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Best Books For A Transformative New Year

This holiday season, as we stand at the brink of a new administration, there's a thrill of history in the air. These books will help anyone, whatever his or her politics, understand what the nation has come though to reach this moment.



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Other segments from the episode on December 8, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 8, 2008: Interview with Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher; Review of holiday books.


Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
'Tastings' Columnists On What To Drink Now


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. If you're thinking about what wine to drink or give as gifts for the holidays and you're worried about finding something good at an affordable price - and by that, I mean cheap - help is on the way. My guests, Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, write the Tastings column for the Wall Street Journal and are the authors of several books about wine, including a memoir called "Love by the Glass," describing how wine has figured into key moments of their lives. They've been married 28 years and have written their wine column since 1998.

John Brecher is a former page one editor of the Wall Street Journal. Dorothy Gaiter is a former national reporter and editor at the Journal. She covered issues of race.

Dorothy Gaiter, John Brecher, welcome to Fresh Air. So, let's start talking about wine on a budget. These are tough times. Is there a price below which wine is likely to be really bad? I mean, is there...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Even if you're on a tight budget, should you not even think about wine to cost less than a certain amount per bottle?

Ms. DOROTHY GAITER (Columnist, Tastings, Wall Street Journal; Co-author, "Love by the Glass"): We'll try anything once, and I don't think we've found anything in the past decade under $4 that we liked.

GROSS: Four dollars?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHN BRECHER (Columnist, Tastings, Wall Street Journal; Co-author, "Love by the Glass"): That said, there are an amazing number of wines today under $10 that are not just OK, not just drinkable, but are affirmatively good.

GROSS: Really? Name a couple.

Mr. BRECHER: Chile. Think Chile. The Sauvignon Blancs from Chile are generally under $10. So are many of the Cabernet Sauvignons. And not just Chile. Argentina is producing wines sometimes under $10. And there continue to be, as they were in our youth, some terrific Italian reds, like Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, that cost less than $10 that really can be terrific. Doesn't mean they always will be, but they can be.

GROSS: I'm not sure I've ever had wine from Chile.

Ms. GAITER: You must because they're consistently well made and reasonably priced. And you really can't get hurt. You can just walk into the Chile aisle and close your eyes and pick up a bottle and you'll be fine. It's amazing the values. This is a great time to be alive and to be a wine lover because these imports are coming in, and everyone's trying to get a market to hold here. So there's a wide variety and the prices are really great.

GROSS: My rule of thumb is that you usually can't go wrong with a Cabernet or a Pinot Grigio. Is that true?

Mr. BRECHER: We...

Ms. GAITER: Well...

Mr. BRECHER: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You're hedging.

Mr. BRECHER: We have basically found on the whole that the better-known varieties, as they become better known, become less good values so that Cabernet, which, obviously, we loved in our youth, especially from the U.S., is just not as consistently good as it once was, and the same thing with Pinot Grigio, although there are certainly good examples of both. It's kind of the same thing as looking for unusual countries. If you look for less well-known varietals, you'll probably do better.

You know, for instance, one of the really hot wines right now is Malbec from Argentina. Just a few years ago, nobody had ever heard of Malbec. It's a grape that it virtually disappeared. Argentina really brought it back. You can walk into a store these days, go to the Argentina aisle, look for a Malbec - it's a red, spicy wine - and spend a surprisingly small amount of money for a surprisingly very good wine.

Ms. GAITER: And if you want white instead of your Pinot Grigio, Torrontes, also from Argentina. Just fruity, pleasant, delicious. And you can get it for under $12.


Ms. GAITER: Yeah.

GROSS: What went wrong with the Cabernet?

Mr. BRECHER: Too popular. Really, what happens when wines become really, really popular - and this has also happened to a certain extent with Pinot Noir in the past few years - is that when they become really popular, suddenly everybody is making them. They're making them, perhaps, from grapes that aren't fully ripe. Now, there's this thing called over-cropping where you basically just let the grapes grow and grow and grow and grow, and they get watery as opposed to cutting back so that you have fewer grapes. You can imagine, as a farmer, you don't want to cut back your crop but that's what makes grape taste good. That's what makes grapes really, like, full of fruit. And what happens with a lot of popular varietals is that there's such demand for them that people just basically make too much of it.

Ms. GAITER: We call some of them cynical wines.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GAITER: And we say, shame on the winery for putting these out. Sometimes we actually wonder, did they taste this before they put it out on the market because it has someone's name on it.

