Tis the season to be imbibing. (Responsibly, of course). As you sip one of your favorite vintages, or saunter up to the saloon for a cocktail, you might pause and consider: This is the best of times for booze. The days of Schlitz or a bad blush wine — remember White Zin? — are long past. Whether it’s an artisanal Vermont ale, an offbeat French appellation, or a concoction whipped up by a new breed of bartender in New York and Boston, wine and spirits have rarely seen better days. Sure, it might have been fun to toss ’em back in the Jazz Age or take in a three-martini lunch, Don Draper style,. but, dear drinker, your time is now.
Wine drinkers in particular have reason to rejoice, as Paul Lukacs writes in his informative new book, “Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures.” The early 21st century is a golden age for wine. “Quality used to solely come from select European regions, but it now can be found all over the world. Good wine is available at every price level, enabling people up and down the economic ladder to enjoy it.” Tastes may vary—drinking wine is, after all, a very subjective experience — but nowadays decent, drinkable, chemically sound wines are the rule, not the exception.
It was not always thus. Wine has been around for 8,000 years, but a lot of it was just awful, rancid, bilgy stuff. Ancient Greeks and Romans thought it brought them closer to the gods: One favorite was made from dried grapes and tasted, Lukacs reckons, “almost oily — something like old, sticky syrup.” As for the medieval palate, “only one distinction mattered — did the wine taste fresh or sour, or more to the point, did it taste slightly sour or very sour.” Lukacs, the author of two previous books on wine in America and a professor of English at Loyola University of Maryland, covers an enormous amount of terrain, and tracks the evolution of wine in Europe and its spread around the globe.
“Inventing Wine” may not be the most elegantly written book in the world — the prose is a little stuffy — but Lukacs is a man of eminently good sense and catholic outlook: There is room in his wine world-view for both Yellow Tail and the most exquisite Bordeaux. (Speaking of Bordeaux, did you know this now noble wine was the Two-Buck Chuck of late Middle Age England, popular because of its “great volume coupled with its always low price”?). If anything, Lukacs documents a process of ever-shifting tastes. I think a lot of Australian wines are obnoxiously alcoholic — and overly oaky California Chardonnay, forget it — but his pages on New World wines are nicely reasoned. He writes of wine as a human artifact, how wine is ultimately the product of a mental disposition, both in the drinker and the producer. Not simply the soil, not just the grape: what counts, above all, is vision.
It is only in the last 600 or so years that the wine we know began to take recognizable shape. Regions and specific vineyards began to reap renown. The French, not surprisingly, led the way: In the 14th and 15th centuries, Cistercian monks in Burgundy pioneered the idea that particular places, climates, and soils confer specific qualities on a given wine. Today, this notion is known as terroir. With the appearance of Haut-Brion in the 17th century — Samuel Pepys said of “Ho Bryan” that it “hath a good and most particular taste that I ever met with” — and wine from estates like Lafite, Latour, and Margaux, Bordeaux began its climb upmarket.
Pepys was emblematic of the kind of discerning urban consumer who would transform the wine market. When winemakers solved the problem of spoilage (a huge hindrance to the trade) with use of wine bottles and preservatives like sulfur, high-end winemaking exploded in the mid-19th century. Italian Barolo and Spanish Rioja emerged as appellations of distinction. But this “golden age did not glitter long,” Lukacs observes. For the next 100 years, modern wine confronted crises, which included two world wars, and economic downturns. The Phylloxera aphid and mildew infestations destroyed countless old growth vines in France and elsewhere. New plantings were suspect; plonk passed off as great vintages became rampant. Wine culture went into decline. The hour of the cocktail was at hand.
James Bond may have liked his martinis shaken not stirred, but the gin in 007’s drink once had a bad rap. In the movies, it was a vodka martini. But the Bond of the books drank plenty of gin martinis. In his lively survey, “The Book of Gin,” British writer Richard Barnett examines the tumultuous history of gin. This clear grain spirit flavored with juniper berries and botanicals had its origins in the intermingling of medieval alchemy and medicine. The Dutch transformed these curative cordials into a potent drink called genever (from the Dutch for juniper). But it was British distillers in the 18th century who started to produce gin for the masses. Often flavored with turpentine, it was cheap, addictive, and flowed through the poor precincts of London. Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens deplored its effects: for Carlyle, it was “’liquid Madness sold at ten-pence the qaurtern.’”
Barnett’s book is too heavy on the discourse about gin; he cites everyone from Henry Fielding to J.D Salinger, but literary representations aren’t as interesting as Barnett’s account of gin’s transformation from swill to the epitome of elegance. With the advent of London dry gin — enter Charles Tanqueray and others — and the cocktail craze of the 19th and 20th centuries, gin became respectable. Both Lukacs and Barnett’s books end on notes of renewal and the revival of traditions. Quality wine making since World War II has soared, while new boutique gins have helped spur our new fancy cocktail culture.
Now, I need a drink. I’ve enjoyed a great deal of wine in my life, and savored the cool bite of a gin martini, but barkeep, make it a Manhattan.