Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Book Review: Inventing Wine

In the Introduction to his book (Inventing Wine: A New History of one of the World's Most Ancient Pleasures, Norton, 2012), Paul Lukacs contends that all previous histories have depicted the wine story as a continuum but that "... while wine is old, wine as we know it is new." As he sees it, "Far from being the end point in an unbroken series of vintages stretching back to antiquity, today's wines are the product of a set of radical, even revolutionary changes involving both how wine was produced and why it was drunk."

Lukacs makes his case in this comprehensive, multi-layered, multi-faceted treatise which organizes the history of wine into seven chapter-specific periods, all of which are connected by underlying themes of class, quality, taste, wine styles, and terroir, with today's wine as a constant reference point.

One of the devices utilized by Lukacs to illustrate the lack of continuity in wine history is to highlight the dominant conception of wine by contemporary drinkers through the ages. Using this approach he identifies the shifting utility of wine over time: a religious drink restricted to the elite from the early years through the Fall of Rome; "secularization of wine" during the Middle Ages and its use as a calorie supplement; scientific and technological modernization during the Rennaisance driving a "first European golden age of wine" in the 19th century; the second European golden age of wine; and stylistic and qualitative globalization in more recent times. In the first two periods mentioned, wine was characterized largely by poor quality and taste, situations that held until the Rennaisance and the invention of corks and hardy bottles and a better understanding of the science of fermentation. It was during this period that consumers began to store wines and appreciate qualities such as balance, depth, and length. This was truly the invention of modern wine.

The scope of this undertaking is truly breathtaking. Beginning with wine's discovery in the Neolithic period, Lukacs follows its trail through the ancient kingdoms into Egypt, Greece, and Rome, all the while painting a picture of its utility and utilization. And that trail continues to today's globalized wines and the arguments and discussions surrounding them. But it is not a purely longitudinal effort. Lukacs writes eloquently about the scientific and technological breakthroughs that brought wine to its current state but also delves into the lives and motivations of the leading oenological scientists. He not only writes about the wine regions that come to the fore over the course of history but also writes about the pioneering vineyardists and the writers who wrote about their vineyards. He writes about wine but also writes about the origin and strengths of competing beverages and spirits and the forces that propelled wine above the fray. He writes about the development of the middle class and the role that they played in the development and democratization of wine.

One of the ongoing discussions in todays wine press is the role of terroir in the production of fine wines (As a matter of fact, in some cases the discussion is much baser with the definition of terroir differing from author to author.). Lukacs weaves a history of terroir into this undertaking going back to the times when place was not a consideration and working his way up to the Cistercian monks and their seminal work on terroir to include, not only the growing environment, but also the grapes that were best suited to their operating environment in Burgundy. Lukacs goes to great lengths to explain that the Cistercians did not wall off vineyards in Burgundy to show which wines were better; they actually sought to identify differences in characteristics of the wines grown on separate plots. But he also shows that perception of quality can be pushed beyond the limiting factor of terroir. Lukacs points out that while a cru in Burgundy is a single plot, a cru in Bordeaux is a single proprietor. The concept of quality being extended to tradition was first mentioned in Jullien's 1816 publication Topographie and was fully embraced by Bordeaux proprietors in the 1850s where quality came to be defined as quality = cru (estate) + grapes (blend) + tradition. The success of Bordeaux vintners in getting customers to buy into the concept that demonstrated long-term quality production would most likely be repeated in present and future vintages led a number of visionary producers in other regions - Barolo, Gattinara, Asti, Montalcino, Rioja -- to invent traditions of their own and gain market acceptance of their wines in relatively short timeframes.

Lukacs sees this invention and re-invention of wine as continuing to the current day. The 1982 Bordeaux vintage is seen as an inflection point with more powerful wines gaining the attention of influential critics and, as result, the customer base. This move to power is accentuated by (i) producers vying for the attention of the critics and manipulating their wines in order to improve their scores and (ii) more intensely flavored wines being made from international grape varieties grown in environments where they ripen fully.

As good as it is, Inventing Wine suffers from a few shortcomings, the most obvious of which is limited copy editing prior to its finalization. Disconcertingly, the word "because" appears in numerous sentences throughout the book for no apparent reason. It does not fit into the sentences, has no correlation with the words preceding or succeeding, and basically renders the sentences indecipherable. It would appear that someone made a global change to the final version with unintended consequences; consequences that were not caught. Another shortcoming, from my perspective, was the paucity of statistics on vineyards, wine consumers, etc., so that one could get a sense of growth/engagement through the ages.

The foregoing notwithstanding, this book makes a clear and detailed case that modern wine is the result of a series of inventions that were made along the way and continue to this day. Some of these inventions were substantive while others were perceptive; some were wine-specific while others were tangential (the rise of restaurants, for example, helped to link the consumption of wine and food). Inventing Wine will increase your appreciation of modern wines and the wine industry but will require a significant time investment in order to reap its full benefit. It is best read with a pen and accompanying notepad.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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