GROSS: You've had some really good suggestions for $10 a bottle and under. Let's splurge a little bit and say $20 a bottle. What kind of recommendations would you have for a good-tasting $20 bottle of wine?

Mr. BRECHER: Well, the world is kind of your oyster these days at $20. One thing to do is to continue to think outside your comfort zone. Right now, some of the best-made wines in the world are coming from the kind of countries that just 10 years ago you didn't buy wines from because they weren't here. South Africa and New Zealand. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is an absolute wonder, as is Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa, and not just Sauvignon Blanc. Countries like that, they're a little bit unknown. If you're willing to go up to around $20, you can have a wine with literally just the kind of quality and the kind of winemaking skill that you would expect in a wine that costs far more.

GROSS: I was thinking that you might say, stick with American wines because they're homegrown and you don't have the fees of, you know, round-the-world transportation and import fees and things like that. I'm not hearing you say that.

Ms. GAITER: Right. American winemakers have relied really probably too much on that kind of thinking. But actually, two-thirds of all wines that are bought in America were made in California still. So people are not bucking that trend, but we keep telling people, look outside of the country for value. There are a lot of people who are comfortable with American-made wines because they can pronounce the names. They're familiar. You know, you look at a German label and, oh, my goodness.


Ms. GAITER: They're getting better but people are afraid to appear silly and stupid in stores and to mispronounce the names of things. So if they're willing to try, they can find great bargains elsewhere.

Mr. BRECHER: And that's not to say there aren't some good California and American wines in general. We grew up on California wines. We have a tremendous affinity for them, and we know, as you can imagine, many, many winemakers. We have great warm feelings. But the problem is that at some point, California especially kind of generally lost the value battle to others.

There are still a lot of wineries out there who are showing the way. Bogle and Kundai(ph) and J. Lohr are names that you can look for where you can really count on finding a tasty wine at a very good price. And don't forget that it's not just California that is producing wines. All 50 states now have commercial wineries, and quite a few states produce some very, very nice wines. So our advice is kind of get out of your comfort zone of California and try other things.

GROSS: The problem is, say you're in, you know, the wine store, and you want to buy something new. You have nothing to go by outside of, like, the title because you can't taste it in the store. Will the label tell you anything that you should know?

Ms. GAITER: Well, more and more places, you actually can taste it in the store. Our advice is to go for a label you've never seen before. Really, it's that simple, and in that way we've tasted our way around the world. If it's familiar to you, then you need to try something else.

Mr. BRECHER: And plus, what we try to do in our column in the Wall Street Journal every week is speak exactly to what you just said. We don't think that people should have to go into a wine shop with a long list of specific wines of - OK, I've got to look for this label. I've got to avoid that label. What we think is that people should be able to go into a wine store and have a general idea that if I look for this aisle - generally, if I look for this aisle, I'm likely to get a tasty wine at a good value. That's what we do. We don't accept samples. We buy all of our wines off shelves just like regular people, and then we taste about 50 of any particular kind of wine so that we can give exactly that kind of advice.

Because if you are a friend of ours, and you said, what should I buy for dinner tonight? We probably wouldn't say to you, look for this particular label. We'd probably say, you know, an Argentine Malbec or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc would be good. And to us, that's the kind of general advice that you really need if you're going to walk into a wine a shop and have some confidence, and that's what people need and increasingly are getting, is confidence.

Ms. GAITER: And we've actually found that if you don't get out of your comfort zone in restaurants, they will punish you for it. If you look at how wines are priced on wine lists, the wine varieties that are familiar, those have the largest markup often.

GROSS: Is that true?

Mr. BRECHER: Yeah. I mean, if you go to a restaurant, one thing I always look at is the price of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio compared to just about anything else on the menu because it's so popular, it's so well-known, it's so easy to pronounce that the markup on it at just about every restaurant is unbelievable. We're always amazed to walk into a restaurant where we find really outstanding whites - Chablis from France or Muscoday(ph) from France - priced less than Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, and that's because people are comfortable with it. They know it. If you stay in your comfort zone, you'll be punished.

GROSS: Now let me ask you something else about the labels on wine. Say you're, you know, you're in the wine store, and you don't have the opportunity to taste it, but all you can do is read the labels. Is there an information on a wine label that's worth knowing besides the name?

Mr. BRECHER: Avoid animal labels.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Animal? What do you mean?

Mr. BRECHER: Avoid critter labels. That's number one. We actually...

GROSS: I don't even know what you mean.

