The history of an ancient pleasure


In “Inventing Wine,” author Paul Lukacs explains how modern wine and its role in society, came into being, not in a straight line but with many stops and starts.

Photo by: Francine Halvorsen

People often talk about wine the way they talk about art: “I know what I like.” Or they brandish a florid vocabulary not used in normal conversation.

That’s why I so much appreciated the intelligent and very readable sentences I found in Paul Lukacs’ new “Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures.”(2012: W.W. Norton & Company) The book deepens our perception and heightens our awareness of what we are drinking when we bring a bottle home from our favorite wine store or a sommelier pours a taste at a restaurant.

Paul Lukacs will be speaking at The Ivy Bookshop on Feb. 12
6080 Falls Road
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

Using for the most part a convivial literary style, Lukacs surveys the 8,000 year history (plus or minus a few millennia) of viticulture.

Many books describe the “how” of wine. Lukacs takes us on a journey of where, when, what, and why. Combning a love of literature (Lukacs is a Professor of English at Loyola) with his experience as a wine taster and judge, he reminds us that the brain is indeed a sensory organ.

Souped-up Seawater to Subtle Terroir

From the ancient, primitive and, for the most part, accidental wine-making that produced a drink that quickly soured, to the terroirs of modern wine and contemporary globalization, Lukacs follows the wine story’s winding roads and dead-ends. Along the way he decants some fascinating facts.

In the old days, for example, people added enhancers such as honey, herbs, spices, flowers and even tree resin and syrups to available wine. Others, less fortunate apparently, mixed the local vintage with water and/or seawater. For the most part wine was a “safe” drink – fermented grape juice in some form was used as simple sustenance.

Chapters that range from ancient history to 21st-century development will satisfy any wine-lover’s curiosity. The book is very much a reflection of what engages – and doesn’t engage – the author about wine culture.

The Birth of Modern Wine Drinking

“History interests me more than tasting and cultural status,” Lukacs says. “Tastings often present impressionistic judgments as facts. Sometimes the satisfaction or silliness of a moment carries too much weight.”

Lukacs seems fascinated with the evolution of wine’s social function in society. I ask him, for instance, what he means by suggesting that wine was not drunk socially until the 18th and even the 19th century. He says it wasn’t until that time that it became common to drink wine for enjoyment with family and friends over a meal.

Before that, he says, it was part of group rituals and even eating and drinking “clubs” that were more formal.

Also, at that time, vintners began noting markers in their wine production and started record-keeping, so that changes were analyzed and deliberate decisions were made to develop vintages. Prior to that, wine was pretty much hit or miss – good, even delicious for years then not.

“The 18th and 19th centuries were the beginning of wine as we know it.”

If You Had To Pick One Wine . . .

Paul Lukacs will be talking about his new book, "Inventing Wine," at The Ivy Bookshop on Feb. 12.

Paul Lukacs will be talking about his new book, “Inventing Wine,” at The Ivy Bookshop on Feb. 12.

I asked Lukacs which writers on wine he enjoyed reading and he answered without skipping a beat. “I respect Hugh Johnson, even though I challenge his sense of continuity,” he said. “Gerald Asher, has a wide range of cultural references without being pretentious.” (Asher wrote the monthly “Wine Journal” column for Gourmet Magazine for years.)

When I asked Lukas how he chose a wine when he was at a wine shop, he was very candid. “I have had the good fortune to have tasted more than my fair share of wine,” he said. “So for me the question becomes, what kind of wine do I want for this experience?”

As for “wine by the glass” lists in restaurants, no surprise: like the rest of us, he thinks they are none too consumer-friendly.

Finally, I asked Lukacs if someone gave him a blank check for any wine, what would he select?  After a very quiet moment he answered, “A ’46 or ’47 Bordeaux.” Sounds good to me.

As the old gag goes: “Man does not live by bread alone. Sometimes there must be a beverage.” For many of us that means wine.


 - Any questions? Paul Lukacs will be at  The Ivy Bookshop (6080 Falls Road, Baltimore) on Tuesday February 12th from 6:30 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. for some Q and A . . . and a glass of wine.

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  • Scrapple66

    Because this has been the lead story on your page for two weeks, I’d been assuming that the Brew hadn’t posted anything new in that long! Glad I finally scrolled down and saw I was wrong.

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