The following article by Edward Guiliano ran in the February 1996 issue of Wine Enthusiast Magazine.
We know about Walter Cronkite’s passion for sailing, but when a film crew from his Washington-based television production firm, Cronkite Ward & Company, sailed down the Douro River in Northern Portugal last June to film one of the Port industry’s centuries-old traditional celebrations, we learned about his interest in wine. The crew was filming for a television series, “Wine,” they are preparing for television and, according to co-executive producer Kevin Whelan, it will be released during winter 1009-97.
That the former CBS anchor, broadcast legend, and perhaps still the most trusted man in America would put his reputation and prestige behind a multi-part series on wine being filmed on location in America, Europe and elsewhere, struck us as newsworthy, and we set out to find out more about Walter Cronkite’s enthusiasm for wine.
Wine Enthusiast spoke with him in his office high up in the CBS building in Manhattan—a setting adorned with Emmy and other awards, photographs, books, paintings and models of sailing ships, and at least lately a few bottles of premium wine and wine accessories.
Wine Enthusiast: The announced intention for your public broadcasting series on wine is “to demystify the whole process of buying and enjoying wine.” Is it safe to say the production is an endorsement on your part that the American public should enjoy wine more and needs a little more wine education?
Walter Cronkite: Oh, sure. Obviously wine is one of the beneficial factors of our civilized life, and it’s a shame there are those who don’t enjoy it. I’m not advocating any alcoholic dipping back into their habits by going into wine, of course. But moderate consumption of wine is an adjunct of a civil life.
WE: Do you believe demystifying wine is a key to helping more people come to enjoy it?
Cronkite: Yes, when we say demystify it, though, I hope the series will be able to hold on to the mystique and still demystify it. That seems like and oxymoron or a contradiction, but it’s not, really. Wine should be fun. It seems to me the whole thrust of our program is that wine is fun, and let’s make it fun. But part of the fun, though, is that there is a little mystique to it. What has to be removed is the snobbishness that has turned off, I think, a lot of people and that includes me. At a period of time when a lot of my friends were getting involved in wine and becoming connoisseurs by study and purchase and were building wine cellars of their own, they were making it difficult. I didn’t have the time to get into the game. I was just too busy for that in my news career. I kind of miss the fact that I kind of lost out at a time when my friends were becoming expert at it.
WE: Another series you are working on is “Cronkite Remembers,” your memoirs for CBS and the Discovery Channel. If we can go back with you, what are your early memoirs of wine? When were you first introduced to it?
Cronkite: I’ll never forget when I was first introduced to wine. I was a middle-western boy and briefly a New York boy before I went overseas to cover the war. I was a beer and 15 cents rye drinker. Wine never occurred to me, except red wine, very domestic red wine in cheap Italian restaurants when I had spaghetti. That was it.
WE: So, your first introduction was as an adult in New York?
Cronkite: Yes, I was a young adult first in Kansas City and Houston, Texas and then New York. But the first time I was introduced to a reasonably good wine was after the liberation of Paris and I found myself at a sidewalk café on the Champs-Elysee, right around the corner from our office. I sat there and had a glass of wine as everyone else seemed to be having one. It was wonderful. A nice, cool white wine, and I knocked that off, and knocked off another, and I went back to work feeling delightful. In the course of several days of doing that I found I was stricken by some sort of terrible lethargy that hit me in the middle of the afternoon when I was trying to work.
I was so concerned with illness I had acquired that I went to see a doctor. He asked about my habits and so forth, and I told him. I didn’t include my diet at all. And he said, “Do you drink alcohol?” And I said, “Well sure, doesn’t everybody?” So he asked, “Do you have alcohol in the evening, at lunch, when?” “Lunch,” I answered. “What do you have?” “White wine,” I said. And he said, “How much white wine do you have?” “Oh maybe a bottle.” The doctor looke at me, sort of gasped and told me, “And you wonder why you’re going to sleep in the afternoon?” From then on I became a more intelligent wine drinker.