Mr. BRECHER: We actually, you know, those animal labels took over the world a few years ago. We actually did a tasting of every wine we could find with an animal label and we called them beastly and foul.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRECHER: That's - so number one, avoid animal labels. And truly, number two, the vintage is important. You may not think vintage is important because you don't carry around a vintage chart. But the fact is is that almost every wine on shelves is meant to be drunk young and fresh, and so the vintage is important because you know if it's young and fresh from looking at the vintage right now on shelves. There are lots of 2008 wines from the Southern Hemisphere that are already available. But you know that you don't want to get, for instance, a Pinot Grigio from 2003. So vintage is one thing.

Ms. GAITER: And alcohol content, also. They've steadily climbed up the stratosphere. They are 16 percent, and those wines are not balanced, and you won't be able to pair them with food. They're just alcoholic bombshells. You want to look for something under 15, around 13, if you can.

GROSS: What about estate bottled? Is that something you should pay attention to?

Mr. BRECHER: Estate bottled can be important because it generally means - and there are always exceptions in everything when it comes to wine - but it generally means that the people who made the wine grew the grapes. A lot of winemakers feel that wine is really made in the field, and to some extent, we agree with that. And so by estate bottled it means that, you know, someone is in - was in charge.

Ms. GAITER: Reserve used to have a meaning. It was special. But now a lot of wineries just slap it on the label so that - that's not a reliable indicator of anything.

Mr. BRECHER: Yeah. And that's kind of the problem. The same thing with old vines. Old vines generally can produce better wine, but the problem is nobody has defined what old vines means, and the fact is if you and I started a winery tomorrow, we could put Old Vines. We could put Old Vines Reserve. We could put all sorts of stuff on there. It doesn't necessary mean something.

GROSS: Oh, I have another label question. When the label says, contains sulfides, do all wines have sulfides or is it just like some of the cheap wines that have sulfides?

Mr. BRECHER: All wines contain sulfide. It's a naturally occurring byproduct. Now for years, the U.S. required that labels in the U.S. say contain sulfides, whereas European countries didn't. And as a result, that's lead to this urban myth that European wines don't contain sulfides and American wines do, and that's simply not true.

But a really important thing to keep in mind. We get letters all the time from people who say, sulfides give me headaches so I need to avoid sulfides. There are many, many reasons why wine does give people headaches, but it's not sulfides.

GROSS: So what are sulfides and why are they in my wine?

Ms. GAITER: Sulfides are preservatives, and it's a good thing that they're in your wine because if your wine's been on the shelf for a while and it doesn't have added sulfide, you could end up with a skunky wine. You really need the sulfides to preserve the freshness of the fruit in that bottle.

GROSS: Good. So I can cross that off the list the things I have to worry about.

Ms. GAITER: Right. Now sulfides give a very small percentage of people asthma symptoms. But you find sulfides in dried fruit. You find it in nuts. It's sort of hard to avoid sulfides.

GROSS: So I see it's getting back on the list for some people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRECHER: But if - you know, one of the pleasures of having written our column for a decade is that we've gotten so many thousands of letters from people with questions. Probably one of our top three questions would be, how do I avoid wine headaches? It's a really big deal, and it's a legitimate deal. The problem is that the reason why wine causes headaches differs from person to person to person. It has to do with histamines and all sorts of stuff. There are some people who get headaches only from red wine. There are other people who only get headaches from German wine, and it truly is one of those things that as opposed to just giving up wine or giving up a type of wine, you really do need to talk to your doctor because it is highly personal.

Ms. GAITER: And we hear all the time, well, I had this wine in Spain and it didn't have sulfides and it didn't give me headaches. Why is that? And we say, you were on vacation in Spain. That's why you didn't get a headache.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher. They write the Tastings column about wine for the Wall Street Journal, and they are also the co-authors of several books, and they've been married for even more years than they've been writing about wine. Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, and they write about wine in their Tastings column in the Wall Street Journal. They've also authored several books about wine.

We talked a little bit about wine on a budget. How about champagne on a budget? Are there any kind of rules of thumb you can give? Let me start with the price again. Is there a price you wouldn't go beneath if you're buying champagne?

