Book review: Inventing Wine: a new history of one of the world's oldest pleasures, Paul Lukacs WW

  • Friday 29 March 2013
Inventing Wine

When the Bible urged people to ‘use a little wine for thy stomach's sake', it was more of a prescription rather than description, as this entertaining, offbeat history of wine shows; the alternatives, especially water, were dangerous.

Fermentation may have been a mystery, and the resulting wine certainly vile (and loaded with additives such as resin, salt water, ashes or lead), but it could put a smile on your face, and more importantly you'd live to see tomorrow.

This book represents a kind of parallel universe, a fascinating antidote to many romantic notions that have grown up around wine, history as a clear-headed corrective. (Sceptical, I looked through reams of quotes; sure enough, until the Renaissance, wine axioms are precautionary or remonstrative.) Basically, it seems, a lot of what we believe about wine, its culture and traditions have been seen through the rear-view mirror of our minds.

But wine wasn't impervious to broader culture, and the Renaissance, so much about perspective, appreciation and aspiration, was when the drink we know and love began to be created and defined: ‘For a wide array of social and cultural reasons [people] invented very different uses for it,' Lukacs writes. International commerce played a part, too, creating fashions and prejudices (as the author notes, a wine's origin was long considered not to be a vineyard or commune, but the port from which it was shipped).

The story runs through modern times, by way of Cistercian monks in Burgundy and Germany, vineyardists and merchants in Bordeaux, upstarts all over the New World, Parker and biodynamics, all made interesting again by being viewed at illuminating new angles. ‘Wine's pleasures are wonderfully varied,' Lukacs concludes, adding, ‘that variety may well be the greatest pleasure of all.'

Norton & Co, New York, $28.95