Matthew Price, writer and book critic
Wine and Spirits: From “Ho Bryan” to the Vesper Martini
By Matthew Price. The Boston Globe, December 31, 2012

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 world­view 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 ever­shifting 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 ten­pence 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.

SELECTED ARTICLES BY
MATTHEW PRICE

The Long Trail: Vermont's venerable hiking challenge
Newsday, August 23, 2015

Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South
The Boston Globe, July 23, 2015

India's Second World War
The National, July 9, 2015

Stalin's Daughter
Newsday, June 4, 2015

The Tears of the Rajas
The National, April 30, 2015

See all posted articles »

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