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The Tribune’s Ruth Ellen Church Was Ahead of America on Wine

The veteran food editor launched the nation’s first newspaper column on wine, bringing an admirably democratic and curious taste to the burgeoning industry.

Ruth Ellen Church on the back of her book Mary Meade’s Magic Recipes for the Electric Blender.   Photo: eBay

With Chicago publishing its 50 Best Restaurants special issue, I’ve been thinking a bit about when the city escaped the thudding cliches of deep-dish and steak to become an accepted fine-dining destination across the world. I asked our dining editor, Carrie Schedler, when this happened. “Charlie Trotter,” she told me. Which, yeah, basically.

But there are fits and starts of sophistication, some almost lost to history. One of those is the work of Ruth Ellen Church. She was the cooking editor at the Tribune for 38 years, a graduate of the University of Iowa in both journalism and home economics, who would go on to become one of the most influential food editors in the country. And a quarter-century into her tenure, she launched a first: the column “Let’s Learn About Wines.” It debuted on February 16, 1962, the first major newspaper wine column. “It is difficult to appreciate how unique the Tribune and Church were five-plus decades ago,” writes Tom Acitelli, author of three books on American booze.

Consider how the New York Times memorialized Frank J. Prial, author of its “Wine Talk” column, which launched a decade later:

“Frank J. Prial, whose Wine Talk column in The New York Times introduced many Americans to the world of wine in the 1970s, when a new passion for fine food and drink was taking hold in the country…. But when he began writing it in 1972, the United States had only just embarked on a food and wine revolution…. Consumer publications like Wine Spectator and Robert M. Parker Jr.’s Wine Advocate had yet to appear, however, so it fell to Mr. Prial and other newspaper columnists to introduce readers to the pleasures….”

Prial himself wrote that “the American wine revolution really dates from the late 1960s,” adding that winemakers of the time “had seen the trend coming much earlier and had been making fine wines long before there were any people interested in drinking them.” Church, whose column debuted five years before Californians started making more table wine than fortified wine, took notice.

Her first column, granted, was “So You’d Like to Know Wines! It’s Really Simple; Let’s Start with Sherry.” She introduced it as “a fortified wine, which means that its alcoholic content has been boosted with brandy and that it will keep well. Sturdy, all-purpose sherry will not turn to vinegar if you don’t drink it all at once, and wine experts say that if you want to smoke a cigaret and sip sherry at the same time, you are not committing a crime.”

So a gentle start in a country still dominated by the type. The second column continued in the same vein: five classes of wine (appetizer, white, red, table, dessert, and sparkling) with pronunciations (“ro-zay,” “pea-no nwar"). But the second sentence reads “Our country’s developing wine industry produces many excellent wines, worth knowing better.”

By her third column, on sauternes, Church was already suggesting taste tests between French and California wines (as well as explaining the muddy use of the word as applied to them at the time). Column four hit rosé, and it could be written today:

Only a few years ago, rose wine was little known here. But something happened; rose caught on, and is now fantastically popular. Why shouldn’t it be?

[snip]

Rose is sometimes said to be a feminine wine. But it is heady enough to appeal to men, too. There is nothing sissy about it.

This typifies Church’s approach: democratic, curious, unfussy, conscious of connoisseurs but not beholden to them. (Church would even guide newbies away from wine books if she thought they were too expensive.) Her July 10, 1964 column was titled “Ice in Wine? Sure, If You Wish It":

Ever hear of a wine cooler, or wine and seltzer?  Light white wines often are served as long drinks in summer, with sparkling water or one of the lemon or lime flavored carbonated beverages—and ice cubes! The wine professionals warn us that over-chilling a good wine is bad because it stifles flavor and kills aroma. So we won’t choose the best wines to serve full of ice. There are plenty of light, dry California and imported wines that are inexpensive but pleasant. Rhine wine is a good choice, and I wouldn’t pay more than $1.49 a bottle [about $12 today] if I were you.

Church was, sensibly, a fan of California wines, regularly mentioning the vital role of the University of California-Davis, which is to the state’s wine industry what Stanford is to Silicon Valley; in 1963 she wrote that “wine growers from many European countries are coming to our shores in increasing numbers to see our vineyards and talk with our leading technologists. They are even carrying back with them new ideas from some of our educational institutions, notably the University of California at Davis, where the science of vine growing and wine making is being developed to a degree which fascinates the entire world.”

But she also sampled and (modestly) praised Ozark wines; followed the attempt of Bernard Ramey to make champagne in Monee, which was apparently a budding success until his crop was wiped out by the airborne weed killer 2-4D; tracked down the “bull’s blood” wine of Eger in Hungary, and led a 1968 column about international wines with suggestions from Bulgaria, Hungary, and Yugoslavia—"in many instances a better bottle of the same type is available from California, but it is great fun to taste and compare.”

Church even took an Anthony Bourdain-like tour of Europe in 1967, “What’s Cooking in Europe,” where she ate at the dinner tables of hosts in Lancashire, Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Vienna, Budapest, Brittany, Dublin, and Athens, bringing back recipes, praising Dutch Indonesian restaurants, and sampling the Greek wine retsina, which picks up a piney taste from resin used to seal bottles and gives it a ferociously Malört-like reputation. “Greeks developed a liking for the flavor; many Greeks still enjoy this kind of wine,” Church wrote. “I have never been able to tolerate even a teaspoon, so I was happy to find many others. The Greek white wines were particularly good.”

She also picked up early on another trend in the wine world: in 1974, she devoted a column to the presence of women in the industry, profiling Mary Ann Graf, the first female UC-Davis grad in viticulture and enology, the year after she came to fame as Simi Winery’s winemaker. Church also met with Zelma Long, then the chief enologist at Robert Mondavi Winery and later Simi’s CEO.

Church kept her column up another four years, staying both detailed and democratic to the end of her career. One of her final columns detailed a fight over vinifera versus hybrid grapes, the purity of Old World fine-wine grapes pitted against new lines concocted to better survive in America, and attempts by proponents of both to make them work in the East—a region to which she also devoted a 1978 column, making picks from wineries in Ontario, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. Two years after the Judgment of Paris finally established the reputation of California wines, Church was looking out for the next frontier.

And 15 years into her thorough chronicling of the wine world, she had not begun to put on airs. “The most comprehensive tasting of red everyday wines that I know about was held recently at a suburban Chicago wineshop. I think that readers may be interested in the results of a mass tasting of more than 90 ‘jug’ wines.” Robert Mondavi’s Red Table Wine was the only “excellent” pick, but Franzia Barberone—at $3 for a half gallon, or about $12.50 today—was rated a best buy.

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