'Inventing Wine': The History Of A Very Vintage Beverage In his new book, author and oenophile Paul Lukacs traces the 8,000-year history of our original alcoholic beverage — from ancient times, when wine was believed to be of divine origin, to the sauvignon blanc you find in your supermarket today.
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'Inventing Wine': The History Of A Very Vintage Beverage

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'Inventing Wine': The History Of A Very Vintage Beverage

'Inventing Wine': The History Of A Very Vintage Beverage

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Beer is great, but it's wine that was initially believed to come directly from the gods. Wine didn't become secularized on a wide scale until the Middle Ages in Europe. Wine is about 8,000 years old, but it's still evolving through new technologies and globalization.

My guest Paul Lukacs writes about all this and more in his new book "Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World's Most Ancient Pleasures." He's been writing about wine for nearly 20 years and is the winner of a James Beard Award for his earlier book, "American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine." He's also a professor of English at Loyola University and directs its Center for the Humanities.

Paul Lukacs, welcome to FRESH AIR.

PAUL LUKACS: It's great to be here.

GROSS: So one of the things I learned from your book is that I probably would not have wanted to drink ancient wine. You make it sound actually pretty putrid. Why did it taste so bad?

LUKACS: It tasted bad because fermented grape juice will oxidize very quickly, and there was no secure way to store the wine, secure meaning keeping air away from it. So inevitably wine would sour rapidly, and of course it could only be made once a year, at the harvest.

So it might have tasted, to our palates, decent in September, but it sure would have tasted bad come spring.

GROSS: And of course you haven't tasted ancient wine, so...

LUKACS: No, this is - these are all guesses.

GROSS: Right.

LUKACS: Educated guesses, I hope.

GROSS: So what are some of the things in ancient times that were added to wine to make it taste less foul?

LUKACS: Everything 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.

GROSS: You have, by saying this, not improved my impression of the taste of ancient wine. And can I say you also say marble dust was added to wine.

LUKACS: Correct.

GROSS: I can't imagine why. What function would marble dust or, worse yet, lead serve in wine?

LUKACS: I'm not all that sure about the marble dust. I know that it was added. I'm not sure, since I haven't tried it myself, not being a mason, I'm not sure what it would do to the wine. Lead in fact will sweeten wine. So lead was used for thousands and thousands of years, all the way up until really the 18th century to sweeten the wine, which had soured due to oxidation.

GROSS: Wouldn't it kill you?

LUKACS: It eventually would - it's a toxic substance, so it eventually could make you sick, and it was a German researcher who discovered the connection between lead and poisoning in the 17th century, and by the middle of the 18th century, scientists and vintners were really saying you shouldn't use it much anymore.

GROSS: And you say that wine was frequently added to water to sanitize the water because the water was so foul, drinking water. How did ancient people know that alcohol could help kill certain germs? Because this was long before the idea of, you know, knowledge of germs.

LUKACS: I think they knew, as best I can tell, by trial and error. Pliny the Elder, writing in the Roman Empire, talks about using not water to cut wine but wine to improve water, and he recommends using seawater, especially, and that the wine - although he does caution don't get it too close to shore, where one assumes the sewage went, but get the saltwater and the wine combined together to make the water more drinkable - because you've got to remember, for thousands of years, if you lived in a town or a village, the water was pretty undrinkable.

If you were lucky enough to live in the countryside, and you had a well, that would be a different situation, but if you lived in ancient Athens, or 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.

GROSS: So you mentioned that Pliny the Elder suggested using ocean water, which would be saltwater. That's not a very good idea, drinking that.

LUKACS: I'm not sure chemically what would happen if you drank, say, equal parts wine and saltwater, but the Greeks, the ancient Greeks, were particularly fond of saltwater, and they - we think of people today cataloguing and classifying different types of wine, and the first growth from Bordeaux is better than the fifth growth from Bordeaux, which is better than - however one measures better - than the jug wine from the Central Valley in California.

The Greeks didn't classify wine so much as classify water and classify resin, which was also added to the concoction. It's what they valued. It's not what we value, but it's what they valued.

GROSS: In ancient times, wine was believed to be connected to the gods. What was the connection?

LUKACS: I think that's the really crucial difference, even more than taste, between wine in the ancient world and wine today. Wine wasn't the only intoxicating or potentially intoxicating beverage that people drank in the ancient world. Beer and mead both came at roughly the same time. So did, a little later, fermented date palm juice, which was the drink of choice in ancient Egypt, for example.

