ruthellenchurchOn Friday, Feb. 16, 1962, the Chicago Tribune, with more than three million readers the largest daily newspaper in the Midwest, published a column under the headline, “So You’d Like to Know Wines!” (The exclamation point was included.)

The column, by Ruth Ellen Church, the Tribune’s cooking editor since 1936, shared a page with recipes for curried shrimp and onion pie. It itself covered exactly what the blaring headline suggested: wine. In fact, it marked the start of the first regular wine column in a major American newspaper.

In an era when seemingly every paper of any size, online or in print, has some sort of regular commentary about wine, it is difficult to appreciate how unique the Tribune and Church were five-plus decades ago.

She wrote in a conversational tone about a subject most Americans did not know that much about. If they drank wine at all, Americans likely inhaled the stronger, sweeter fare such as E&J Gallo’s Pink Chablis. Terms such as Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon wereliterally and figurativelyforeign to them.

Church, a Humboldt, Iowa, native who graduated from Iowa State the year Prohibition was repealed, knew this. And that explained the tone and approach of this first, groundbreaking column, not to mention the bulk of its subject matter, which revolved around sherry, a fortified wine (later columns would delve much deeper). Here was the lede:

Many Americans are eager to learn more about wines and their uses, but the subject is tangled in so much nonsense about vintages and varietals, tastings and temperatures, rules and ritual (wine drinking is almost a ritual with some connoisseurs) that most of us are confused. We are almost afraid to serve wine in our homes for fear of choosing an inferior product or making some blunder serving it.

Church followed this with practical advice that seems obvious today, but would have been startling, or at least briefly memorable, in 1962. For instance: “[I]f you plan to invest in an assortment of wines, you’d better make or buy a wine rack. A shelf in your basement or a cool spot in the house may do.” This was when commercially available wine racks for the home were unheard of; and wine storage invariably meant either the icebox or the pantry floor.

Church would continue as the Tribune’s cooking (or food) editor until 1974, writing about wine the whole time. (It should be noted, too, that although Church, who died in 1991, often labored under the pen name Mary Meade, she wrote her wine columns as Ruth Ellen Church.) Along the way, she also published four books, beginning with The Indispensable Guide for the Modern Cook in 1955 and including Entertaining with Wine in 1970.

Nothing she did wine-wise, though, came close in influence to those first columns for the Tribune 53 years ago this week.
· Ruth Ellen Church, 81, Food Critic and Author [NY Times]
· The Kitchen Connection [Tribune]
[Photo via Women’s Page History]