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‘Inventing Wine’: The History Of A Very Vintage Beverage

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
December 4, 2012

Wine is our original alcoholic beverage. It dates back 8,000 years and, as Paul Lukacs writes in his new book, Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures, was originally valued more because it was believed to be of divine origin than for its taste. And that’s a good thing, Lukacs tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, because early wine was not particularly good.

People would add a variety of unexpected ingredients to obscure and enhance the flavor. Everything, Lukacs says, “from lead to ash to myrrh to various kinds of incense, spices. And the most common thing added, especially to wines that people valued, were fresh resin from pine trees or boiled resin — namely pitch — from pine trees. Lead, in fact, will sweeten wine, so lead was used for thousands and thousands of years.”

The book is filled with surprising facts about the drink. Pharaohs have been buried beside jugs of it. The Quran promises baths of wine in the afterlife because here on Earth, humans are too weak not to succumb to its temptations. In World War I, France sent bottles of wine to its troops to help fortify them against the horrors they were experiencing in the trenches.

As for his own introduction to the juice of the gods, Lukacs, who is also the author of American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine, says that growing up, he had the occasional sip offered by an adult, but that it never struck him as anything special. It was only in his 20s, he says, that he began to enjoy wine’s sensory and intellectual pleasures.

Lukacs also explores the recent globalization of the wine economy as science and technology have improved to increase production and improve quality. Because of this changing economy, says Lukacs, “One can now buy chardonnay made in Chile and chardonnay made in California and chardonnay made in France and chardonnay made in South Africa, and they will all taste relatively the same.”

In the United States, in particular, he says, the wine industry has seen a boom. A fondness for alcohol is nothing new to this country, however.

“The early … United States was a phenomenally drunken place,” Lukacs says, “People drank from morning till night.”

Interview Highlights

On using wine to improve the quality of the water

“You’ve got to remember [that] for thousands of years, if you lived in a town or a village, the water was pretty undrinkable. … [I]f you lived in ancient Athens or if you lived in ancient Babylon or Alexandria, you couldn’t drink the water, so wine was something that people drank from morning to night. Babies drank it; old people drank it; soldiers drank it; everybody drank wine all the time, and in order for them not to be falling down drunk by 10 in the morning, they mixed it with water and used it to sanitize or purify the water.”

On the Cistercian monks of Burgundy

“[S]tarting around the year 1000 after Christ — and they were the first people to, in a systematic way, associate wines of a specific type with a specific place and a specific variety of grape. So they started, on a very small scale, the notion of particularity and individual taste from certain wines from certain places that has, in the thousand years since, become so important for wine appreciation.”

On Robert Mondavi’s role in popularizing American wine

“He was American wine’s great champion and a great showman. Paradoxically, the wine that Mondavi promoted and sold and cared about was wine that was very much made on a European model. He wanted to make wine that rivaled white Burgundy, so he used the same grape — chardonnay — and he wanted to make wine that rivaled red Bordeaux, so used one of the main red Bordeaux grapes — cabernet sauvignon. …

“He would go into a restaurant or a retailer, and he would have three bottles of wine in paper bags, and two of them would be French wines and one wine would be his, and he would dare people to tell the difference; and the great triumph would be if you couldn’t tell the American wine apart from the European wine.”

On the vocabulary we use to talk about wine

“When we talk about it, it gets pretty boring in contemporary wine-speak. … We talk about echoes of blueberries and earth and hay or all this kind of language that’s used to describe wine. It gets pretty boring. The French are much nicer. They talk about, ‘This is a lacey wine,’ or ‘This is a muscular wine,’ and ‘This is a wine that has the fragrance of spring in it.’ It just sounds much prettier than the way we talk about it. But invariably these are all metaphors; the language of taste is metaphor. We’re drawing analogies all the time.” [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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