None of these were imbued with the same kind of spiritual meaning as wine. There were multiple gods of wine, Bacchus or Dionysus being the most famous one for us today, but all these cultures had gods of wine. The reason that I think they did, is that wine is a completely, we would say, natural product.

Unlike beer or mead or other fermented beverages, which have to be manipulated by human beings, when grapes fall to the ground, and the skins burst open, yeast will start working on them right away, and wine will be produced. It may not be the prettiest wine, it may not be the cleanest wine, it may not be what we want to go spend our money on, but wine will be produced naturally.

For the ancients, naturally meant coming from God or the gods. So wine was a product of the gods, and it had this magical, mysterious quality about it. Nobody understood how it was made. It wasn't until the mid-19th century that anybody could explain fermentation, a long time away from the ancients. So it had divinity within it.

And when one drank wine, one was drinking the juice of the gods, and by the time one gets to classical Greece, one was drinking Dionysus himself, one was drinking god.

GROSS: It - really was the connection considered to be that direct?

LUKACS: Yes it definitely was considered to be that direct, which was not true with beer or mead or grog or other kinds of beverages. They were respected, and they were honored, and there were gods that people thought brought human beings the knowledge of how to make beer, for example in ancient Sumeria, but there wasn't a god of beer in the same way that there is a god of wine.

GROSS: Where does wine originate?

LUKACS: As best we know - and this archaeological evidence is fairly recent, within the last 30, 40 years - as best we know, wine begins in what geographers call Transcaucasia. That would be present-day eastern Turkey, northern Iran, Georgia, Azerbaijan, in between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, south of the Caucasus Mountains.

GROSS: So some of the places that you mentioned are predominantly Islamic in population now, which means wine is something that might not be approved of in those places, even though it's the place, places where wine originates.

LUKACS: Absolutely, and one of the interesting things in that regard is that modern Islam retains the notion that is very, very old that wine is a sacred beverage and is so sacred that it's almost too good, too powerful to be consumed on Earth. The Quran is filled with references to drinking wine, floating in baths of wine after one dies, but here on Earth, one is too weak to not succumb to the temptations of wine, so it's something that should be reserved for the afterlife.

GROSS: What does the Old Testament have to say about wine?

LUKACS: The Old Testament, like the Old Testament says about many things, is somewhat contradictory at parts, but the Old Testament repeatedly talks about the Israelites as a vine and talks about Israel as the - the Israelites as a chosen place, and the land where the vines will flourish, but also repeatedly condemns drunkenness, condemns wine as a secular pleasure, and says only pagans or heathens or the enemies think of wine as something that one would drink to excess, one would drink for sensual pleasure in the here and now.

It's something that has to be guarded carefully and used to bring one, again, to a closer connection to God.

GROSS: Let's move on to the New Testament, where Jesus describes the wine as his blood. Talk about that a little bit.

LUKACS: It's interesting that the New Testament versions of the use of wine, Christ's use of wine, echo the way the ancient Romans, the classical Romans during the empire, used wine as a vehicle, not just for communicating with - for them, the gods; for the Christian, the one God - but also a way to bring like-minded people together.

And the early Christians would gather together, and wine was a crucial part of their ceremony, of their convivium or their symposium, two activities that the Christians inherited from ancient Greece and ancient Rome.

GROSS: But there is that direct connection of wine as being the symbol of Jesus' blood.

LUKACS: Yes, wine is the symbol of Jesus' blood, and the doctrine of transubstantiation was that, and is, for believing Catholics for example, that literally what happens during the sacrament is that the wine is transformed into the blood of Christ. So it has within it the same kind of mysterious, sacred power that different peoples and different cultures going 6,000 years earlier had first observed in wine.

One of the interesting things in that regard, though, is that when Christianity becomes the dominant religion in the Western world, after Constantine's conversion and then after the fall of Rome, wine is propagated not because the Christian church needs a lot of wine, in fact they don't need much wine at all because the sacrament of the Eucharist and drinking wine becomes reserved for the priest and in fact for over a thousand years becomes something that the laity is not allowed to participate in, wine becomes something that the church propagates as a means of gathering like-minded believers together.

So it assumes, ironically enough, its secular status through the actions of the early medieval Christian church, and by...

GROSS: How does the church use wine to bring people together?

LUKACS: The church uses wine to bring people together because wine outside of the church has a completely social function, and the church owns lots of lands and lots of vineyards. So the church hires people, the church feeds people, the church organizes secular celebrations. The wine again, similar to ancient wine, is not a wine that we particularly would enjoy, but the wine is something that the church uses to organize life in villages, in towns and communities. Not as a means of communing directly with God but as a means of asserting, if you will, their commonality.