WE: When you were growing up, was there wine in your home?
Cronkite: During Prohibition—I wasn’t really old enough to be drinking at that stage—I remember very well my father bought something called wine bricks. They were advertised in the magazines and newspapers and delivered by mail. You actually got a package the size of a brick and seemed to weigh almost a much. It was made of highly compressed grapes. There were instructions on them how to make wine from these wine bricks. You placed the bricks in—I don’t remember—ten gallons or maybe fifty gallons of water, added a little sugar and yeast and let that steep for several days and you had wine. The bricks had a big red band around them that said on it: “Warning, to prevent fermentation to not add one container of yeast.” My father made that wine, and I did taste it a couple of times, and let me tell you, I think that would have turned anybody off from drinking wine ever again.
WE: How about today, do you drink wine regularly with meals? At Thanksgiving, did you have wine?
WE: Do you remember what wine?
Cronkite: No, I don’t have the slightest idea.
WE: Do you prefer a red wine or a white wine?
Cronkite: Both. Like many people, I enjoy a white wine before a meal or during a first course, fish particularly. I like red wines for a heartier dish. I very rarely drink red wine alone as a recreational drink. My wife is more the wine connoisseur than I am. She also has a better memory than I do. My problem is I don’t have any problem remembering my children’s names, but remembering all those wine names and numbers. Once you remember the name of the wine then you have to remember the vintage. If I had a memory like that, I’d probably be an accountant.
WE: But, thankfully, you are a broadcast journalist. Over your career did you ever see the news media backing away from reporting positive stories about wine? Was there a concern these pieces on “alcohol” consumption might upset segments of the audience and that neo-prohibitionists and others in America would criticize the publication or network or pressure advertisers to withhold their support?
Cronkite: I don’t have any awareness of that whatsoever. I wouldn’t have the slightest problem on a broadcast talking about wine if there were any reason to be talking about it. I think we reported on the arrival of the new Bordeaux and on high prices when that was an issue. I think we reported on the prices of California wines reaching and even exceeding that of French wines in the Eastern United States market in some cases.
WE: No doubt it was much more of an issue at small publications and regional radio and television stations. Your CBS colleague Morely Safer—whose “60 Minutes” reports have been a watershed for positive publicity about wine—has observed something of this diminishing trend, caused in part because wine has been associated with alcohol in general. The medical profession has been reluctant to come out in support of wine consumption, and the members of government in particularly have bent over backwards not to be perceived advocating drinking alcohol of any kind, even though the first thing they do when they get home is have a glass of wine or another drink.
Cronkite: If you are expecting wine to reduce hypocrisy in American politics, you’re expecting what never could, never will be.
WE: Let’s return for a moment to your upcoming series, “Wine.”
Cronkite: I think I’ve already mentioned that the hope for th4e series, as I understand it, is that we’re going to show the fun wine can be. Demystifying is desnobbifying—if I can make up a word—the idea is to show that you can like wines, enjoy wines, be a part of the enjoyment of a whole cult without having to become a scholar in any way or join a society. Some people even think if they don’t have a certificate or aren’t a member of the Tastevin they can’t really enjoy wines. That’s ridiculous, of course.
WE: What’s your personal involvement in the series? Will you be doing anything on air?
Cronkite: No. I’m enjoying the success we’re already achieving, the interest we’re getting, and the early shooting we’re doing that I get reports on.
WE: How long a series will it be? Ten parts?
Cronkite: It’s open-ended. Party we’ll see about public acceptance of the series. We can go on longer. In each half hour we’ll concentrate on a single wine region, and of course there are a lot more than ten of those. As we develop the series, I’m kind of hopeful it will go on forever. There’s every possibility that that could happen. We are going to have a program that will entertain, inform, and not only appeal to those old connoisseurs out there with their certificated on their library walls or in their private cellars, but to the populace at large who will learn they don’t have to learn which village each wine came from and what year and whether that is precisely the right year. A kind of general knowledge that’s fun to acquire. We will therefore have an entertaining program.