Paul Lukacs is a professor of English at Loyola University in Baltimore, but what he really loves is writing about wine. Now, he's combined that passion with his knowledge of history in a new book: "Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World's Most Ancient Pleasures." In it, Lukacs manages to cover several millenia of wine without romanticizing the subject or sounding overly academic.
As the book explains, while wine has been around as long as 10,000 years, wine as we would recognize it has really only existed – even at the highest level – for about 300 years.
In an interview, Lukacs told me more:
What would the wine that the Romans drank have tasted like?
There would have been two kinds of wine in the Roman Empire. There would have been cheap wine, that everybody drank all the time. It would have been thin, acidic, getting more sour by the minute. Within a few months of harvest it would have been pretty bad.
Then there was wine that patricians drank. It would have been filled with additives: Honey, spices, gypsum, all kinds of stuff – the most notable being pine sap or resin. It would have been more like maple syrup than what we think of as wine. To our palates it would have been pretty foul, but they liked it.
Why was this the case?
It's because wine spoiled. Unless it was very fancy wine, which would have been stored in amphorae, they had no way to keep wine from spoiling. If wine was kept in a cask and gradually emptied, in the beginning it might have been okay, but the cask would have oxidized. So wine tasted pretty good at harvest and pretty terrible afterward, but people drank it anyway. That's why the harvest festivals were so important.
Why did wine play such a big role in ancient civilizations?
Throughout history, wine played a spiritual role. When people drank wine, they were drinking god or gods. When you drank wine, God was there, actually there in the wine, and you brought Bacchus and Dionysos into your body.
We don't think that today. The one place that endured was in Christian sacramental rituals. But after the fall of Rome, the church increasingly made a sharp distinction between wine on an altar and wine outside the church. Only priests got to drink sacramental wine, and only on certain special occasions. That didn't change until the 1960's, with Vatican II.
You write that wine actually got worse in the Middle Ages.
It certainly didn't improve. The amphora died out in Europe, but it was the one vessel that people had in late antiquity to transport wine at least semi-safely. People stored wine in big vessels where it oxidized right away. The best wines in the Middle Ages were made on an old Roman model from dried fruits. They were called Romneys, referring to Rome.
Nothing much changed for 1,000 years, from the fall of Rome until the Renaissance. Wine starts to modernize in the late-17th, and primarily the 18th, century. Wine modernizes in a technical sense when glass bottles and corks are invented. There had been glass for a long time, but there hadn't been glass sturdy enough to hold wine.
It's amazing to think that wine had existed for thousands of years, but it wasn't until the 1860's that someone figured out what fermentation is. Once Pasteur figured out what fermentation is, winemakers could make great advances. It is also the time when wine was thought of by consumers not as something someone needs for calories, or for spiritual reasons. Wine begins to become a consumer choice.
By the 1800's there are all kinds of challengers for wine: distilled spirits, high-quality teas. Wine has to develop a new image for itself. Wine tries to become associated with good taste, in an aesthetic sense.
As Americans writing about wine, we're always hearing from Europeans about how long their history of winemaking is. Are you saying the history of wine as we know it in Europe really isn't that much longer than that in the U.S.?
There is a long history of making and drinking wine, but not as we would identify it. Wine in Europe goes way, way back, but it is in some ways a different substance. And it had radically different uses than it does today.
Wine books written in Europe want to assert continuity. They want to say there is this tradition and we're the last point in it: we drink what Plato drank and what Henry VIII drank. But what we drink has nothing to do with what Plato or Henry VIII drank.
People drank wine to disinfect water. They drank wine as a fundamental source of calories. They didn't drink wine as a social pleasure. The social pleasure is an 18th- and 19th-century invention.
Burgundy and Bordeaux: What would those wines have tasted like when they became famous?
The first Burgundies to be valued come around 1100 or so from the Cistercian monks. They represent an advancement in wine because they're the first people to delineate places for better wine. And they decided on a single red grape for Burgundy – pinot noir – which we've inherited. Chardonnay came later.
They didn't have barrels like we have now. But soon after harvest, a wine from Clos Vougeot might have tasted something like it does today. [It] might have been a little thinner, a little lower in alcohol. The problem with those wines is they didn't last very long – three months, maybe. Nobody was pulling out a wine from five years ago. That only happens in the 1800's, when glass bottles were developed. And that's when Bordeaux began to be valued. Before that, Bordeaux wasn't special; it wasn't special in the Middle Ages.
All the châteaux in Bordeaux were built in the late 1800's or early 1900's and they were built to look old. Bordeaux was then, what Disneyland is now.
Right before the Revolution, mid-18th century, the wine from the best estates in Bordeaux probably tasted relatively similar to wines of today. There was no merlot, but there was a lot of cabernet franc. The wine was probably more vegetative than we would value today. There'd probably be less sweetness to the fruit. But we would be able to recognize the wine. A hundred years earlier, we wouldn't have.
In the mid-19th century, when the prestigious wine was comparable to prestigious wine today, the average wine was terrible.
When did average wine become good?
Very recently – in the late 20th century. There were a lot of technological changes and the biggest was refrigeration. More average wine comes from hotter places. Wine from hotter places, like southern Spain, invariably was pre-oxidized. There's still a debate in Rioja about what is the true taste of Rioja. People grew accustomed to the taste of the oxidized wines because that's what the technology could produce, and some of us still prefer them. But some people in Rioja want to modernize like other regions of the world.
This makes me think of natural-wine purists, of people who claim they prefer wine the way it has been made since antiquity. Is there truly any such thing as a natural wine?
In the broadest sense, all wine is natural. In the narrowest sense, the only wine that's natural would be wine where the grapes fell off the vine, the skins broke open and they started to ferment.
Is there much history for wine without additives of some sort? Not with much value. In the late Middle Ages, people discovered the advantages of adding sulfur. In the Enlightenment, people discovered adding sugar. It's a completely false debate.
When someone like Terry Thiese waxes rhapsodic about how wonderful it must have been in the old days, before evil corporations came, I don't think there's any evidence the old days were so wonderful.
Are we living in the golden age of wine?
It doesn't mean it's perfect, but it sure is better than 100 years ago, 200 years ago, 2,000 years ago.
You can bemoan the fact that chardonnay from Chile tastes the same as chardonnay from California. But 100 years ago, the most inexpensive wine tasted horrible. It was dreck. Surely it's better to have sameness than dreck? Moreover, you don't have to drink chardonnay from South America. You can drink torrontes. Who even knew what that was, 20 years ago?
There's been great globalization, but there's also been a great explosion of specialized wines. I think that's cool.
* "Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World's Most Ancient Pleasures," by Paul Lukacs, published by W.W. Norton & Co. at $28.95.