GROSS: So if you had the choice of drinking a wine that was made by any Christian order in ancient times or medieval times, whose wine would you want to drink?

LUKACS: Well, the most famous example of a religious order making wine, which has some connection to wine that we enjoy today, are the Cistercian monks in Burgundy. And they - starting 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 tastes from certain wines from certain places that has, in the thousand years since, become so important for wine appreciation.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Lukacs, who writes extensively about wine. His new book is a history of wine called "Inventing Wine." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: So, you write about how spirits become a new option in - around the 14th or 15th century, that beer had existed before, but - so what's different with these spirits?

LUKACS: What happens at the end of the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance is that wine faces its first great cultural challenge. It had reigned supreme as the beverage of choice until then. Only the very poor drank beer, for example, in the early Middle Ages. The people with any sort of means, including the very beginning of the middle class, drank wine as much as they could.

What happens at the end of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is that other drinks start challenging wine's place. First is beer because with the use of hops, which had not been used before, beer could now be transported and travel safely and had a shelf life, if you will, of more than just a few days. Before then, beer was really made by home brewers. It wasn't even much served in taverns. It was served - it was done at home by one's wife, who was cooking the meal and making beer in Scandinavia or Northern Germany or some such places.

The other big thing that happens is that distillation, which comes to Western Europe from the - from North Africa and the Muslim world but at first is used to make medicines and perfumes, start to be used - starts being used to make drink. And distilled beverages have one great advantage over wine: They don't spoil.

So you can - gin is gin, and it lasts for a very long time, whereas you open the bottle of wine, and wine today, if you open the bottle of wine, in a few days it's going to taste different, and in a week it's not going to taste very good, and in a month it's going to be vinegar, which is the problem that haunts wine.

And then yet another set of beverages comes, not spirits, not beer, nothing alcoholic, but coffee, tea and chocolate in the 17th century and into the 18th century. Nobody drew a distinction, really, between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. These are another new, enticing option for drinkers. So you get commercial beer, distilled spirits and tea, coffee and chocolate, and suddenly wine, which was the only real beverage of choice if one had choices until then for thousands and thousands of years, faces a whole new set of challenges.

GROSS: And at some point you have this hybrid, where wines are being mixed with spirits to get fortified wine. So what are we talking about? What drinks are we talking about?

LUKACS: Fortified wines begin in the 18th century, which I think of really as the period where modern wines start emerging, and they start with port in Portugal, with Madeira in the island of the same name off of the coast of Africa, and they have the advantage over still wines is that because of the addition of distillate, here usually a clear brandy, they can travel well.

So you could ship the wine from the island of Madeira to the English colonies in North America, and it would still taste good. And in those colonies there was a great passion for Madeira, for example. Philadelphia, where you're located, was a great center of Madeira drinking in the 18th century, precisely because the beverage wouldn't spoil.

GROSS: And how do people drink it, then? With their meals or after meals or all the time? (Chuckling)

LUKACS: I think they drank it a lot, if they could afford it. Madeira was quite popular among the higher social classes, and the lower classes in what would become the United States drank rum if they could get it from the West Indies, drank whiskey that they distilled themselves. The early colonies or the early United States was a phenomenally drunken place. People drank from morning until night.

GROSS: Paul Lukacs will be back in the second half of the show. He's the author of the new book "Inventing Wine." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about the history of wine with Paul Lukacs. He's been writing about wine for about 20 years. In 2001, he won a James Beard Award for his book "American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine." His new book is called "Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World's Most Ancient Pleasures."

One of the chapters I found awfully interesting was about the world wars and wine. And I didn't know this. I don't know how many people know this, but trench warfare in World War I was so horrible that the European countries, and I think America as well, made sure that, you know, the boys and men in trenches had wine.

LUKACS: They made sure that the boys and men in the trenches had alcohol. Different countries provided different alcohols, so that the Germans, for example, provided a lot more schnapps and beer, and the French provided a lot more wine. But a crucial government action from all the combatant countries during the First World War was making sure that the men fighting were lubricated. In part, I suspect, to give them, I'm not sure if one would be true to say to give them bravery, but to give them a sense of bravery or a sense of duty, and in part to take their minds off of, if only momentarily, the horrors they were facing.

GROSS: And what about the Americans?

LUKACS: The Americans were a little more complicated because, of course, Prohibition is just around the corner and there's a huge portion of the American public that is anti-alcohol, but - in any form. But General Pershing, when he brings the American Doughboys over, he says, let them drink. They drank wine. They drank beer. Some of the beer was provided by the government, but they also spent their own money on wine, on cheap spirits, on brandy. There really was a sense during the First World War, both for the people fighting and the people at home in Europe, that the more potent the drink the better, because the more potent the drink the more you could forget.