Mr. BECHER: Well, with champagne, once again, it's a fabulous time to be a wine drinker with an open mind because there are more good bubblies on shelves than ever. One thing to think of, Cava from Spain. Oh, my gosh. That is one of the greatest buys out there right now, generally for under $10. You know, good old Freshenade(ph) that we all grew up with. And there's another called Cristalino. Both of those are under $10. They're extremely tasty, and they're exactly the kind bubbly that you should keep in your refrigerator at all times to celebrate all sorts of wonderful things like the fact that you got home safely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GAITER: But you made a very important distinction.

GROSS: I'll remember that.

Ms. GAITER: John - John made a very important distinction. You asked about champagne, and champagne is only from the champagne region of France. Everything else is a sparkling wine.

GROSS: I see. OK.

Ms. GAITER: The French are very - they're very touchy about that. We like to talk about bubblies in general. You know, we can talk about the high end - but the Cava, John's right. Eight dollars. You can't beat that.

GROSS: So we have your permission to drink that stuff without feeling like we're - we're drinking Ripple or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GAITER: That's right. Absolutely. Absolutely.

Mr. BECHER: And sparkling wines go great with food. People think of sparkling wine as a celebratory beverage. In fact, 40 percent of all sparkling wine in America is sold in the last six weeks of the year, which is an amazing statistic because people primarily just think of it as something to celebrate with. And you should celebrate with it, but you should celebrate with it all year long for no reason at all.

GROSS: So say you want splurge and you want to buy, say, like a - this is splurging by some of our standards - you're going to get like a $30 bottle of champagne. What are some of the things to think about? Because I'm thinking about New Year's Eve here, and it is a night to splurge a little bit.

Ms. GAITER: You can get some great, non-vintage, mid-range champagnes, the real deal. You can get American sparklers, a Schramsberg, which is the wine that Nixon took to China.

Mr. BRECHER: And keep the name Heidsieck in mind at that price range. There are three different - real champagne is Heidsieck in the name. Heidsieck & Company, Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidseick. They're actually owned by different companies but they all have Heidsieck in the name. So many of us grew up with Piper Heidsieck. Remember good old Piper Heidsieck? Well, the fact it is it's still really good, really widely available and right within that price range.

GROSS: You're people who I could actually ask this question to. What is the difference between, say, a $30 bottle of champagne and a $150 bottle of champagne?

Ms. GAITER: Usually, the amount of care that it gets. The $130, that's in the prestige champagne range, and these are the champagnes that famous champagne houses make their reputation on. They often keep them for a minimum of 10 years and care for them and turn them every so often to make sure that the yeast is moving, that they get a tremendous amount of attention and care. The grapes could come from hilly, perfect land instead of the flat, valley land that produces more inferior grapes. There are all sorts of reasons, but usually it's care.

Mr. BRECHER: And in your mouth, the difference really is one of kind of depth and wisdom and complexity. Heaven knows, we all love sparkling wine and we all love champagne. It's just so much fun, and hopefully the bubbles are integral to the taste, and you have that kind of sense of fruit and chalk and nuttiness and maybe a little bit of mushroom. All that's accentuated in a very expensive champagne so that if you think of it not as an expensive champagne but as a very fine wine.

When the two us have champagne like that, often we have it in a regular wine glass because it's so complex. There are so many different layers from those 10 years that it's been sitting there.

That said, the question that you always have to ask yourself is would I like to have that $150 bottle of wine or would I like to have six bottles of less expensive bubbly, and there's something to be said for the six bottles of less expensive.

Ms. GAITER: Yeah. And you know, a lot of it's hype in marketing, and this year we found that the packaging was just over-the-top ridiculous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What are you thinking of?

Ms. GAITER: Oh. There was a Gosset that was in a round box that was about two feet tall, and it opened - first it unsnapped. Then it opened like the Red Sea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GAITER: And there was - there was the bottle of champagne. And we wondered, how much did the box cost? You know, it reminded us of getting our kids Christmas presents, and they would throw the present over their shoulders and then climb into the box and play with it. You know, the box is not the thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GAITER: But the packaging of these champagnes has just gotten more and more elaborate.

GROSS: Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher write the Tastings column for the Wall Street Journal and are the authors of several books about wine. They'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about wine and wine-related gifts for the holidays with Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher. They write the Tastings column for The Wall Street Journal and have co-written several books about wine, including the memoir, "Love by the Glass." They've been married 28 years.

When we left off, we were talking about champagne. What do you go with on New Year's Eve? What are your plans?

Mr. BRECHER: We always open up some very special bottle of champagne that we've had sitting around for a long time. You know, there is this debate among wine geeks about whether or not champagne ages well. The French believe that it does not and you should just drink it when it's released. The British love older champagne. We go with the British on this one. So we love older champagne. We just find that it gets a nuttiness and a real sophistication to it and a real romance to it that we just absolutely love.

