November 30, 2012

When Noah left the ark and his sons began repopulating the Earth, he decided to settle down and plant a vineyard. It’s the first mention of wine in the Bible, a symbol of God’s covenant with Noah and the beginning of agrarian society in the Jewish scripture.

And then Noah got drunk and “uncovered” himself. When one of his sons “saw the nakedness of his father,” Noah cursed him. These few short verses in Genesis 9:20-27 give Joel Butler and Randall Heskett fodder in “Divine Vintage” for a titillating and rather lurid discussion of who did exactly what to whom inside Noah’s tent.

The episode also establishes a duality in man’s relationship to the grape: Wine is a gift from God, a means of approaching the divine, yet it has the power to destroy. The door to enlightenment also leads to downfall. The ancients considered wine divine because it occurs naturally, but it also turns to vinegar unless man intervenes to stop it.

“By succumbing to the intoxicating and negative side of wine, Noah had broken his covenant with God and had to make amends by encouraging humanity to propagate the vine and respect its power,” the authors write. Noah is an appropriate starting point for their story; the earliest archaeological evidence of wine comes from the Caucasus region near Mount Ararat, where the ark is thought to have settled. From there, the authors trace it across the Fertile Crescent into Palestine, whose wines were favored by the Egyptian pharoahs, then to the Nile Valley, Greece and the Roman Empire.

Butler is a noted wine judge and writer and one of the first two Americans to earn the title Master of Wine. Heskett, president of Boulder University, is a biblical scholar. Tracing legends, they note similarities in the stories of Osiris, Dionysius and Jesus, and fill in the story as documentary evidence becomes firmer in Roman times. The book has its spiritual side, such as an account of Jesus’s first miracle, turning water into wine, foreshadowing the transubstantiation of wine into his blood at the Last Supper.


’Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age’ by Randall Heskett and Joel Butler (Palgrave Macmillan)

And there are surprises for wine lovers. For example, the Cistercian monks of Burgundy are often credited for realizing the effects of terroir, one vineyard’s superiority over another. Yet the ancient Egyptians discovered that some lands along the Nile produced better wines than others, and the Romans favored the wines of Falernum and Sorrento. Pliny the Elder, best known to wine lovers for the phrase “In vino veritas” (In wine is truth), chronicled the top 87 wines of his era.

The second half of the book forms a kind of travelogue through the modern wine crescent of the eastern Mediterranean as the authors visit wineries along the route of the apostle Paul’s second missionary journey. It’s an interesting itinerary, though less compelling except to readers who travel in the region.

While “Divine Vintage” describes similarities throughout the ages, Paul Lukacs’s “Inventing Wine” focuses on how the perception of wine has changed over time, through wars, revolution, prosperity and deprivation. A former wine columnist for the Washington Times and Washingtonian magazine and an English professor at Loyola University in Baltimore, Lukacs is the award-winning author of “American Vintage” and “The Great Wines of America.” “Inventing Wine” is broader and more ambitious in scope than his previous books, looking at how wine and Western civilization grew up together. He emphasizes disruption and change rather than continuity.

In Lukacs’s meticulously researched history, wine was reinvented as a secular drink in the Middle Ages, then later as a symbol of the good life or even works of art. After a brief golden era in the early 1800s, wine suffered a century of decline at the hands of nature — the advent of vine diseases and the devastation caused by phylloxera — as well as its makers, who cheapened its reputation through fraud and poor quality. The temperance movement linked it to ­winos on Skid Row, and drinkers turned to cheaper beer and more potent spirits.

Lukacs is most compelling when he describes wine’s modern evolution into what he calls the “international style.” This style is “flamboyant” — fruity and lush, with potent alcohol — and global, as a revolution in viticultural techniques and winemaking technology has made it possible to produce high-quality wine throughout the world, not just in Europe. The emphasis on technique and technology has made celebrities of both winemakers and wine writers, most notably Robert M. Parker Jr., who championed specific vintners and told consumers which wines to buy. Ratings such as Parker’s 100-point system became a popular way of distinguishing good wines from the merely ordinary; for while the modern era may have brought about the demise of bad wine, it also represented the victory of style over terroir. “International wines” tend to taste alike — a cabernet is a cabernet, whether made in California or Chile.

“Wine’s newfound ability to come in styles that can transcend both region and grape variety is the most important aspect of the current era of globalization,” Lukacs writes. “For many consumers, a wine’s ability to be true to a style even more than either a region or a grape has become a defining mark of quality.”

Lukacs celebrates this globalization of wine and seems content to let his story end with the present. He dismisses critics who argue that the new international style robs wine of its mystery and character. These critics advocate less flamboyant, more natural wines and a return to terroir. To Lukacs, they are a flip side of globalization — the choices made possible by the new technologies allow vintners to make wines in any style they want. But might these critics not be the seed of wine’s next “invention”? Flamboyance is a consumer preference, subject to change. One thing we learn from Lukacs’s book is that tomorrow’s wine will differ dramatically from today’s.

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Dave McIntyre is The Washington Post’s wine columnist.

DIVINE VINTAGE

Following the Wine Trail From Genesis to the Modern Age

By Randall Heskett and Joel Butler

Palgrave Macmillan. 240 pp. $27

INVENTING WINE

A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures

By Paul Lukacs

Norton. 350 pp. $28.95

Dave McIntyre is a wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com.