Q. Mr. Buckley, you were overheard at the Hillsdale College lunch preceding the inauguration of the new president, Larry Arnn, to remark that this would be the first time in forty-five years you had lunch without a glass of wine. Is that true?
A. Well, it’s true that I said it. Not true that it was in fact the first time in forty-five years. It was maybe the third or fourth.
Q. Stop teasing.
A. You’re right to be impatient. What I suppose I was doing was informally registering my opinion (I’m sorry I was overheard) that cosmopolitan lunches ought to offer wine. I should say this, that I remember ruefully my very first visit to Hillsdale. It was ages before the George Roche era and the gentleman in charge of the college was a teetotaler who imposed his discipline—his taboo—on the entire college.
Q. That must have been hard on visiting lecturers.
A. Oh yes, very hard. What they—we—did in such circumstances is accept an invitation, almost always extended, from a compassionate conservative on the faculty who senses the pre-lecture privation, and serves you a glass of wine.
Q. Are you unaware of the dangers of addictive drinking?
A. Certainly not. Three of my siblings were alcoholics. But my sense of the situation is that to deny visitors a glass of wine is to lay down policy based on the addictive propensities of individual members of the community, and I judge it wrong to make policy on this matter a posteriori.
Q. But you have to acknowledge that serving wine, e.g., to 200 people, is a burden?
A. Serving lunch to 200 people is a burden. But hosts reasonably ask themselves whether the pleasure of a glass of wine compensates for the trouble in making it available.
Q. Why should a glass of wine make all that much difference to the diner?
A. Why is wine pleasurable? A good subject for research. Meanwhile, the idea is to make wine available, not to force guests to drink it. If you survey table activity in a cosmopolitan restaurant, whether at midday or in the evening, you will note that acting on their own impulses, somewhere between one-half and two-thirds of diners will ask for wine.
There are two pressures to moderation. The one is knowledge of what happens to you when you drink too many glasses of wine. That knowledge should be tucked away when you are about 21. The second moderating pressure is economic—wine can be, though it is not necessarily, costly. It being the design of hosts to accommodate their guests, the guests’ inclinations, when acting on their own in a restaurant, should govern, which is a reason for serving wine.
Q. What does wine do for you—
A. —and what does the absence of wine do to you?
Q. Well yes, I was going to add that.
A. People who are accustomed to a glass of wine with their meals believe (I certainly do) that it enhances the pleasure of the eating experience. Meat and potatoes taste better, bread tastes better, cheese tastes better, plus also—
Q. Yes, the improvement in the taste of food to one side—
A. —a glass of wine animates most people. The food is better, but also the inclination to enter into convivial relationships—
Q. I note the word, convivial—
A. —I was hoping that you would. Festive, full-of-life. One can preach that one ought not to be dependent on wine in order to be expansive and sociable, and that preachment is so true as to be offensive when put forward. The question before the house is: When dealing with experienced people, they are the best judges of whether the wine accelerates good humor. They may not (a) need wine to be expansive, (b) be affected in any way by it, (c) welcome its consumption by others. But that oughtn’t to affect the question whether it is offered.
Q. You mentioned that wine can be costly—
A. Yes, but need not be, sub specie aeternitatis. I have since childhood (my father was a connoisseur) tasted and stocked wine and I observe strict rules of frugality. Make that near-frugality. It is as easy as tasting a half-dozen of what the supplier has on hand, in red and white. What matters is ascertaining that the supplier has deep inventories. There is no point in discovering a nice Zinfandel and learning that there are only two remaining bottles in the warehouse. You shouldn’t have to pay more that $10 for a perfectly good bottle of wine.
A. friend who is in the business advises me that statistics establish that at parties (which is different from college lunches, different on the extravagant side), you can assume one-fifth of a bottle per person. That’s just under two glasses, which amounts to an out-of-pocket cost to the hosts of two dollars. Given that caterers these days charge about $35 per person, we are talking about a very small additional increase.
Q. Is there, then, a utilitarian reason at such events as Hillsdale’s to offer wine?
A. Clearly that is so. Guests who are animated also tend to be expansive in ways other than conversation with guests seated to the left and to the right. The guest who had earmarked in his/her mind a gift of $10,000, might, the spirit buoyed, reconsider to make that $15,000.
Q. I hope you are not suggesting that wine be served as a catalytic agent—
A. No no, I am not suggesting that it be served with that motive in mind. I am remarking very simply that the fruit of the grape can induce the fruit of benefaction, and who’s opposed to that? Not the Claremont Review of Books, I’d hope.
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With your next lunch, try one of the following wines recommended by WFB. Each is widely available and may be purchased retail for around $10 a bottle or less:
- 1998 Domaine Landrat-Guyollot Pouilly-Fume La Rambarde, Loire Valley, France. A flinty Sauvignon Blanc from a well-regarded producer, the Domaine Landrat-Guyollot, whose ownership has descended matrilineally for ten generations. The proprietary name La Rambarde refers to the flat-bottomed boat once used to float wines down the Seine River to Paris.
- 1998 Rancho Zabaco Heritage Vine Zinfandel, Sonoma County, California. Named for one of the original Mexican land grants in what is now Sonoma County, Rancho Zabaco produces several different Zinfandels. The grapes for this bottling come from the Dry Creek Valley, a classic source for bold, full-bodied, not-for-the-faint-of-heart red wines.
- Rosenblum Cellars Zinfandel, Vintners Cuvee MM, California. Rosenblum Cellars is one of California’s finest and most varied producers of Zinfandels and other sturdy reds. The Vintners Cuvee MM is a polished wine incorporating some of the state’s best coastal, inland, mountain, and valley fruit (not necessarily from the same vintage). This bottling’s lovely raspberry and cherry flavors reflect the blend of 84% Zinfandel grapes from Paso Robles, Napa, and Mendocino, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa County, and 6% Mouvedre from Contra Costa County.