So to celebrate New Year's, we almost always open up an older champagne and kind of think back on the year it was made. And we've been together since 1973, and there are very few wines we have that are older than that. That's really old.

Ms. GAITER: And we'll have it in these bowl glasses that are not the rave today. Everyone thinks that champagne should be in flutes and it is best in flutes, but when John proposed, he proposed with these beautiful, etched, bowl champagne glasses that had been a present to his parents on their wedding day. And that's what we use. They're supposedly patterned after Marie Antoinette's breast.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GAITER: They're beautiful and they're etched and the stem is hollow, and that's what we use.

GROSS: Why are flute glasses supposed to be better for champagne?

Ms. GAITER: They allow the bubbles to dissipate more gently.

MR. BRECHER: And they focus the taste and they focus the smells. After all, champagne smells so good. I mean, it has that unique, kind of lemon chalk bubble thing. It tickles your nose. Those great big bowls just allow the bubbles to dissipate and they allow the smell to dissipate and so that's why flutes are supposed to be better. But we're all about doing kind of what you enjoy most. And to so many people, the Marie Antoinette's breast glasses are just...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MR. BRECHER: Are just what it's all about. And that's great.

GROSS: You've mentioned in your columns the cheap wines that many of us drank when we were in college, like Blue Nun, and my gosh, when I read that I thought, I haven't thought about Blue Nun in a really long time. But I remember when I started first drinking wine it was like Blue Nun and Liebfraumilch. And what's that really fruity wine that's...

MR. BRECHER: Mateus? Take a trip down memory lane. Mateus and Lancers.

Ms. GAITER: Boone's Farm Apple Wine, I drank.

MR. BRECHER: Oh, yeah and...

Ms. GAITER: Boone's Farm Apple and Strawberry Wine.

MR. BRECHER: Andre Cold Duck.

Ms. GAITER: Right.

MR. BRECHER: Oh, my gosh, the classics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Do you ever go back and taste that and see if it's changed?

MR. BRECHER: Well, it's funny you should say that because yes, as a matter of fact, we did go back and retaste them, and we decided they must have just been much better when we first had them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MR. BRECHER: Because they're not very good now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GAITER: The very first wine we shared was Andre Cold Duck.

GROSS: Really?

MR. BRECHER: And you see, it worked.

GROSS: It worked.

Ms. GAITER: Yeah, it did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: In one of your columns you wrote with some resentment about that white wine is seen as the drink for people who are feminine or weak or liberal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: The wine has been, like, demonized. What do you think is behind that, especially after describing all these really good, very cheap wines that you think are available now?

Ms. GAITER: I think that tag sort of falls back on the early history of wine in this country, that winemakers shot themselves in the foot by passing it off as something that only the educated and sophisticated could appreciate. And for a long time, people didn't think that they were good enough to drink wine. And we keep saying, it's just a beverage. It has nothing to do with your ego or your status. It's just a beverage.

MR. BRECHER: Think about all those years when on the one hand, think about beer ads and how funny they were and kind of like lively and people would be kind of together and they'd be drinking beer and having a great time. And then, for wine, you'd have Orson Welles sitting there in a chair by himself saying, I will drink no wine before it's time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I mean, you know, that kind of summarizes what happened to poor old wine. But that has really changed. Americans are way more interested in wine today than ever before.

GROSS: I'm often in the position of ordering wine by the glass in a restaurant. Do you ever send wine back? I mean, I have, at times, had to send back a glass that tasted like a little vinegary and I thought, this just shouldn't be.

Ms. GAITER: When you order wine by the glass, you really are taking your life in your own hands.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GAITER: We actually have done columns about this. I've put a measuring cup in my purse, and we've actually gone to restaurants in New York and in Washington and ordered wines by the glass. And I'll take the measuring cup out and actually measure how much is in a glass. And you know, men don't want to see what women are doing under the table in their lap, you know, so I can always get away with it.

But for wine by the glass to be successful, it needs to be stored well after it's opened - the bottle. And you never know. Sometimes you see these great storage systems, and if you see that, you could rest assured that it should have a good quality. But we have sent back bottles. In one place, we've sent back two or three bottles because the white wine was actually brown.


MR. BRECHER: That's a bad sign.

GROSS: That can't be good.

MR. BRECHER: Yeah, and it's not something we do often. You know, in terms of sending wine back by the bottle, it really has to - the wine itself has to be flawed. It's not just that you don't like it. But I mean, wine by the glass really is chancy in so many places because they don't keep the bottles well after they open them. So you could be drinking a wine that was opened during the Clinton administration.

(Soundbite of laughter)

But one thing to keep in mind is that more and more good wineries are bottling wines in half bottles and more and more restaurants are offering wine in half bottles. So if you don't want to drink a whole bottle of wine, you really should at least take a look and see what the half-bottle list is. And on top of that, another terrific development in wine is that state after state after state is now passing wine doggy-bag laws. It used to be illegal in most states to take home an open bottle of wine that wasn't finished, but in most states now you can do it. There are all sorts of parts of that law that they'll have to put it in a tamper-proof bag so that it's clear that you haven't been drinking wine while you're driving and so on. But most states now have laws that you can order a bottle of wine, have one or two glasses and then take the rest home.

Ms. GAITER: And wines by the glass also tend to be very expensive.

GROSS: I know.

Ms. GAITER: Restaurants sometimes price them so that they pay for the bottle with that one glass.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. GAITER: So if you're a table of three or even two, it might be better to just buy the bottle.

GROSS: You know, buying wine as a gift is very popular this time of year, but buying wine glasses is also a popular gift item too. What would you recommend one looks for in a wine glass?

Ms. GAITER: We love giving wine glasses for presents because people are afraid to break them generally, and we found that the bigger the better. We measured them, and we prefer all-purpose glasses. You can do special things for red and white but we use an everyday, all-purpose glass, and that glass has a big bowl. It's generous, and it holds about 22 ounces. And it's clear glass. It's not painted. It's not green, and it sort of curves in at the top very gently.

We once wrote that the glass should hold 22 ounces, and someone wrote back and said, really? You actually put that much in the glass? And we say, no, no, no. But we like to swirl, so you need the room to swirl.

MR. BRECHER: And keep in mind, with a glass, cheap really is better. I mean, there are so many inexpensive glasses that you can find today at Target, at Costco, at Ikea that fit all of the descriptions that Dotty just gave and that are inexpensive, and that's really key. How many people do you know who have these absolutely beautiful wine glasses that of course they never use because they're afraid to break them? The key to giving a really great wine-glass present is to give four or eight of these big, generous, lovely glasses and enclose a note that says, Use them. Break them, I'll give you more next year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's nice. If you're just joining us, my guests are Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher. They write the Tastings column about wine for The Wall Street Journal. Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, and they write about wine in their Tastings column in The Wall Street Journal. They've also authored several books about wine.

Now before you were writing your Tastings column together about wine, you had different positions at The Wall Street Journal. John, you were the page one editor. And Dotty, you wrote about race issues for The Wall Street Journal and you were nominated for two Pulitzers. And John, when you were page one editor, the paper won several Pulitzers for page-one stories. So does writing about wine ever seem either narrow or frivolous compared to the issues you were dealing with in your previous positions at The Wall Street Journal?

Ms. GAITER: You know, I had a difficult time when I first started writing about wine full time. We did both our serious jobs and our wine thing at the same time for two years, and we were so tired we were walking into walls. But I had written about race for 25 years, you know, and sitting out this past presidential election was really hard. But we like to think that we write about life, and we use wine as an organizing principle. And I'm black. John is white. We have two bi-racial kids who will look a lot like the kids in the White House pretty soon. And our column is run all over the world with our picture in Birmingham. I mean, how sweet is that for someone who used to write about race?

GROSS: Oh, I see you're saying, right.

Ms. GAITER: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, as you say, your readers know a lot about your lives, and one of the things your readers know is that when your daughters were born, you basically smuggled in bottles of champagne into the hospital and touched a little bit of champagne to the lips of each of your daughters. Why did you want to do that and what was the reaction of the nurses?

Ms. GAITER: Well, with the first baby, Media(ph), we had tried for five years to conceive her. So they were saying, you go right ahead and do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GAITER: She came five weeks early. She was healthy, and there was a sense of celebration. We had heard somewhere that that was a French custom, and sometime earlier, we went to our favorite wine store and we told our merchant friend that we needed a bottle to fit that bill and we were willing to pay quite a bit for it. And he said, wait right here. And he went in the back and he brought out this very special champagne that only two bottles of which had been imported into the state of Florida - only two bottles. And he gave it to us as a gift. And when Media emerged and she was screaming her head off, so they said, fine, her lungs are fine. John opened the bottle and touched a little bit to her lips.