GROSS: And what about in World War II?

LUKACS: In World War II, same thing applies and the countries still supply their troops with alcoholic beverages of all sorts. Of course, in World War II, there're not great stalemates in the trenches. The Germans occupy and control virtually all of Western Europe except for Great Britain, and they confiscate and take the best French wines, which at that point, are regarded as the best wines in the world, and ship them back to Berlin and they take massive amounts of champagne, of Burgundy, of Bordeaux and requisition them for the enjoyment of the Nazi officers.

GROSS: And in World War II, and in World War I, a lot of the winegrowing land was ruined by the war. So it's a rough period for wine after World War II.

LUKACS: It's a rough period for wine in the first half of the 20th century because of war, also because wine falls somewhat out of vogue. The chic drink between the wars for example, is the cocktail, not wine. The in vogue kind of thing - you don't see, you know, Nick and Nora Charles in "The Thin Man" drinking Burgundy, you see them drinking cocktails and lots of cocktails. Wine falls somewhat out of fashion. And part of the story of wine is that its reemergence in fashion in the second half, really the last third of the 20th century, when it becomes popular in ways that it never had been popular before.

GROSS: So why does it fall out of fashion during the first half of the 20th century? And why do cocktails replace it as a sign of sophistication?

LUKACS: I think there are probably lots of reasons. One definite reason is that all of the world's vineyards in the end of the 19th century are decimated by a disease caused by a little microscopic root louse called phylloxera, which destroys virtually all the vineyards in the world. So they have to replant and restart making wine but there's, it takes a while for a new vine to start producing fruit. And consumers become afraid of wine. Do we really want this, which was where the crops had all been destroyed? So the sort of enthusiasm for wine that might've been there in the 1850s, 1860s, gets really hurt.

Secondly, there is a growing anti-alcohol movement in many places. And in many places - especially in the United States - cheap wine, jug wine, cheap fortified wine, the kind of thing that we associate with Skid Row and such becomes a real object of attack by the anti-alcohol advocates. And I think the other reason is the first half of the 20th century was a, in the Western world was a pretty rough time and, you know, the martini packs a lot more punch than a glass of champagne. And if the glass of champagne 50 years earlier was the sign of sophistication, in 1930, people wanted to toss back the martini.

GROSS: During Prohibition, was it a lot easier to make distilled liquor than it was to make wine?

LUKACS: It was, if it was, you know, the stereotype of the moonshiners in the hills of Appalachia, it was relatively easy to distill corn or wheat or whatever crop one had into spirits, into hard liquor. It was relatively easy to make wine also and there was a huge business and home winemaking during Prohibition because the Volstead Act, that was the actual law that governed what one, what was legal and what was illegal, allowed home winemaking to a considerable degree. So especially in big Eastern cities, there were great railcars full of grapes that were shipped east from California and people made wine in jugs and barrels and bathtubs and in their houses, which certainly did not, in the United States at least, after Prohibition ends in 1933, did not encourage people to think very highly about wine. It was something cheap and tawdry that you could make at home.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Lukacs. He's written several books about wine and his new book is called "Inventing Wine." It's a history of wine.

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Lukacs. We're talking about his new book "Inventing Wine."

You write a little bit in your book about Robert Mondavi's role in popularizing American wine. What's one or two of the things that you think he did that played the biggest part in popularizing American wine?

LUKACS: Well, he was American wine's great champion and 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 he used one of the main red Bordeaux grapes - cabernet sauvignon. And he would regularly hold tastings.

He was a great salesman. 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. So he was pushing and promoting - and he wasn't alone in this - he was just maybe the best salesman of all, he was pushing and promoting wine as the qualitative and stylistic equivalent of the great historic wines of Europe.

GROSS: So do you think he produced good wines that really were rivals with European wines?

LUKACS: Absolutely. As did many other people in California, starting in the '70s and into the 1980s and following on. He produced wine - the proof in the pudding - he produced wines that people couldn't tell apart from first growth Bordeaux or grand cru white Burgundy.

GROSS: Who do you consider the key players in the Americanization of wine?

LUKACS: I think Mondavi is one, the Gallo brothers would be another. And then they're...

GROSS: You know, this is may be not fair. You know, you say Gallo and I still think of just like a big gallon jug of really cheap wine.

