Mary Frances Kennedy (M.F.K.) Fisher is best known for being a food writer—the “poet of the appetites,” as John Updike called her. Her work has endured because of her distinctive voice and her authentic relationship to the most quotidian of edible subjects: jewel-like slices of orange splayed on a hot radiator on a cold winter afternoon, the snowy, sunlit beauty of a perfectly poached egg.
Fisher’s writing about wine is equally uncomplicated, yet is much lesser known, perhaps because she subscribed to the simplest of philosophies. “Wine is life,” she wrote in the Introduction to the University of California Sotheby Book of California Wine, published in 1984: “I can no more think of my own life without thinking of wine and wines and where they grew for me and why I drank them when I did and why I picked the grapes and where I opened the oldest procurable bottles, and all that, than I can remember living before I breathed…. In other words, wine is life, and my life and wine are inextricable.”
Put more simply: Wine makes life better.
M.F.K. Fisher began writing about wine under her gender-neutral nom de plum long before it was popular. In 1946, (the year before Robert Parker was born and four years before Jancis Robinson’s birth), she was the first female judge on the California Wine Panel of the Los Angeles State Fair. Appalled by having to spit in public, she was even more appalled when a male judge accused her of being “plainly unfit to sit next to a highly qualified wine-man-author-bon viveur.”
Fisher was qualified to sit on the panel, and she was a bon viveur too. But her love for the good things in life were tempered by a belief that wine was most meaningful when it was an essential part of one’s life and memories: “As for wines, they are like me. I like honest wines as such, all of them and always. Of course some are better than others, and I like the best ones most. But I could and would forgo any other liquid forever, as long as I might drink one humble wine with my daily bread.”
To M.F.K. Fisher, wine was sensual, transformative and beautiful—capable of translating truths and revealing flaws. “The saving grace of all wine’s many graces, probably, is that it can never be dull. It is only the people who write about it who may sound flat.”
That her approach seems refreshingly old-fashioned today amidst current obsessions with collectible bottles and cult wine mailing lists is unfortunate. What, she might have asked, is so wrong with loving a wine simply because it tastes good?
Fisher was raised during the Prohibition years, which could have resulted in a palate with a predilection for bathtub gin rather than wine. Instead, secrecy cultivated a reverence for the glass. Alcohol was hidden in the Kennedy home but it was still consumed. Red wine was her parents’ favorite; origin didn’t matter: “[the wines] had to be honest to be good, and good meant drinkable,” Fisher wrote. A more nuanced education would come later.
In 1929, M.F.K. Fisher married and left the United States to live in France where her new husband, Al Fisher, was finishing his graduate degree in Dijon. This was where her real wine education began. She wrote home to tell her family every detail: “Last night we had a big bottle of the best Chablis for about 76 cents, but in the shops it is less. Bordeaux and Chianti are 12 cents, sparkling Burgundy 90 cents.”
She tried them all, but like any twenty-something in Europe, quality was not always her biggest motivator. “Compared with home,” she wrote, “I drink rather a lot over here, but it doesn’t do anything to me. I think it’s because it’s done along with eating. The only time I’ve felt any affect… was night before last, after Al and I drained a whole carafe of Chablis. Then I had to concentrate when I walked – a very funny feeling but not one to cultivate.”
Only four months later, Fisher was becoming well educated enough to be able to make increasingly thoughtful comments about wine. She described their Christmas bottle as being “unspeakably good… delicate and rich, with a bouquet that almost made you reel. It was in enormous goblets like glass bubbles, about as big as this paper, and the light made big drops of crimson shading to orange [on the table] under each one.” An Alsatian wine from the Vosges Mountains was “Onion Skin: thin, pale, red, and very heady… but [we] decided for the nth time that Burgundies are the best.”
By the time she was twenty-five, M.F.K. Fisher had lived abroad for three years, traveled all over France and Western Europe, and been exposed to many bottles of wine, from great Champagne to unidentified plonk. This exposure, coupled with a true interest in food, wine and culture, created a writer who was determined to thoughtfully comment on the inextricable links between what we eat and drink and who we are.
“There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk,” she wrote. Thanks to her time in Europe, Fisher had absorbed a distinctly Old World approach to drinking: wine was one of life’s greatest and most innate pleasures. It was on the table because it belonged on the table, because it was an essential part of almost every meal.
To M.F.K. Fisher, wine was sensual, transformative and beautiful—capable of translating truths and revealing flaws. “The saving grace of all wine’s many graces, probably, is that it can never be dull. It is only the people who write about it who may sound flat. But wine is an older thing than we are, and is forgiving of even the most boring explanations of its élan vital.”
I imagine M.F.K. Fisher tasting her way through an afternoon in Sonoma. She’d be the old woman with bright lipstick and white hair piled elegantly on top of her head. She’d make biting comments and roll her eyes if something overly lofty was said within earshot. But she’d also be the one to pull the winemaker into a corner, pressing for answers about what made a certain bottle so special and then buying a case.
“What matters most is that you enjoy it,” I imagine she’d say, waving away pretenses like pesky fruit flies. And she’d be right.