Now, Zoe(ph) was born in New York City and they were a lot more uptight about it. And John told them what our intention was, and the nurse said, I wouldn't recommend that.

Mr. BRECHER: As Dotty said, we had heard that it was an old French tradition and the fact is we never checked it out because even if it's not, we wanted it to be. And in fact, when we wrote about it, we then heard from people in several countries who wrote to us to say, you know, it actually is a tradition in my country. And we're delighted to hear that because essentially what we wanted to do was wish them bon voyage.

GROSS: Now, Dotty, I know you've written about this. You have scoliosis and some pretty bad back problems. Are you occasionally on medication where you are not supposed to drink? And as a wine columnist and a wine lover, what do you do when you're in that situation?

Ms. GAITER: My doctors are very much aware of my need to work, and they try to prescribe things that are compatible.

GROSS: So that you can keep drinking.

Ms. GAITER: Yeah, yeah. And actually, we actually swallow a lot less than we did as non-combatants, you know, when we were rookies and not doing this professionally. We've gotten very methodical and we do a lot of smelling and tasting. I mean, really small amounts.

Mr. BRECHER: We taste six to 10 bottles a night, and really, trust me, when you see six or 10 bottles in front of you, it pretty much demands some serious moderation.

Ms. GAITER: And we really don't like the taste of alcohol. People have asked us, why don't you write about scotch, you know, and these things? And we think probably it's a good thing that we don't like the taste of alcohol, given what we do.

GROSS: Dotty, do you have a favorite painkiller wine? Like when you're in pain and you want to drink a little bit extra to mask it?

Ms. GAITER: Anything sparkling.

GROSS: Really? Does that do a better job?

Ms. GAITER: It makes me feel better. It's good for my head, and if my head is in a good place, I can deal with pain pretty well.

GROSS: As you've both said, when you write about wine, you are also writing about your lives, and your readers know some pretty intimate things about you. Another example is, Dotty, you were told - and this was years ago - that you probably had pancreatic cancer, and you were basically given three months to live. Fortunately, you found that it was just a congenital abnormality but there was a period of several months when you had no idea -that these were going to be your basically final moments on earth. And I mean, reading that, it just made me think of how excruciating that period must have been for you and your whole family.

Ms. GAITER: It was horrible. I said goodbye to John and the girls every day. And they said I couldn't drink wine.

GROSS: I was thinking they might have said that.

Ms. GAITER: That wine, particularly alcohol, is toxic to the pancreas. But this went on for four months. They gave me three months to live. And it was a devastating experience. And the girls were two and a half and four, and John's father called one night, and he said, you came to the world black and Christian. I pray to Jesus to save you, and I pray - John's Jewish, his family is Jewish - and I pray to my God because my son and my granddaughters need you, so I asked him to take me instead. And I said, Ben! And we both cried. And about two months later, the doctor said, you're fine, we made a mistake. And John's dad was dead. It was a very, very hard time for our family.

GROSS: Wow. You describe in your life and wine memoir that your father was sick at the time that, Dotty, you thought you were dying, and he didn't tell you that he was sick because he wanted to protect you from the burden, knowing that you had your own problems at the time.

Ms. GAITER: Yeah. We didn't realize. We knew he wasn't well but we didn't know how gravely ill he was.

GROSS: And again, wine enters the picture. You describe how John's father was in the hospital in a coma, and what you both did was decide to go get a bottle of - I think it was Korbel, which is a cheap, sparkling wine, and drink it around his bed in the hospital room and tell stories about him.

Mr. BRECHER: Both of us grew up in households where wine was rarely drunk. My father rarely went into a wine or liquor store. My parents didn't drink wine or alcohol, but once a year, for New Years, he went and he got that bottle of Korbel. Remember Korbel? I mean, Korbel is still big, but back then it was the big sparkling wine. And he loved that bottle of Korbel every year, so we sat around with a bottle of his favorite sparkling wine and we told stories that my father had told us hundreds of times over the year, each one supposedly true but each one better with each telling.

(Sounbite of laughter)

And just told stories, and really, my father was a car salesman, and as you can imagine, as a car salesman he had some pretty remarkable stories. So you know, we really felt great, and we think that he would have enjoyed being with us, and he was.

GROSS: Well, I wish you good holidays, Happy New Year, good health and good wine. Thank you very, very much for talking with us.

Mr. BRECHER: Thank you.

