tsar and Commissar, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Falsified wines were so ubiquitous in the monopoly marketplace that there were widely disseminated recipes for them. Some bore more than a passing resemblance to Venedikt Erofeev’s famously drunken directions, a century later, for concocting ‘Canaan Balsam’ and ‘Tear of a Komsomol Girl.’ An 1885 guidebook to winemaking and distilling described, without irony or shame, how to create various ‘Russian wine treasures,’ including a sherry that bore no compositional resemblance to anything that was made in Jerez, and a M├ílaga Alicante that comprised a mixture of communion wine, rum, a cypress-flavored liquor, prunes, Chinese cinnamon, and the seeds of a marshmallow plant, among other things.
My book passed the page 99 test! The test turned up a passage that illustrates the central dilemma confronting ambitious tsarist- and Soviet-era winemakers. By the late 1800s, vintners in Bessarabia (present-day Moldova), southern Ukraine, the Caucasus, and especially on the southern shore of Crimea had become quite good at making fine wine in the European fashion. A sparkling wine from Crimea’s Novyi svet winery even won the grand prix at a competition in Bordeaux that coincided with the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. That event remains, to this day, the unquestioned acme of Russian and Soviet winemaking. Yet Russian consumers tended to prefer something different: concoctions fortified with sugar and grain alcohol that licensed wine merchants—who enjoyed a monopoly on wine sales—blended in their cellars. This was at the root of a “crisis in winemaking” that bedeviled the fledgling Russian wine industry in the years before war and revolution decimated the empire’s vinicultural territories.

Despite Stalin’s 1936 embrace of champagne as part of the good life of socialism, and despite growing popular interest in Georgian foodways, in which wine was a central component, the Russian palate for wine proved very hard to reform. Even in the 1970s, the vast majority of wine sold to Soviet consumers went by the slang bormotukha—something makes one mumble. Like the falsified wines of the tsarist era, bormotukha was sweetened with beet sugar and strengthened with grain distillate to about 19-20 percent alcohol by volume. It was never as dangerous to life and sobriety as Erofeev’s “Canaan Balsam” (which was a blend of ethanol, furniture polish, and beer). Nonetheless, many Soviet-era vintners, who were knowledgable about wine economies and cultures elsewhere in Europe, saw bormotukha’s enduring appeal as a failure of acculturation. Soviet wine drinkers deserved better, even if they did not know it.
Learn more about Whites and Reds at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue