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Book Review: American Vintage by Paul Lukacs

American_Vintage_cover.jpgReview by W. Blake Gray.

Is wine food or alcohol? Most Americans would immediately choose "alcohol," perhaps laughing at the question.

In Europe, though, that wasn't the case for centuries. Before water purification became widespread, wine was safer to drink than water. The idea that wine is primarily an intoxicant is relatively recent, and like so many influential memes in the world today, it comes from the United States.

Paul Lukacs' book American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine was inspired by the author's realization at an Italian wine event that U.S. wine has become not only the best in the world (as measured by critics' ratings), but that U.S. wine -- fruit-forward, big-bodied and high in alcohol -- is changing the style of wine throughout the world. Even those who vehemently oppose the former idea must concede the latter.

If all Lukacs, chair of the English department at Loyola College in Maryland, was interested in was those two points, he could have started his timeline as late as the 1960s, perhaps with the opening of the idea lab that was Robert Mondavi Winery. In fact, he expends a lot of verbiage assuring us that American wine, until the end of the 1960s, almost invariably reached its highest peak at "serviceable."

Instead, digging into the history of American wine, Lukacs found himself fascinated by its relationship to alcohol. This continuing theme of the book ends up far more interesting than another retelling of how Mike Grgich and Warren Winiarski proved, in Jim Barrett's words, that "kids from the sticks" could make wines better than the best of France, and a helluva lot more useful than one more polemic about high-alcohol wines.

Prohibition was a defining time in America's relationship with wine and liquor, as well as crime and honesty. Lukacs points out that if the wine industry had been smarter, Prohibition could have been an era when Americans became wine drinkers.

Here's why: When Thomas Jefferson opined about the benefits of wine, one of his strongest points was that it led to temperance. What Jefferson meant by temperance was not teetotalling, but drinking wine in moderation with dinner, the way it had been consumed in Europe for centuries. Like many citizens of this always-culturally-conservative country, Jefferson didn't want to see his neighbors getting blasted at the saloon on bourbon and rye.

Prohibition could easily have gone in a different direction. Home winemakers were allowed to make a fairly large amount of wine for their own consumption, and some California grapegrowers actually did better shipping their grapes to the East Coast than they had selling to the California Wine Association monopoly that had dominated the industry for more than 20 years before Prohibition. A few politicians argued that wine should be entirely exempt from Prohibition. Imagine how that would have changed the roaring '20s: no speakeasies, no culture of lawlessness, less corruption, less capital transferred to criminal enterprises.

Instead, the country got a dozen years of bathtub gin that promoted the sanctimonious-in-public, sin-in-private behavior we still exhibit regarding sex and media. For the most part, unlike French, Spaniards and Italians, Americans don't drink to appreciate the beverage; they drink to drink.

Lukacs blames the wine industry for not promoting its product as one of temperance and culture, instead selling it in saloons as just another flavor of booze. He points out a number of occasions in the late 19th century when the wine industry had a chance to differentiate itself from liquor purveyors, but chose not to.

The disturbing thing about this observation is that little has really changed regarding wine's place in American culture. Those of us who write about wine or work in the industry are a step removed from the way middle America sees it.

I'm writing this from San Francisco, where wine does belong on the dinner table for the most part. But I read this book while on vacation in Honduras. The island of Roatan is dominated by American tourists, many from middle America. People who drank wine there didn't stop at one bottle; they stopped at near-unconsciousness. When I told people I work in the wine industry, the inevitable reaction was not "Do you get to taste a lot of good stuff?" but "How great it must be to get wasted every day!"

I'll get off my high horse now (horse riding makes my butt hurt). Lukacs' other main point of interest, which is far less convincing, is his respect for and concentration on non-West Coast wines, and even worse, wines not made from vinifera grapes. It's interesting to read a book on American wine history that's not focused on California, but if you're writing a book about American wine's "rise" by world standards, you're wasting your time talking about wine from Ohio and Indiana and Missouri. And please, hold the Catawba and pass the Cab and Pinot.

Lukacs is a very polite writer; he reads like a courtly and well-read man who would be pleasant company at the dinner table. The downside of this is the constant feeling that he's keeping a soft focus on the foibles of wine celebrities.

For example, he cites Ellen Hawkes' excellent "Blood and Wine" as a source on the Gallo brothers, but doesn't use her many hard-hitting and fascinating anecdotes. Thus I found the book most interesting in sections when it discussed people about whom I know little, like Nicholas Longworth, whose Ohio-grown pink Catawba made him the first commercially successful winemaker in America. I also was interested to learn that former preacher Thomas Welch invented non-alcoholic grape juice because he was, in words I would use but Lukacs never would, a teetotalling zealot and insufferable prig. Seriously: Jesus could work miracles, yet He didn't see the need to turn water into non-alcoholic grape juice. (Oops, high horse again. Sorry.)

But for sections about Mondavi or the Gallos or Grgich, among others, what's not written here is more interesting than what is.

I can't finish this review without pointing out something that threw me off at the beginning: Page 3, to be exact. About the famous Judgment of Paris tasting, Lukacs writes, "Since Spurrier and Gallagher had promoted the event extensively, a crowd of spectators, including a number of journalists, came as well."

That's not true, and it's not a minor mistake. To be fair, Lukacs wrote this five years before the one (1) journalist at the event, George Taber, published his own book. But the fact that Taber was the only journalist present, and that he could speak French fluently, was crucial to the event's historic importance, because Taber got complete access to the judges' comments, while a flock of journalists would probably have been held back.

Sadly, I spent the next 359 pages doubting the veracity of everything. Did Thomas Welch really invent a system for simplifying spelling? Was Warren Winiarski really inspired to make wine by a winemaker in Maryland? If there's ever another edition of this book, that early error needs to be corrected.

Paul Lukacs, American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine, W.W. Norton 2005, $13.56, (Paperback).

W. Blake Gray is a San Francisco writer and Chairman of the Vintners Hall of Fame Electoral College. His high horse is named Trigger Happy.

Comments (11)

Dylan wrote:
12.29.08 at 6:46 PM

Is it food or alcohol? I think that's an interesting way to approach wine from it's cultural standpoint. I grew up in a European household and wine was almost always part of meal. It wasn't used like other drinks to "wash it down." Water could do just fine for that. Instead, the wine served a greater purpose, it was meant to be tasted. Just like food isn't just nutrition and is meant to be tasted.

PhilippeL wrote:
12.30.08 at 5:29 AM

Our vision about wine is directly related to our education and life experience. Pick any country and I'm fairly convinced you'll have all the spectrum of answers from 'wine is food' to 'wine is alchool'. My personal vision about wine today (I grew up in France) is that it is a fabulous drink to be shared. As a kid I always saw wine bottles lined up on tables during family diners - but never considered as the opportunity to get wasted. Interestingly, as a kid I used to spend my summer break in a farm, and once I was served wine for diner. I considered this a great priviledge...a kind of recognition of beeing someone! (to be true, the glass was filled with 1/4 of wine, 3/4 of water...but I didn't care; what mattered was the ceremonial around sharing wine with the adults). This meant a lot about wine: more than a drink or food, it was also the seal between generations and friendship. Today I'm no longer a kid but this vision about wine remains deeply in me; and each time I have the opportunity to share great wines with others, I simply tell to myself: this is all wine is about.
As 2008 ends and we've all been directly or indirectly hit by the bad economy, open a great bottle of wine and share it with your friends; escape from the materiel world and enjoy the moment...life is too short to neglect family, friends and good wines!

Tommaso wrote:
12.30.08 at 5:38 PM

Hello W. Blake Gray,

I am happy to find you again. I used to read your column in the San Francisco Chronicle. I know you like sauvignon blanc. Are you planning to write about this wine in the future?

Roatan wrote:
12.30.08 at 9:52 PM

Perhaps there are many living and visiting Roatan from middle America, it depends where you spent your time(in a resort perhaps) and when you there(cruise ship day perhaps), the island is 33 miles long. There are also a lot of wonderful Hondurans, Canadians, Italians, British and Europeans. There are fine restaurants which serve fine wines.

I love great quality wine, I live on a road in California with vineyards and winery’s but, when I am in the tropics it is ice cold beer or rum blender drinks, lobster, fish.... By the way Mr. Gray, middle American’s are some great folks that you can count on.

01.01.09 at 6:44 PM

I also agree with PhillipeL's statement that our feelings about wine have much to do with how we were raised to view it, as well as with our education level and vista of personal experience in regards to the subject. Those of us who were taught to see it as an essential part of the harmony created by a meal constructed of well-planned components will naturally see it as more than "just alcohol" or something to toss back in order to get wasted.

I grew up in much the way PhillipeL did -- seeing wine as something to be savored, shared, and enjoyed as part of a cozy get-together or a delicious meal. I, too, remember being allowed to have my first glass as a privilege that made me feel thoroughly included as part of those events.

I too find it interesting to see wine approached from the "is it food or alcohol" standpoint, as I've also noticed that people usually see it as one or the other depending on their personal background. I will definitely have to add this book to my reading list. It sounds fascinating.

Weston wrote:
01.04.09 at 12:17 PM

Well it also doesn't help when Colleges don't stop binge drinking.

Weston wrote:
01.04.09 at 12:19 PM

I guess also It does not help with our colleges in a way promote binge drinking or atleast don't stop it. Then again I guess that can go back to our Movies about college.

Richard Jones wrote:
01.05.09 at 8:53 AM

Thanks for your perceptive review of American Vintage. I think most, if not quite all, of your points hit fairly well on target.

However, your review seems to imply that non-West Coast wines come only from Catawba (and perhaps other Vitis labrusca, French hybrid and assorted native grapes). You sell yourself short on this point, for I'm sure that you have tasted any number of high quality red and white vinifera wines from America's plains and East Coast. and, if you have been lucky, one or two quite decent wines from non-vinifera grapes.

I presume the "winemaker in Maryland" you refer to was Philip Wagner. If so, you (inadvertently) belittle this man's importance in wine. (Balderdash, I say! A California winemaker being influenced by some patzer in Maryland? Stuff and nonsense, sir!) In fact, Wagner was pretty much the Eastern equivalent of Robert Mondavi and Doug Meader, long before Mondavi and Meader began their research labs and field trials. In his introductory page on American wines in The World Atlas of Wines, Hugh Johnson selected Wagner as one of the most important figures in U.S. wine history.

These minor issues aside, your review presents an insightful and knowledgeable view of Paul Lukacs' book.

Blake Gray wrote:
01.06.09 at 4:56 PM

Hi Richard, thanks for your comments. Yes, the Maryland winemaker was Philip Wagner, and I confess I know little of his work. So maybe I need to read a whole book about him.

I did not mean to imply that non-West Coast wines come only from non-vinifera grapes. But I am a vinifera-wine snob, and Lukacs is not. To me there is a world of difference between a fine Long Island Riesling and a wine made from Concord grapes. Lukacs defends the quality of both, causing me to not rely on his praise for either.

Roatan: I have never been on a cruise ship, nor do I stay in resorts (unless somebody else is paying). Did one stereotype deserve another? Perhaps. Re Middle Americans: Forgive me, I'm just about over the 2004 election.

Tommaso: Thank you. Yes, I still love Sauvignon Blanc and I'm sure I'll be writing about it again.

Blake Gray wrote:
01.06.09 at 5:32 PM

Roatan: After thinking about your comment a little more, I am perplexed: If I had traveled on a cruise ship, why would that make my observation about middle American binge drinking invalid? Because I must report that the most flagrant binge drinkers were the hordes of cruise ship tourists I spent an unpleasant morning surrounded by in West Bay. One of them said to a local, "I don't see any reason why I should learn Spanish. I don't have any need to use it." In Honduras, she said this.

Anonymous wrote:
11.09.10 at 11:34 AM

I drink several glasses of wine a night and simply can't imagine how anyone got anything done substituting wine for water in the old days! Not only am I loopy after 2-3 glasses, but I'm a horrible conversationalist; saying things that should never escape ones lips. I always think I sound so forthcoming and loquacious at the time, but regret it all the next day. Plus, drinking wine makes me really thirsty and if I don't pound down a couple of glasses before bed, I'm sure to wake up with a hangover the next day. Seriously, I think the whole "replace water with wine because its safer" was a myth. Just my 2 cents ;-)

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