IF ONE starts with the premise that what takes the fear out of wine is good -- and there are few better premises -- Ernest G. Mittelberger is a good man, indeed. Mittelberger is a gentle but enthusiastic man who, as director of the Wine Museum of San Francisco, has published "In Celebration of Wine and Life -- The Fascinating Story of Wine and Civilization."
The book commences with an appropriate appreciation of wine's modest virtues -- "Wine improves the dispostion, restores the spirit, dispels sorrow, generates laughter, overcomes timidity" and then some.
The volume gives much basic information about wine, what it is and where it originates. It does so through a well-written text, accompanied and enlivened by plates of hundreds of drawings, photographs, cartoons, pictures of statues, prints and other illustrations. After looking at a dozen or so Daumier drawings of leering satyrs, it is easier to lift a glass of wine in song without worrying whether it's the correct vintage.
Fully half the volume (which sells for $20 in hardcover and $9.95 in soft cover) consists of illustrations, many full page, several in color and all well done. The balance is well-written prose that ranges from the early history of wine, from the Greeks and the Apostles, to the present. The cult of Dionysius (or Bacchus), the god of wine, with its rich folklore and richer art, is the subject of 20 pages. There is a lucid discussion of grape varieties, growing conditions and production, along with their contribution to the ultimate product. For the nostalgic, Mittelberger reviews the economics of the legendary Hungarian Count Haraszthy who in 1856 planted the Buena Vista vineyard in Sonoma -- 68,000 rooted vines cost $170, or one-quarter cent each. While the emphasis is on California wines, the European experience is not ignored.
Mittelberger does not try to hide his bias in favor of California and in favor of the products of modern technology. Few would quarrel with his suggestion that ancient viticulture, which, he says, could easily have inspired the motto "In God We Trust" for all the expertise that was available, produced an inferior product. Some, however, may challenge his praise of the results of cross-breeding and certain blends or his statement that "practically no bad wine is produced in the United States today." But even if one may disagree with Mittelberger's point of view, it does not detract from the book because of his openness, contagious enthusiasm and obvious learning.
Sitting at the Prime Rib Restaurant on K Street and explaining in a voice containing a trace of a Bavarian accent, Mittelberger related how he found himself, a half dozen years ago and in his 60s, the head of a wine museum. The son of a Munich wine importer who was also the president of a Cognac distillery, Mittelberger can trace his involvement in wines for a half-century or more. His interest in museums dates almost as far back, but is certainly more oblique. Physically excluded from daily choir practice because of his horrendous singing voice, he found solace in a museum across the street.
In the '30s, after studying at a French school in Switzerland, he emigrated to the United States, away from Hitler. Completing a stint as an intelligence officer with the American Army in Europe during World War II, he decided he wanted nothing more to do with Europe or wine. He attended the New School for Social Research, majoring in public relations, and promptly took a job with the Paul Masson wine company.
After more than two decades with Paul Masson and then his own wine consulting firm, which included being one of the founders in 1958 of Music at the Vineyards in California (and which required no musical participation on his part), Mittelberger reunited his early interests of wine and museums.
Like his book, the museum is organized by subject matter, such as the Harvest, the Vintner and Wine Goes to Market. The collection is that of Christian Brothers and Fromm & Sichel, the distributors of Christian Brothers wines for over 40 years. "Collecting the wine objects was easier in those days," Mittelberger notes. The theme of the book, like the theme of the museum, is to communicate the fact that there is more to wine than just to drink it. Wine is part of history and art.
Pausing to heap extravagant praise on his introduction to Maryland crab cakes, with which he consumed his first bottle of Raymond Chardonnay from The Prime Rib's find California wine list, he explained that the book is directed at the fairly well educated man and woman, in a city like St. Louis or Washington, who with a few friends are cooking a nice gourmet dinner to be accompanied by a complement of wines. Normally, if the assemblage talks about wines they talk about numbers -- vintage years. "There is nothing so boring," he exclaims. "Why not talk about the history of wine, the mystery of fermentation?"
As director of a wine museum, Mittelberger has to answer many questions. He is frequently put on the spot, asked, for example, to compare American wines with foreign ones. On his keenness for California wines, he says, "Of 8 billion gallons of wine produced in the world, less than 5 percent are premium," adding, "I've never had a glass of bad California wine." He has, however, had glasses of very bland California wine. He notes that while the French are very proud of the Appellation Controllee laws, they apply to only 21 percent of French wines. Similar Italian laws apply to only 10 percent. U.S. laws apply to 100 percent.
Mittelberger feels there is too much emphasis on the horse and buggy days. He fervently believes that wine today is far better than ever. He admires new technology and contends, for example, that fermentation in large tanks can produce results similar to the Methode Champenoise, providing good grapes are used.
For a man with one foot in the past, Mittelberger is optimistic for the future of wine and wine and art. He expects that wine will be better related to art and history. Also, wine will continue to improve as technology improves. He is an optimist in believing that wine prices will increase at a slower rate than inflation. He points to the fact that Christian Brothers Claret, in 40 years, increased from 90 cents to only $2.50 or $3. "Outside of the telephone, what other commodity has been so little affected by inflation?" he asks.
Mittelberger is very excited about and proud of his museum. He notes that more and more foreigners visit it. Foreign entries in the guest book have jumped from 5 percent to 20 percent in 6 years. He notes with pride that his museum stresses art and history, not the production of wine like many others.
But he is quick to concede that the Wine Museum of San Francisco is not unique. The museum of Baron Philippe de Rothschild at Mouton-Rothschild also has a considerable amount of art, he notes charitably. But, he adds, "That museum is not open to the public. It is not to promote the wine but," he confides, "to show off."