Today marks another first for me – my first appearance in the Book World section of The Washington Post. I review two books: Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age, by Joel Butler and Randall Heskett, and Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures, by Paul Lukacs.
I highly recommend these books for wine lovers, not to learn which wines to buy (the reason you presumably read my Wednesday columns in the Food section), but to understand more about wine’s significance throughout the ages. They may also be of interest to anyone who enjoys a thought-provoking discussion of forces that shape our culture.
Wine started as a gift from God – a fermented beverage that occurs spontaneously – and ends up in Lukacs’ compelling history as a commodity, produced around the world at high quality levels because of technological and viticultural advances that have glorified the winemaker and democratized a beverage that was once reserved for priests, nobility and the very wealthy.
Here are some interesting parts that I didn’t put in the review: While reading Divine Vintage, I was struck by similarities between ancient and modern times. Ancient wine had to be adulterated in order to prevent it from spoiling and turning to vinegar, but in Roman times at least some wine lovers chafed at all the additives and their effect on wine.
Wines were also adulterated with herbs and roots, sometimes to enhance their inhibition-releasing qualities but also to hide flaws. The Roman writer Columella sounded like Alice Feiring and other advocates of “natural wine” when he praised wines made without preservatives: “Nor should anything at all be mixed with it by which its pleasure by its own natural savor would be obscured,” he wrote, “for that wine is most excellent which has given pleasure by its own natural quality.”
Even after I submitted my review to the Post, I kept gleaning new insights from Lukacs’s account of wine’s most recent “invention” – as an international style (flamboyant, with up-front fruit and potent alcohol), as modern technology and viticulture enable winemakers to produce technically sound wine almost anywhere in the world. Lukacs calls it a triumph of style over place, an era that glorifies the winemaker and his or her choices, as well as the wine writer who helps consumers choose among the thousands of good quality wines available. This description will give me fodder for future columns and blog posts, as I hint at in the review.
And that’s what a good book should do – keep you thinking long after you’ve put it down.