LUKACS: Well, Gallo is a huge empire and they make tons of wine that you probably wouldn't recognize as a Gallo product because they use lots of different names.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

LUKACS: Also true with the company that now owns Mondavi, you wouldn't necessarily recommend - you wouldn't necessarily recognize the connection. But the Gallo brothers had a very different philosophy from Mondavi. Mondavi, Robert Mondavi, said Americans don't really know what good wine is. I'm going to teach them and then the consumer will follow. And the Gallo brothers said give the consumer what the consumer wants. So the Gallo brothers in a way always followed a step behind the pioneers of the fine wine movement in the second half of the 20th century in America. But even though they were a step behind, they caught up and they produce very good wine today.

GROSS: Now you mentioned that Americans wouldn't know how many different brands are actually made by, you know, Gallo or Mondavi. You write that Mondavi's Reserve Cabernet, Manischewitz's Concord wine and Mouton Cadet's Bordeaux all come from the same company. I didn't know that.

LUKACS: It's a huge company. One of the trends in, I suspect all kinds of products today, but in the wine world has been a kind of consolidation of corporate interests. So this is a company called Constellation Brands, which there is no wine labeled Constellation, but Constellation owns Mondavi and it owns Manischewitz and it owns Mouton Cadet and it owns a host of other properties all across the world and sells them to different niches in the market. So it's part of the ongoing globalization of wine in the early decades of the 21st century.

GROSS: What do you mean when you say the globalization of wine?

LUKACS: I mean two things: One, I mean that as has happened with many, many products, people throughout the world are buying and enjoying the same thing. The ubiquitous example obviously, is blue jeans. The French farm worker, the Japanese technocrat, the Australian businessman, they all wear blue jeans made by the same companies. This has happened with wine too, that there are companies like Constellation Brands that own properties and sell wines all across the world. So in one sense it's a corporate phenomenon.

But it's also a stylistic phenomenon, that there has emerged in the last quarter century or so a particular style of wine, which I call the flamboyant style - other people might call it something else - that emphasizes ripe, sweet fruit flavors above all else, that one could argue sometimes sacrifices subtlety for power, that has become popular everywhere. So that - and they're tied with specific grapes, so that one can 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 because of this stylistic similarity, which is enabled by the science and technology that emerged after the Second World War to give winemakers more control over their craft.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Lukacs. He's written several books about wine and his new book is called "Inventing Wine." It's a history of wine.

Do you remember the first wine that you ever drank?

LUKACS: My father was European, was Hungarian, so I grew up in a wine drinking family. So I remember from quite a young age having little sips of wine and I never took it as anything very special. It was only in my 20s that I began discovering the joys of wine - both physical, the sensory pleasures of wine - the smell and the taste - and the intellectual pleasures. To me what makes wine so endlessly fascinating is that it combines hedonistic pleasure and intellectual pleasure.

GROSS: OK. So, the intellectual pleasure. I think everybody who isn't a wine expert wonders this: Can you really perceive subtle differences between the thousands of wines that you probably taste every year?

LUKACS: Yes. But you can be wrong half the time. You can perceive the differences...

GROSS: Say that with pride.


LUKACS: Whether you can actually recognize and identify all those differences is a trickier question. But you can definitely perceive the differences. And I would think that if you and I went out for dinner and I served you two different wines, and you didn't know what they were - let's make - they're the same color, two different white wines - you would definitely be able to perceive differences.

Whether you could find the language to accurately describe those differences is another matter. We are, in English, very impoverished with our language of taste. We have all kinds of wonderful words to describe what we touch, what we feel emotionally, what we see. But when it comes to smell and taste, we get reduced to I-like-it or I-don't-like-it very quickly.

GROSS: Well, give me an example of another language that you think has a much more subtle set of words to describe taste.

LUKACS: I think French - at least in terms of wine tasting - the French have a somewhat richer vocabulary, but it's invariably all metaphor. That when we talk about it, it gets pretty boring, in contemporary wine speak. And we talk about echoes of blueberries and earth and hay or all these kind of language that's used to describe wine. It gets pretty boring.

The French are much nicer. They talk about, you know, that this is a lacy 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 metaphoric. We're drawing analogies all the time.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us and...

LUKACS: It's been a great pleasure.

GROSS: Happy Holidays.

LUKACS: Happy Holidays to you, too.

GROSS: Thank you very much.

LUKACS: And open a bottle of champagne on New Year's Eve.

GROSS: Right. OK.


GROSS: Paul Lukacs is the author of the new book "Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World's Most Ancient Pleasures." You can read an excerpt on our website: freshair.npr.org.

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