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Love by the Glass

Tasting Notes From A Marriage

By Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher

Villard New York, 320 pp, 2002, $24.95

Messages in Bottles

Book cover

Book cover

By Carter B. Horsley

This is an absolutely delicious book by two fine journalists for The Wall Street Journal that share "passion for life, for each other, for journalism, and for the romance and adventure of wine not so much the liquid in the bottle as the history and the memories."

The authors, Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, write a weekly column on wine, called "Tastings," that appears every Friday in The Wall Street Journal.

Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher

Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, photo by Mary Lou Foy

Before launching their wine column, he was the Page One editor of The Wall Street Journal and and formerly worked for Newsweek and The Miami Herald, and she was a national reporter covering race relations at The Wall Street Journal and was formerly a reporter for The New York Times (where I knew her as a very charming colleague) where one of her non-byline stories about hunger and the elderly led to the creation of the CityMeals on Wheels program. Before joining The Times, she had also worked for The Miami Herald.

When started the column they admit they "weren't sure that this was an appropriate job for people who had dedicated their lives to hard-nosed journalism," but they concede, after getting into it that "we're those rare journalists who have nothing to complain about."

While the book's commentaries on specific wines, ranging from Andrť Cold Duck to Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1968 to Chateau d'Yquiem 1970 to Heinrich Braun Niersteiner Pettenthal 1976 Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese to Sausal Winery 1980 Zinfandel from California, are very satisfying, informative and written in an easy-to-comprehend style, the commentaries are organized around important moments and events in their lives and provide wonderful insight into the newsrooms of the world's most powerful and important newspapers and into the careers of two bright, sensitive and very intelligent journalists over the last generation.

Much of the story takes place in Florida and New York, but also in California and France.

In the early 1980s, they went to London and on the advice of friends went to the Tate Gallery for its great wines. "Here was the most extraordinary collection of Bordeaux wines we'd ever seen, the prices were shockingly reasonable.We settled on a Chateau Baret from Graves. It was from the great 1959 vintage we'd never even imagined drinking a '59 and it was $26.22. Here are our contemporaneous notes: `Very dark, but with a light nose with a hint of decay. Very light taste, very delicate with touch of vinegar, but with air in mouth, much bigger, fruitier. Surprisingly long, red delicate finish. Needs some air. Opening up. More fruit. Round and soft and very fine, very feminine. Long, light-fruit finish. Really tastes like old claret. Bigger with every sip. After 30 minutes, actually pretty big, with lots of fruit, big and dark red in mouth. Taste is mostly in back of mouth and in finish, very big and red and fruity. After 1 hour, another change: deeper, darker, browner, not as aggressively fruity and really tasting older.' Right there, at the Tate Gallery, over the period of an hour, we had witnessed the entire life cycle of a fine old claret. It was one of the most remarkable experiences we'd ever had." They had another bottle, a Chateau Pichon-Lalande from 1964, and admitted that they "never saw the art."

The couple had read once that the French have a custom of touching Champagne to the lips of their new-born, which they did with their first daughter, Media, in Miami. At Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York for the birth of ZoŽ, the couple's second child, the hospital staff was not "terribly pleasant in general, and certainly not about this." "When we asked the head nurse if it would be okay for John to take a bottle of Champagne into the delivery room so we could touch it to ZoŽ's lips, she said, `I wouldn't recommend it,' as though we were suggesting pouring the entire bottle down ZoŽ's little throat with a funnel." John managed to smuggle a half-bottle of Taittinger into the delivery room and touched a drop of the Champagne to her lips.

When she started working at The Miami Herald in 1973, she was introduced to John Brecher and told he had been editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator, which "has cult status among college newspapers." "Standing before me was it most recent editor. And, God, was he handsome. What's a girl to do? I raised my hands over my head and bowed three times. `Salami, Salami, Baloney!' I said. We laughed and I looked into those eyes again. It was as though I was looking into myself. I felt in my bones like I had known him forever. And there was another thing: When we shook hands, my palms were dry."

John grew up in New York but moved with his parents to Jacksonville, Fla., where he went to elementary school "just on the edge of a black area `Colored Town,' white people called it but the black kids were bused to a school far away. I never went to school with a black person until my senior year in high school, when a single black boy entered the school of two thousand. He seemed pleasant enough, but I never spoke to him. I remember that his last name was white."

He got accepted at Columbia University at "the high point of the sexual revolution, but I didn't know it at the time." "I was shy and didn't know anything at all about women except what my mother had told me, which was basically this: Stay away from the wild ones. And stay away from the quiet ones, because they're the wildest of all. I spent all of my time at the newspaper, and rarely had a date. But when I did, I knew this: Take Mateus. If you really want to get lucky, take two bottles of Mateus. If the relationship ever gets serious, take Lancers."

When John decided in 1978 to propose to Dorothy, he started to open a bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne Vintage 1974, but he could not get the cork out: "I took the beautiful gold metal off the neck of the bottle, then the wire basket. Dottie waited quietly, with anticipation, looking even more beatific and beautiful than usual. I twisted the bottle and nothing. The cork didn't budge. I tried again. I twisted until I was starting to sweat. It's a sign, I thought, but I kept trying anyway. I was not going to propose until that goddamn bottle popped out."

"This was proof that John was dying," she recalled, noting that he had pneumonia. "He could pop a Champagne cork in his sleep. But he'd grown quite pale over the past week, which, for him, was quite an accomplishment. Back then, John was one of the whitest people even white people had seen. He rarely left the newsroom and he wasn't all that fond of the sun anyway. Now, as he fought that cork, he was pale and clammy."

