A BBC Interview with Paul Lukacs about his new book Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures.
By Eric Asimov, New York Times, January 31, 2013
Wine is old, ancient, neolithic. It has been consumed throughout recorded history. Yet wine as we know it today is relatively new. Where it originated, what it tasted like and represented, and how it was transformed over time are explored in Paul Lukacs’s fascinating new book, “Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures,” published in December by W. W. Norton & Company.
One thing is clear from Mr. Lukacs’s work: most wine for much of history was vile, nasty stuff. If an ancient critic had etched a tasting note to describe the wine that most people drank, it might have read, “Wretched, horrible, vinegary, foul.” Yet people drank it anyway, because they had no choice. Other beverages like water and milk were disease ridden. Wine might have tasted awful, but alcohol was a built-in disinfectant.
It was not until the Renaissance, writes Mr. Lukacs (who, when not researching wine, is an English professor at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore), that familiar notions of discrimination came to be. Only then did wine connoisseurs, a minute group to be sure, begin to associate particular styles and qualities in wine with specific places, an early idea of terroir. And only then did astute wine drinkers begin to perceive that some wines could be appreciated intellectually and emotionally rather than just physically, and that the best wines conveyed a sense of balance, length and depth.
But it was really with the Enlightenment in the 18th century, when a series of revolutions began that would transform our understanding of grape-growing, wine production and wine storage, that wine began to resemble what we now take for granted.
“We’re all children of the Enlightenment, not Plato and Aristotle, but Locke and Rousseau,” Mr. Lukacs said over lunch recently in Manhattan. “That’s when modern wine emerged.”
Other changes occurred as well. As the water supply became safer, it was no longer necessary for people to consume wine. It became a choice. One could savor rather than drink, and so wine had to become more appealing. Nonetheless, through the early 20th century the vast pool of wine could be divided into two groups: a small amount of fine wine, or vin fin, which appealed to discriminating tastes, and most other wines, vin ordinaire, cheap and plentiful but not very good and often pretty bad.
“The gap between top wines and others was phenomenal,” he said.
Wine enjoyed a brief golden age in the 19th century with the rapid rise of a middle class with economic resources and cultural aspirations. But it hit a roadblock in the late 19th century as disease assailed European vineyards, to be followed by world wars, economic depression, a fashion for spirits and cocktails, and Prohibition. Yet wine rose again in the second half of the 20th century.
Perhaps a bit smugly, as Mr. Lukacs and I shared a bottle of Il Frappato, a delightfully fresh red from the Sicilian producer Arianna Occhipinti, we agreed that we were lucky to be living in the present, perhaps the greatest time in history to be a wine lover. Sitting in a New York City restaurant, we had access to a greater diversity of wines, from more places and in more styles, than at any time in history.
Il Frappato was a perfect illustration of how much the world had changed not just over 2,000 years, but in the last 25. In the 1980s, few people had even heard of the frappato grape, and most wines from Sicily were regarded as heavy, oxidized or just plain bad. Sicily might have been one of the last bastions of vin ordinaire. Yet today, it is a fount of thoroughly exciting wines.
Mr. Lukacs, 56, who grew up outside Philadelphia, said he had always been inclined toward wine. His father, who is Hungarian, drank wine regularly. But Mr. Lukacs said he really became interested during his graduate years at Johns Hopkins, when he joined a book study group that quickly transformed into a wine group.
“What interested me about wine is that it’s intellectually very, very rich,” he said. “You don’t need to know, but you want to know.”
Along with his academic pursuits, he went on to write a wine column for The Washington Times for 19 years and to publish two other wine books, “American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine” in 2000 and “The Great Wines of America: The Top Forty Vintners, Vineyards, and Vintages” in 2005.
Among the most interesting points Mr. Lukacs makes in “Inventing Wine” is that the idea of “tradition” in wine has been thoroughly mutable. The notion of Bordeaux’s illustrious past, for example, was very much a 19th-century creation by owners who built chateaus in older architectural styles in an effort to convey a sense of legacy. Current wine marketing, with its emphasis on heritage and continuity, draws from the same source.
Why did wine taste so bad for so long? As anyone who’s ever tried to make wine knows, exposure to air, to dirt and to myriad other substances can cause wine to spoil. Not so it becomes unhealthy, just repellent. And so, for ancient and not-so-ancient winemakers, the challenge was, after fermenting grape juice into wine, to prevent the wine from spoiling.
Up until the 19th century, when glass bottles could be mass-produced, Mr. Lukacs writes, this was nearly impossible. Vessels of old, made of clay or wood, could hold large quantities of wine. But once you began to draw down the contents, air entered the picture with all its microbial companions. In an effort to compensate for sour, vinegary flavors, ancient vintners added all sorts of flavorings. Spices, yes, but also pitch and ash, and even lead and lye. Wealthier clients might afford a better brand of additives, like spices and herbs.
Eventually, ancient vintners discovered techniques for making longer-lasting wines, like drying grapes before fermenting them, which is somewhat reminiscent of modern wines like Amarone. These dried grape wines became highly sought after and came to be emblems of social privilege, foreshadowing, Mr. Lukacs writes, wine’s future role as a status symbol.
“It was a way of distinguishing one’s tastes from somebody else’s,” Mr. Lukacs said over lunch. “Even in the ancient world, there were real distinctions between what the patrician drinks and what the plebeian drinks.”
Some things never change.
This blog reprints book reviews, interviews, videos, and scholarly articles for those who are interested in history and contemporary culture.