Book Review: Wine by Thomas Pellechia

Review by Tim Patterson

Unlike the fads and fancies and 15-minute trends that come with every new vintage, the history of wine tends to stay put: the wine gods from ancient Greece and Rome don’t get dethroned retroactively, and the 1855 classification of properties in Bordeaux, for better or for worse, said what it said. So even though Thomas Pellechia’s Wine has been around for a while, it hasn’t gone out of date, and it still provides an excellent read for anyone curious about the complex interplay between this amazing beverage and the history of the world.

As the subtitle — The 8,000-Year-Old Story of the Wine Trade — suggests, this book isn’t about the joys of particular glasses and bottles of wine, but rather about the gradual transformation of wine from an indulgence of the rich and privileged to an important globalized mass-market economic sector. Besides writing about wine, Pellechia has been a commercial winemaker and a wineshop owner, and thus the book is dedicated to the people who get wine from the vineyard to the table, “to that wine merchant nearby, the one with the great selection of wines augmented by a pleasant, passionate, knowledgeable staff–you know the shop I mean.”

What emerges from this eight-millennium overview is just how important wine has been to the unfolding of human history in much or the world, a commodity like few others, preoccupying governments, dominating trade routes, enabling and demolishing fortunes, a beverage worth fighting wars for. It’s a bit reminiscent of recent books that have re-interpreted the world through the prism of salt, or codfish, or the Irish or the Basques–though Pellechia is content to tell his tale without making extravagant claims.

Wine is full of intriguing characters and revealing factoids, not dry tables of economic statistics. Did you know that the father of Galen, the famous second century AD physician, wrote about the use of sulfur dioxide in winemaking? I didn’t. Or that the Gauls (the French) showed a preference for wooden barrels over stone amphorae as wine storage vessels from very early on? Or that the Portuguese created the first system of defined appellations, not to mention the modern, shouldered wine bottle? Or that the particular line of business that had John Hancock so mad at the British Crown that he put his oversized autograph on the Declaration of Independence was the Madeira trade?

Pellechia’s book won’t help you find the best values in recent-release Central Coast Chardonnays, or solve the problem of what wine to pair with smoked trout hash, but Wine will take you on a fascinating tour of the commercial evolution of the world’s most important adult beverage.

buy-from-tan.gif Thomas Pellechia, Wine: The 8,000-Year-Old Story of the Wine Trade, Running Press 2006, $26.00 hardback.

Tim Patterson writes for several wine magazines, blogs at Blind Muscat’s Cellarbook, co-edits the Vinography book review section, and is the author of Home Winemaking for Dummies.