Human beings have been inventing wine for some eight thousand years. Not the natural product, something that occurs on its own whenever the skins of ripe grapes split open, but rather the cultural and artisanal one. Or to be more precise, the cultural and artisnal ones, since men and women over those many years have defined what wine is, and why it matters, very differently. So while people in different times and places have long drunk the same basic chemical substance, they have done so for a wide array of social and cultural reasons, in the process coming up with very different uses for it. Through its extensive history, wine has played various roles, being everything from a vehicle for spiritual communion to a source of bodily nourishment to an object of aesthetic appreciation. In virtually all of them, it has brought pleasure, but pleasure conceived of in a wide range of ways. This is a book about those ways. As a history, it recounts wine's passage through time, emphasizing how the various pleasures it provided changed over the millennia.
Most previous accounts of wine's past, no matter when they were written, celebrate continuity. Their authors assume a fundamental correspondence between contemporary wines and those that people drank hundreds, even thousands of years ago. This book tells another story. It contends that while wine is old, wine as we know it is new. 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. One crucial change involved its secularization, something that only occurred on a wide scale in Europe's Middle Ages. Another came during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, with wine's initial scientific and technological modernization, and then still another with its quite recent stylistic and qualitative globalization. This book tells the story of those changes, and so is marked as much by disruption as by continuity. It thus offers a new way to view the present as well as the past.
History exists not simply in the past, but more precisely in recollections or reports of the past. After all, history never just happens. Events do, but their significance — how much they matter and to whom — depends almost entirely on the people who recall and recount them. In this regard, it seems significant that the word "story" lies embedded within the word "history," which the Oxford English Dictionary defines first as "a relation of incidents . . . a narrative [or] tale," and only subsequently as an "aggregate of past events." Put another way, no matter the subject, those events, being past, necessarily remain finished and forgotten until they live again in the stories men and women tell about them.
Let me acknowledge here at the start that some people may consider the specific subject of this book trivial, and so not really worth reading (or writing) about anew. It's worth noting, however, that many commentators have venerated wine for a very long time. In the Odyssey, Homer characterized wine as something "descended from the bless'd abodes / A rill of nectar, streaming from the gods." This idea of wine as something sacred was very common in many ancient cultures, and as a consequence people long valued no foodstuff more highly. Wine provided men and women with both physical sustenance and psychological solace. Since it could help them stay or even become healthy, as well as win favor with their gods, they cared less about how it tasted than about what it represented or embodied. Some people held onto this view even in early modern times. Witness James Howell, an English Renaissance writer who, with tongue only partially in cheek, declared, "Good wine makes good blood, good blood causeth good humors, good humors cause good thoughts, good thoughts bring forth good works, good works carry a man to heaven, ergo good wine carrieth a man to heaven." Though that is not our twenty-first-century logic, many of us still consider wine to be one of life's great pleasures. And as the distinguished contemporary wine merchant and author Gerald Asher once noted wryly, "Only idiots take their pleasures frivolously."
For many thousands of years, people needed wine, or at least believed that they did. Their specific requirements shifted over time, but they considered wine necessary for their basic existence. That only started to change about five centuries ago, when wine began to assume new form as a cultural choice. Though it took many years for it to become something worth selecting for itself rather than for any alleged benefits it might bring, the shift from need to choice enabled wine to assume modern form. Why people choose it today depends largely on their -circumstances — their desire for conviviality, for what is sometimes called "the good life," for sophistication, and, of course, for flavors they think are worth savoring. Less than a century ago, a great many commercial wines, some cheap but others quite costly, tasted spoiled or rotten. Few drinkers risk that sort of unpalatable disappointment today. There are places, parts of the former Soviet Union, for example, and countries in South Asia, where seriously flawed wine still exists in significant volume, but it rarely does for the rest of us. In most parts of the winemaking world, modern science and technology, coupled with a more demanding marketplace, have made bad wine little more than a remnant of times past. We personally may not like a particular bottle, but when we pour a glass, we usually can be certain that the wine in it will be at least chemically sound. Often, of course, it is much more than that. Wine can bring remarkable delights. This book tells the story of those delights, where they came from and how we came to value them. It focuses more on the origin and development of what we enjoy than on the relics of what in all probability we would not even tolerate.
Wine today is extremely popular. Characters in movies and on television drink it, just as newspapers and magazines cover it, and websites and blogs fill cyberspace with discussions about it. Shops specializing in wine carry literally thousands of different selections. Restaurants, cafés, and bars offering long lists of often esoteric choices have proliferated across the globe, and tourism in wine-producing regions has turned into a big business. Not all that long ago, caring about wine as anything more than a simple quaff was the almost exclusive provenance of the wealthy. This was not so much because they alone could afford something better as because very little quality wine was made anywhere. No more. We are blessed today with an abundance of excellent wines coming from every continent save Antarctica, and in much of the wine-drinking world, knowing something about them has become a middle-class passion. But then, the emergence of modern wine, something that began on a limited scale in Renaissance Europe, always accompanied the emergence of the modern bourgeoisie. When that social class expanded, so too did consumers' choices. A new market and a new sort of high-quality wine (made with freshly harvested rather than dried, raisined grapes) arrived together, changing forever how people perceived their own wants and desires when they drank it.
