A memorable bottle

The Unprejudiced Palate launched Pelle as a writer. Five books and hundreds of magazine articles were to follow. Immigrant’s Return, researched with the aid of a Guggenheim Fellowship that financed his return to Italy and Casabianca, was next. Americans by Choice followed five years later.

Then, during a trip to Seattle, Alfred Knopf, the publisher, gourmet, and wine fancier, sought out Pelle for a talk. The next day, Pelle sent a bottle of his own wine to Knopf at the Olympic Hotel. Knopf was barred, by Sunday blue laws, from drinking it at dinner there with Charles Odegaard, then the U.W.’s president. But on his way back to New York, Knopf drank the wine in company with the superintendent of Glacier National Park. Knopf was so impressed he wrote Pelle and asked him to write a book on winemaking.

Some time later, Pelle sent Knopf another bottle, which Knopf served at a dinner he put on for two European gourmets. As Knopf wrote Pelle, he told his guests, who were highly skeptical of American winemaking. that he was going to treat them to an American red. The wine, of course, was unlabeled. After their first sniffs and tastes, the gourmets thought Knopf had thrown them a ringer from France. But Knopf assured them the wine was American. And furthermore, he said, it had been made in Washington State by a schoolteacher in his basement.

The wine book was called Wine and the Good Life (Knopf, 1965). Then, as part of a series on the United States, Pelle, published Washington: Profile of a State (CowardMcCann, 1967). He followed with The Food Lover’s Garden (Knopf, 1970).

Though he is officially retired, Pelle has taught three courses, in collaboration with others, at Evergreen College in recent years, and found among the students there rapt listeners. (He was invited to teach a course again this fall but had to decline because it would have coincided with the winemaking season.)

In 1978, though they had at first decided not to have a commencement speaker, Evergreen’s seniors, some of whom had heard Pelle deliver a lecture on “The American Heritage,” invited him to talk at their commencement. With a true teacher’s enthusiasm for the young, Pelle delivered a wonderfully joyful speech. “I gave one helluva unorthodox commencement address,” he said. “The whole thing was in blank verse and I had a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread on the podium with me. The wind was blowing the papers around and I had a little boy running around picking them up.”

Though he has emeritus status at the U.W. and could coast through his retirement, Pelle still puts in a full day at the office—even going there when the heat is turned off on weekends and holidays and no one else is around. There is the new book to complete, and other writings, and students to advise, and speeches to prepare for the campus speakers’ bureau. Also. convinced that “a day without some kind of physical exertion is a day wasted,” he plays racquetball every day, having given up handball a few years ago in the only concession to age that I am aware he’s made.

Read on . . .