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Eats and Drinks

Hazy Shade of Vintner

Loyola prof chronicles wine’s shifting cultural cachet

Photo: Daniel O. Fishel, License: N/A

Daniel O. Fishel


A yuppie-type lives near Hampden, decides to go out for dinner, and moseys over to the Avenue. She surveys her options: cheap and plentiful bar food at dimly lit Frazier’s; trendy fare at the bustling Food Market; tried-and-true favorites at kitschy Golden West; elegant yet pricey offerings at luxe 13.5% Wine Bar. The choice the yuppie makes could arguably reflect her mood on any given night, but it also provides insight as to her status and self-perception. Choosing Frazier’s or Golden West might signal that she claims some ironic edge, while going with the Food Market or 13.5% could indicate couth and relative wealth.

Wine has long been associated with a degree of snobbery: a drink for the bourgeousie to swirl in stemmed crystal while commenting on the nose and the grape. But Loyola University English professor Paul Lukacs in his new book, Inventing Wine (W.W. Norton), makes the case that wine’s highbrow trappings preserved it as a popular beverage. Sure, wine can give you a buzz, but so can beer and spirits, which are often easier to make and, thus, more affordable. Wine has always had to compete. Lukacs, who spent six years researching and writing this history, outlines wine’s challenges and evolution. He details the variations in taste, storage, and cultural significance from its earliest incarnations in ancient Rome and Egypt to its present-day forms.

The first wines—originating in the Middle East—bore more resemblance to vinegar than anything else. As a result, people diluted it and mixed in additives like boiled tree resin, lead, honey, salt and pepper, and seawater for flavoring. Whatever the taste, wine was a more-sanitary alternative to drinking water. Moreover, it carried spiritual significance; the chemistry behind it mystified ancient peoples. Unlike beer, which involved the physical process of mashing grain, wine fermented without any aid from man.

The divine aura around the substance constitutes wine’s earliest function as a status symbol: In Bronze Age Mesopotamia, royalty would serve imported wine at lavish parties. But, Lukacs maintains, wine “was not a luxury commodity in a modern sense. Mesopotamian kings and queens served as representatives or agents of gods. When they hosted banquets. . . they displayed divine as well as regal beneficence. So if they poured their guests wine, they were offering something blessed or holy.”

Not until centuries later would wine acquire the airs of secular elitism. In medieval times, wine was broadly consumed by the public everywhere grapes grew. Because of its omnipresence, distinctions were made between ecclesiastical wine, or divine wine, and everyday wine.

Even as it became selectively sacred, the quality of wine didn’t improve much. While storage improved—animal hides at the low end and casks at the high end—the liquid was still short-lived in freshness, oxidizing rapidly after fermentation. Vintners attempted to preserve wine with boiled wheat, eggshells, holly leaves, and sand; they added flavorings like garlic, mustard, cinnamon, and ginger to mask the taste of wine gone bad.

Sour wine, however, furthered the beverage’s evolution. Dried-grape wines were developed in parts of the old Eastern Roman Empire, resulting in “heady, sweet libations that, owing to high levels of extract and alcohol, proved more stable than lighter wines made with fresh grapes.” These sweet wines, called Romneys (for their Roman derivation), became highly desirable in Western Europe, so much so that Lukacs credits them with initiating the modern wine trade. Even while medieval wine was an everyman’s drink, better-tasting, rarefied versions could be acquired by the well-off. And beer was a beverage for the poor.

The 15th through the 17th centuries, however, saw a change in wine’s dominance on the alcohol market. Beer-making stabilized with the incorporation of preserving hops. Distilling, too, took off. Wine became a choice, and it was not always attractive. To surmount this problem, vintners began producing more distinct wines—the French would later coin the phrases vin fin and vin ordinaire (the 17th century equivalent of Franzia, one imagines)—that paid heed to the idea of goût de terroir, the particular taste in a wine resulting from the soil, topography, and climate grapes grow in.

Lukacs deems the earliest versions of fine wine as “the progenitor of wine esteemed today,” which “satisfied intellectual and emotional desires in addition to physical ones.” Of course, this wine came at a higher price. Lukacs describes the genesis of specialization in Bordeaux: A single vintner, Arnaud III de Pontac, fancying his wine unique, wanted to ensure that his product would not be blended with other wines by merchants. So Pontac jacked up his prices and was successful. Most wine historians, however, have concluded that “Pontac’s talent came more as a marketer than as a vintner. After all he sent his son to London five years later to open a tavern, where his wines were sold exclusively and at quite steep prices. . . . [I]t remained in business for more than a century.”

As one reads Inventing Wine, myriad illustrations of the libation’s upper-class connotations crop up. Lukacs, at times, de-emphasizes wine’s intoxicating quality (though he acknowledges it repeatedly) and highlights its aesthetic value. He often contrasts wine and beer, creating an ongoing, albeit inanimate opposition between the two, effectively reinforcing the association of wine with snootiness. Still, his thorough research fills the book with enough fascinating particulars that one simply accepts his stance for the time-being—especially if aided by a nice Malbec.

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