Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World's Most Ancient Pleasures Paperback – 19 Nov 2013
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Thoughtful and provocative, this book shows that the history of wine is as complex as the history of human society. --Esther Mobley
About the Author
Paul Lukacs is the author of American Vintage and The Great Wines of America. A James Beard, Cliquot, and IACP award winner, he has been writing about wine and its cultural contexts for nearly twenty years. He is a professor of English at Loyola University of Maryland, where he directs the University's Center for the Humanities. He lives in Baltimore.
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So well explained
Once you start reading it you just cannot stop
I absolutely loved it
A huge bravo Mr Lukacs
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As other reviewers note, the book is frightfully repetitive. Wine's long history of having a very short shelf life could have been much briefer and replaced with more expansive narrative about its economic role or its role in promoting cross-cultural commerce.
While the book provides a considerable amount of interesting facts, particularly about wines role in early religions, what is most disappointing about the book, is its lack of charm. Its like a dry tannic wine. You can drink it, get a little buzz, but not really enjoy the experience. Wine is meant to bring pleasure. A book about it, should strive for the same.
In the twenty-first century all new non-fiction books must have subtitles. It seems to be a rule. The book publishers do not trust their public to pick up a book and read a few pages. They don't imagine that we can imagine what is inside a book. No, they must spell things out for their dullard customers in a subtitle.
But hasn't the proliferation of subtitles robbed books of some of their mystery? Now, "Inventing Wine" is a nice title, isn't it? Most people tend to think of wine as a product as natural as corn or apples, so the idea that wine is somehow "invented" is intriguing. Invention implies the existence of inventors, and we all know that Thomas Edison was a very interesting fellow. Reading about the personal and professional zigs and zags which precede discovery is almost always a thrill.
The subtitle of this book tells us it is a "new history" of wine, and with these words the head scratchers will be somewhat reassured, while those of us hoping for an ingenious and novel take on wine will begin to doubt. There is good reason for doubt, for this book includes too much muddy history and not enough sparkling invention. In this light, perhaps subtitles should be regarded as subtle warnings, rather than insults to our intelligence.
In the beginning, wine was not invented, but discovered, the accidental byproduct of yeast, grapes, and desperate thirst. The creation of this miraculous fluid and its impacts were so mysterious, the ancients had no doubt wine was a gift of the gods. Naturally, the fermented juice was soon incorporated into religious rituals. Because of its presumed sacred nature, its cost, and its scarcity, wine was no everyday drink.
But the Greeks would begin to change all that. As grape growing and winemaking became better understood, the Greeks made another important discovery: their land was ideal for the vine. Production burgeoned, exports soared, and wine became an indispensable element in the Greek symposium, that meeting often dedicated not to religion but to rational and philosophical discussion. But though the Greeks jumpstarted the process of wine secularization, it was the early Christian church that completed the process, by making the distinction between "holy" and everyday wine.
By medieval times, grape growing and winemaking had spread throughout the "civilized" world, courtesy of the Roman conquests. Wine had become an indispensable part of the European diet. It provided desperately needed calories, was much safer to drink than water, and was even used as medicine.
But while the consumption of wine soared, the skills of winemakers did not. No one understood the importance of cleanliness in the winery or the need to protect finished wine from oxygen. Thus, fermented juice spoiled quickly. The medievals made all sort of interesting efforts to protect and rejuvenate their wines, adding honey and spices, resins and fruits. But their effort to disguise the "invariably sour wines at their base" was often a failure. The only wines that seemed to keep were the heavy "Romneys," the very sweet Malvasias and Vernaccias (made from partially dried grapes), the "Sacks" and the "Hocks." Only abundant sugar and/or high levels of alcohol could protect these early wines from spoilage and oxidation.
Not much wine invention seems to have occurred before the late middle ages, when Cistercian monks wrote the first pages in the book of "terroir." Tending their grapes diligently as monocultures, the monks made records of which plots and grapes performed best. They gradually settled on two grape varieties. Although the winemaking remained primitive, the courts of France recognized these Burgundian wines as special. It was an initial foray in the invention of wine.
Repeatedly, we are reminded that the process of inventing wine was slow, measured in centuries:
"...until the 1700s the vast majority of drinkers continued to consume the same sort of wines as their forebears - thin, sour ones much of the time, and fuller-bodied sweeter ones only if and when they could afford better."
But suddenly, things began to change. Sturdy bottles were devised to store the wine. Cork found a use in stoppers. Lavoisier explained the chemical process of fermentation and Chaptal showed that sturdier higher-alcohol wines could be made by adding sugar to the grape must. A new institution, the restaurant, coupled wine with food for the first time and enhanced its social standing. The beginnings of wine connoisseurship were stirring:
"Taste as a purely physical sense is a basic part of human life... But taste as a concept, an idea, even a value, one that begins with the physical sense but then expands to include aesthetic and social dimensions, is not."
While all this wine inventing should be exciting, much of the time the narrative falls flat. There is a lack of interesting detail, chronologies are often too generalized and muddy, and the same points are made repeatedly. Drama is negated as the author often gets ahead of himself in the storytelling. Lukacs penned some vivid biographical portraits in his book The Great Wines of America, so it is surprising how little sizzle there is here.
In the second half of Inventing Wine the author describes the establishment of the great Bordeaux chateau and the first golden age of wine connoisseurship (approximately the 1800s, pre-phyloxera). This period ended with the ravishes of American vine diseases in Europe, followed by the consecutive disasters of World War I, the triumph of cocktail drinking over wine, the Great Depression, and then World War II. Nearly one hundred years separated the first golden age from the second, which began in the 1960's and is still running strong.
The last section of Inventing Wine, modern wine history, will be awfully familiar to many wine lovers, and often reads as if the book has shifted into auto-pilot. The chronology is true, and all the major characters are present (from Mondavi to Peynaud to Parker), but there is a shortage of unconventional insight and a lack of fire in the telling.
In the end, one feels that "Inventing Wine" was not the best project for Mr. Lukacs, a very well-regarded authority on wine. An essay on the invention of connoisseurship would have been a great idea. Profiles of key figures in the wine invention business (e.g. as in Thomas Pinney's The Makers of American Wine) might have told the story more vividly, if less completely. But this book lies in the uncomfortable middle ground. It lacks the solid chronology, depth of research and completeness to be a comprehensive history of wine.
Perhaps next time the author will write about Inventing Wine, but leave the subtitle on the editor's floor.