Ms. GAITER: It was a pleasure.

GROSS: Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher write at the Tastings column for the Wall Street Journal. Their memoir about wine is called "Love by the Glass." You can find a list of the inexpensive wines they recommended to us on our Web site,, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

And now that you have some suggestions of affordable bottles of wine to give as gifts, we have some more gift ideas coming up from our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, after a break. This is Fresh Air.
Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Best Books For A Transformative New Year


Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has put together a different kind of gift book list because, she says, the season this year is so extraordinary. It's not just that the financial crisis has put a Scrooge-like damper on spending. It's also that the holidays this year serve as a prelude to the inauguration of our first African-American president. In recognition of both the financial millstone and this historic milestone, Maureen offers an economical holiday list that reflects many dimensions of the nature of America.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: This year, I'm recommending some terrific books that would help anyone, whatever his or her politics, gain a deeper understanding of what we've come through, what we're still struggling through as a country to have reached this milestone moment. And yes, in recognition also of the fact that many of us are humming, "We Ain't Got a Barrel of Money" more often than we're singing Christmas carols. Almost all the gift books I'm recommending are paperbacks.

There was once an extraordinary writer for the Village Voice named Paul Cowan. Cowan covered everything from a miner's strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, to school busing battles in Boston. Cowan died at age 48 of leukemia, but surely few who read his pieces or his autobiography, "An Orphan in History," about rediscovering his Jewish roots, ever forgot his voice. A collection of Cowan's finest reportage from the Village Voice has just been reissued. It's called "The Tribes of America," and although these pieces are from the 1970s, the early culture-war tensions they chronicle are as illuminating as ever.

Historian Rick Perlstein says in his new introduction to this collection that Cowan was a journalist who threw himself into situations that might just change his mind. And how many of us dare to do that? Certainly, in 1974, when Cowan went to West Virginia, where a traditional rural community was fending off radical new grammar school textbooks, you'd assume he'd have been on the side of modernity. But here's what Cowan said about that and similar experiences.

The stories I wrote about turned out to be dialogues with my own private dissatisfactions. As a whole, they left me with a profound respect for the stability of religion, of ceremony, of family life, of customs I'd once regarded as old-fashioned and bourgeois. How can one embrace them and still be a political progressive?

A haunting question, and one that Richard Rodriguez confronts even more personally in his classic 1982 memoir, "Hunger of Memory." Rodriguez hails from one of those tribes that Cowan questioned yet respected. Rodriguez's parents emigrated from Mexico to California. Spanish was his first language as a child. In "Hunger of Memory," Rodriguez recalls the process through which he acquired the gift of what he terms "a public identity" by learning English in school, a skill that carried him all the way through to a Ph.D. in literature and inevitably tore him away from his family.

When Rodriguez's memoir first came out, it gained him notoriety for its anti-affirmative action, anti-bilingual education views. The book's power to provoke is undiminished, as is its atmosphere of solitude and yearning.

The questions of American identity that Rodriguez and his critics wrestled with are at the center of Gary Gerstle's fascinating 2002 work of history called "American Crucible." Starting with Teddy Roosevelt's presidency and proceeding through the harsh immigration legislation of the 1920s, FDR's New Deal, the civil rights movement, the Reagan era and the rise of multiculturalism, Gerstle explores how our country has contended with two contradictory ideas of itself: a selective racial nationalism that conceived of America as a people held together by common blood and skin color and by an inherited fitness for self-government, and a more inclusive civic nationalism, in which the melting-pot promise of full citizenship is open to all.

If I had to recommend one engrossing book that would give readers an informed awareness of this new civic moment in American history that we're all living through, it would be Gerstle's "American Crucible." And for an unabashedly loopy but beguiling appreciation of how this mishigas miracle of a country ever got off the ground in the first place, I recommend Sarah Vowell's really entertaining new book about our Pilgrim ancestors, "The Wordy Shipmates."

Vowell loves to think about the Pilgrims. Her book is full of anecdotes and sometimes overly cute pop culture references and many quotes, including a speech made to his fellow Pilgrims by Governor John Winthrop in 1630, which amounts to what Vowell says was a declaration of dependence. I leave you with Vowell's favorite sentence of that speech as a benediction for the days to come: "We must delight in each other, make other's condition our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body."

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. To read excerpts of the books she recommended, go to our Web site, You'll also find a list of her top five mystery novels of the year, as well as a link to the best books of 2008 as chosen by other NPR critics.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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