His travails with the cork were interrupted by a phone call from his father who immediately told him to "Use pliers." John went to get pliers and they worked. "When the cork finally came out, it was a monster, a massive piece of tree bark that looked like a beach umbrella," John recalled, and he then asked "Dottie" if she would marry him. She would, she wrote, and he took the cork to a plastic factory where it was encased in a see-through block of plastic along with an etched Dottie face.

The authors have some advice for wine drinkers:

"We've always believed that wine is a lot tougher than people give it credit for. One reason people don't keep any wine around the house is that they're sure it will immediately turn to vinegar if not kept in pristine conditions. Hogwash! Storage matters, of course. Any good wine will age more gracefully in a great cellar, while leaving wine on a radiator will ruin it. But there's a whole world of conditions between those two extremes, and we've tasted wine after wine that `should' have been over the hill and was still excellent."

Should wine drinkers let their wines "breathe" by opening them some time in advance of when they are to be consumed?

"We always so no, because we enjoy tasting the whole life cycle of a wine, and you can never be sure whether a wine will lose its most intense fruit immediately after it's opened."

Can praise from critics guarantee that a wine will be good?

"We often tell people that there are no guarantees in wine. Even if you buy a bottle that as been widely praised by wine writers, there's no telling if you will like it. We also always say that the only way to learn anything about wine is to take chances, especially in restaurants, which often offer wines that you can't find anywhere else."

What about the importance of vintages?

"No one cared much about vintages when we first started drinking wine. Now people are obsessed with them. We always say it's not really something to worry about, that there are so many variables that it's impossible to say anything definitive about every wine from a certain vintage."

Readers of this article might assume from the above quotations that the authors of this book are perhaps rather casual in their approach, but such an assumption is wrong and they authors clearly have had great and very broad "tasting" experience and, more importantly, clearly have great and sophisticated palettes and, equally important, the intelligence with which to describe their experiences clearly.

John had hired Joanne Lipman to be one of his Page One editors and eventually she became the "weekend" section editor and she asked if he and Dorothy would write a wine column.

"Sure, sure, we said, because we were convinced it never would get off the ground and, in any case, it seemed inconceivable to us that we would write a wine column. We'd never written a word about wine, except in our journals, and we really didn't want to. This might seem odd now, but we never talked that much about wine with other people, except our tasting companions. We talked sometimes about wine experiences visits to wine country, getting lost in Italy, great meals but we rarely talked about wine in a vacuum, as a discrete thing, because, frankly, that bored us. We've never been interested in talking about the latest vintage in Bordeaux, or whether too many wines are subject to malolactic fermentation, or whether the Santa Barbara area can grow fine wine. Wine, to us, was always just part of another story. Not only that, but it was a highly personal thing, an intimate pleasure."

The first few columns they wrote for the "weekend" section did not thrill Lipman who told the authors that "all I want to know is what wine to pick up for dinner on the way home tonight." "That was it. That was the key. Most of the wine bought in America we've heard estimates of 70 to more than 90 percent is drunk within twenty-four hours of purchase," the authors wrote.

Writing about wine required a lot more tasting and the authors quickly discovered that they could not drink every bottle they opened. "on January 31, 1998, we did the unthinkable. We poured eight bottles of wine down the sink. John did it while Dottie, unable to watch, left the room. Dottie isn't squeamish about anything. She's the bone who picks up after the dog and kills the bugs and once picked up a dead mouse in our house in Coral Gables. But to this day, she cannot watch John pour out the wine."

The authors recount seeing an advertisement for a wine store that claimed to have bought the wine cellar of Martin Ray, who, they wrote, was "the curmudgeon who, way back in the early sixties, believed that California could make great wine." One of the advertised wines was a 1962 Pinot Noir for $29.95 a bottle, "probably less than Martin Ray charged for it when it was released. The wine was not well acclaimed when it first came out. The authors decided to buy a case and waited three weeks for it "to calm down."

When they opened a bottled and tried it, they made the following observations:

"It's gorgeous. Rich Pinot nose. Sweet with fruit, almost aggressively sweet with just a hint of oak. Classy, with big fruit. Very Pinot, very much like a fine Burgundy. Remarkably, not even a hint of age. Ready to drink, but not a hint of overage. Spectacular. Equivalent of a terrific old Burgundy."

The authors note in the book that "Martin Ray had been vilified during his lifetime for his arrogance, his vision, and even his prices," adding that "But as we drank this wine, we got increasingly giddy, and not because of the alcohol." "Way back," they continued, "Martin Ray was making the greatest wines in California. It's just that they wouldn't really be ready to drink for thirty years. He knew it, and nobody believed him."

The Wall Street Journal won eight Pulitzer Prizes for Page One stories while John was the Page One editor and Dorothy was nominated by the newspaper for two Pulitzers.

This is a very romantic book by and about two very sensitive and very intelligent people:

"wine at dinner makes us slow down, and when we slow down, we really talk and listen to each other and we really look at each other, and in that way we get re-connected to the things that we love about each other. And having reached this sweet spot, wine encourages us to linger there, to sip this sweet life, instead of gulping it."

The next time you are a dinner guest, don't bring a bottle of wine, bring your hosts a copy of this really fine, very enjoyable and truly touching book.

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