Paradoxically, though never more popular, with elite examples more than ever in demand (and fetching ever-higher prices), less wine actually is being drunk today than was consumed thirty, fifty, or a hundred years ago. The decline, however, has been almost entirely in two categories: cheap coarse wines, the sort that used to be guzzled by poor farmers or factory workers as part of their daily diet, and equally cheap fortified wines, the kind often hidden from respectable sight in brown paper bags. The rapidly waning demand for both of these reflects the final stage in the nearly five-hundred-year shift in wine's cultural status — from need to choice. Drinking wine today more often reflects cultural preferences than satisfies physical appetites. Enjoying it has become a mark of the kind of discernment that in a less self--consciously egalitarian age was called "good taste," and its current popularity is intimately related to people's perceptions of themselves.
That use of the word "taste" can carry with it connotations of snobbery, and so has fallen somewhat out of vogue. Yet the simple fact that we speak of "wine appreciation" much as we do music or art appreciation suggests that enjoying wine involves more than just liking it. With wine, full enjoyment comes from being able to know, judge, and -discriminate — that is, from choosing, and choosing wisely. In turn, making sensible (and sensitive) choices necessitates paying attention to not just the thing tasted but also the individual tasting. Moreover, since the radically improved quality of wine worldwide has made such enjoyment possible for people of even fairly modest means, discernment and taste have become widely shared values. Wine appreciation sometimes still carries suggestions of exclusivity or elitism, but even a quick glance at the glasses being lifted at an American bistro or an Australian pub, an Argentinean café or Italian trattoria, suggests otherwise. High-quality wine today is hardly the exclusive province of any single social or economic group. It instead is being enjoyed by more and more different people, in more and more places, all the time.
Wine began to assume recognizable, modern form when vintners started to make, and drinkers started to demand, wines possessing particularly appealing aromas and flavors — wines, that is, worth choosing for themselves. Though the ancient Greeks and Romans had distinguished between special and ordinary wines, the fundamental difference then came from how the two types were made — the first by drying grapes in the sun until they shriveled into virtual raisins, the other by picking often under-ripe grapes and fermenting them immediately. Dried-grape wines remained popular for many centuries, but by the late Middle Ages and Renaissance another distinction was beginning to be drawn, this one involving where the grapes were grown. A fine wine, as opposed to an ordinary one, came from an especially fine grape-growing place. This marked the beginning of the originally French but now global idea of terroir, and from that point on, place became an important element in any quality wine's identity.
Yet since the grapes for wine are a cultivated, not a wild crop, equally integral to that identity are both the care taken by the vintner in a vineyard's management and the attention devoted to that vineyard or region by the person drinking the wine. The men and (occasionally) women who cultivated early modern vineyards improved their terroirs through craft and diligence, while the consumers who purchased the wines made with the fruit grown there did so with their purses. Terroir, then, is ultimately something invented by humans as well as discovered by them. And the power of such invention belongs as much to the people drinking the wine as to those producing it. As Roger Dion acknowledged in his celebrated history of French wine, "The role of the land in the making of a [fine wine] scarcely goes beyond that of the material used in making a work of art." Moreover, place is not the only material used. The choice of grape or grapes proves just as important to any wine's intrinsic character. Nearly nine thousand varieties of grapes grow in the world today. How a particular wine tastes depends to a considerable degree on which one, or which ones, have gone into it.
Modern wine emerged with the discovery of particular flavors stemming from both place and grape. But it flourished into an object of widespread desire only with the development of tastes that valued those flavors and wanted ever more of them. That desire for more has led to fine wines today that hail from all over the globe. As odd as it may seem, these come both in a myriad of forms and in one dominant style, thus representing the twin phenomena of specialization and globalization that define contemporary wine worldwide. For most of wine's history, style came naturally, certain grapes from a certain place yielding wines of a certain type. Now, however, it is as much a product of human vision and foresight, modern science and technology having enabled vintners to make very different wines from the same grapes grown in the same places. The choice of style, much like the choice of both grape and vineyard, may be motivated by everything from the pursuit of excellence to the need to meet market demands, but it remains at heart a human one. This book ends with the story of those choices, a story that again involves wine's pleasures as much as its production.
Many of modern wine's pleasures are sensual — its smell, taste, and feel, including the feel of its effects — but some also are cerebral. "Wine is the intellectual part of a meal," the nineteenth-century novelist Alexandre Dumas once remarked, meaning that a glass or two can stimulate contemplation and conversation. Yet pleasure, whether physical or mental, comes as much from the person who derives enjoyment from experiencing an object as from the object itself. Put another way, just as beauty is often said to be in a beholder's eye, delectability is on a taster's palate. And eye and palate always are informed by the twin forces of expectation and memory — what one hopes to experience and what one has experienced before. Twenty-first-century wines may not necessarily be better than wines made in earlier eras, but they are undoubtedly different, as are the likes and dislikes of those of us who care about them. Wine and its appreciation have undergone great changes over the centuries. Those changes are ultimately what this history recounts.
From Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World's Most Ancient Pleasures by Paul Lukacs. Copyright 2013 by Paul Lukacs. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company.