Thursday 1 March 2018

The Wines That Made Us (7): Paul Masson

There’s one thing which people particularly remember about Paul Masson wine, and it’s not the flavour, or the advertising, or the fact it was American. It’s that it came in a carafe.

Were we once really naïve enough in our wine drinking to find wine which came in a carafe more appealing than wine which came in a bottle? Did we believe that wine from a carafe was somehow more authentic? And as we grasped and hoisted it by the neck, just like a real carafe full of really decanted wine in a real “continental” restaurant, did we feel somehow more authentic?

Visit any student’s room in the late 1970s, and you’d see an empty Paul Masson carafe sitting on a shelf. Perhaps it was waiting to be used as a flower vase – of which, as they used to say, there were two chances: fat, and slim. Perhaps it was waiting to be reused as a carafe, in the unlikely circumstance that one would buy either a wine so good that it needed decanting, or a wine so bad that one wanted to pretend it was Paul Masson.

Or perhaps, without displaying the serried empty bottles of a dipsomaniac, we simply wanted to tell visitors that hey, I’m one of these new, cosmopolitan, worldly young Brits you’ve been hearing about – who drink wine.

The fact that this wine was American almost passed us by. For one thing, in those days, producers could throw around French terms like Burgundy and Champagne with impunity, so we didn’t really know what it was that we were drinking. A Rare Premium California Burgundy? If you say so… 

And also, the brand played itself off against Europe in its marketing. “Paul Masson is America’s best-selling premium wine in Europe,” ran one ad. “And you can’t fool Europeans about wine.” Well, back then you could stick wine in a carafe, and pretend that it’s the sort of thing served to a table in a continental café, and you could certainly fool us.

But they mainly used another, more famous advertising slogan: Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time. Was this really such a selling point? Just where exactly was all this immature wine we were being threatened with? Would we even have recognised immature wine if someone had sold it?

Paul Masson used Orson Welles in their advertising, a man whose girth was rapidly increasing in inverse relation to his reputation. In those days, tasting notes appear to have been refreshingly basic, but even so they were ripe for a sort of “cut through the bullshit” ad campaign. “Experts say Paul Masson Cabernet Sauvignon is a mature, complex wine with nice wood”, said Orson. (Perhaps “nice wood” is not a choice of words one would use today.) 

“What they’re trying to say is…it tastes good.”

Orson was eventually relieved of his duties, leaving behind an immensely entertaining outtake of one of his TV ads,  showing what happened when too much of Mr Masson’s product had been consumed. Or had it? One story is that Orson was abruptly fired for admitting on a chat show that he never actually drank their wine. But an account executive contended that Welles was dropped when Paul Masson introduced ''light'' wines: ''Obviously, that would not be appropriate.''

He was replaced by John Gielgud, repeating his role as a disdainful butler from the movie success, Arthur. Sir John took a $1 million fee, on condition that the ads would not be shown in Britain, a condition which YouTube now entertainingly flaunts. Gielgud is quoted as finding the filming sessions “exhausting and somewhat humiliating”; but the great actor said that in addition to the colossal fee, he found further compensation in the way that the Paul Masson agency paid “full attention to my comforts in the way of limousines, suites at the Savoy, flowers and cigarettes provided!”

Astonishingly to me, I could still find Paul Masson wines in their carafes today. Not in a suite at the Savoy, no, but in a convenience store in Hammersmith. The carafe used to have an embossed glass seal on the shoulder, presumably dropped as being too expensive now, but which reduced the container’s distressing similarity to a bottle for a medical sample. (This was particularly important with the white wine.) And the carafe seems somehow cruder, thinner, cheaper than I recall; I found myself tapping it with a finger to check that it is still, actually, glass.

The simplicity of the formerly oval, type-only label has also been replaced, with an awkward, assymetric job bearing an image of the original Paul Masson winery, where the wine is no longer produced. And there’s a plastic lid which you push off with your thumbs, and can pop back on. Am I alone in remembering a tear-off foil seal? I certainly can’t recall any resealing requirement back in the day…

The wine itself initially has the nose of a decent, fruity Pinot Noir. Hello, I thought. But that fades rapidly, and a taste of bitter cherries tips over into plain bitterness, a sort of wrestle between liquorice and a chewed aspirin. 

But the most disturbing aspect? It stained the carafe. It stained the carafe!! I don’t know whether to blame the wine, or the carafe, but… Yes, my liver’s suffered a bit of wear and tear, but can I let you know if it actually needs redecorating?

Once, it was as if there was another, wonderfully stylish world of carafes and the like waiting somewhere across the English Channel. Forty Years On – and we are so sophisticated, so continental ourselves, that “a carafe of red” is a routine offer in UK restaurants. But hopefully, it will not bear a Paul Masson label.



  1. Is it my imagination, or wasn't there a UK TV advertising campaign fronted by the quintessentially English actor Ian Carmichael? In his refined tones he informed us that Paul Masson's California Carafe was "really jolly good".

    1. You're not thinking of the ads for Croft Original Sherry, are you? A Jeeves & Wooster set-up, but not Ian Carmichael...

    2. Yes there was 😊 I remember it fondly…they really were…very good! 😄😄

  2. Not Jeeves and Wooster, certainly. Ian Carmichael sitting there in his fairisle sweater. I even think he had a carafe of both the red and the white on the table. In fact I just googled it - confirmation here:

  3. It took me a while to remember, but I, too, tried a Paul Masson wine; that was in Germany, probably around 1990, a red one. I cannot recall much of it, but that I found it okay while a bit too expensive for that, and definitely the tear-off foil seal.

  4. thanks for sharing such an informative post.


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