|A Short History of Wine|
Did you know that:
A Short History of Wine is my first book on wine (but it won't be my last). I've included a lot of interesting facts, like those above. But what I think makes it distinctive (and much more than a book of anecdotes strung along a wine-line) is that I've touched on many themes that wine writers often leave out. So as well as telling the stories of viticulture, wine- making techniques, the wine trade, and the growth of wine regions and connoisseurship, I also write about drinking cultures, taverns, the relationship of women to wine, attitudes towards alcoholism and drunkenness, and other issues that are integral to a comprehensive history of wine.
What made me write it? Well, as a historian I've been interested in the history of wine for a long time, and it seemed odd that no one had put it all together in one place. Like other wine lovers, I had enjoyed Hugh Johnson's Story of Wine but, as he himself says, it's more a chronicle than a historyand it's a beautifully illustrated one, at that. My book is quite different. I've set out the origins of wine as best they can be told, then traced its history as a part of the human diet and as a beverage that was valued as a medicine, that could give immense social status, and that became prized for what were believed to be its links to divinity.
I think it's really important to understand wine historically from all these points of view. Take wine as a part of the daily diet. It wasn't always sniffed, swirled, chewed and slurped, as it is now by wine lovers who want to extract all the aromas and pleasures a glass will surrender. In fact, over time most wine has been quaffed with about as much thought as accompanied bread as it was gobbled down. Wine was just part of what you consumed to stay alive, and the most important thing was to get enough of it. Ancient Roman slaves, medieval soldiers, and nineteenth-century French workers all drank wine as part of their rations. They couldn't have cared less if their wine was unbalanced, had unripe tannins, orGod forbid!had a stemmy nose.
As long as it was made from grapes, was fermented to a reasonable degree of alcohol (usually a lot lower than most modern wine), and was drinkableeven if you had to hold your nosethat was good enough wine for most people lucky enough to drink it. Wine couldn't have been much better, given the way it was made until recently: grapes were crushed and fermented in dirty, open vats, and the result was so unbalanced that it went off within a year. All kinds of substances, including lead, berries, dyes, and a range of other things too appalling to list here (buy the book), were added to give colour, flavour, body, and additional life to the wine.
Alongside this history of wine as a commodity and (despite everything) a nutrient, runs its history as an icon. As early as the Ancient Egyptians, better-off and powerful men (they were usually men) started to distinguish among wines on the basis of something we would call "quality." As wine lovers know, quality is an elusive term that varies according to such things as cost: a wine might be good quality at $10, poor quality at $100. "Quality" is often used in an unhelpful way, like the German Qualitätswein designation that's used for more than 90 per cent of the wine made there. But however quality was defined, some wines stood out and, over time, certain wines and wines from certain regions began to command a premium. The reputations of regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy were built slowly, and were based both on the quality of their wine and on very careful commercial strategies that included, in Bordeaux, the château designations and the great 1855 classification.
During the millennia that wine has been consumed, elite wine consumers looked for quality, discussed the attributes of wine, and described colours, aromas, and other characteristics with all the flair of a Hugh Johnson and a Jancis Robinson. But because wine was valued as a medicine in earlier times, wine writers (who were also physicians) praised particular wines as diuretics and for their help in curing asthma, constipation, gall stones, and the like. Can you imagine Johnson or Robinson writing along these lines?
Well, I've covered all these issues (and many, many more) in A Short History of Wine. It's not a book that will help you choose a wine for your next dinner party or give you pointers about tasting wine. What it does is give you a real sense that wine is history in a bottle. Maybe it's because history fascinates me, but I appreciate knowing where it's all come from, how people thought about it, and how wine has been treated over time. It's also very reassuring to know how different modern wine is from the stuff most of our forbears drank!
Most critics have been very positive about A Short History of Wine, and here's what some of them (positive ones, of course) had to say:
"It has been a long time since anyone published a wine book which made you stand up and say 'My God! This is a real contribution to our understanding'. One exception this year is Rod Phillips's A Short History of Wine... which is short on pictures and rich in words... laudably lightly written." Giles MacDonogh, Decanter Magazine (London, U.K.)
"A deliciously smart combination of scholarship and commentary on 40 centuries of human life made better (and occasionally worse) by the love of wine... Concise, rich, and enormously entertaining, A Short History will be welcomed as a notable contribution to literature, and will be received with pleasure by academics and wine lovers alike." Boston Globe
"... really riveting read... Such wine luminaries as Messrs. Johnson, Coates, Stevenson, Clarke and Broadbent had best look to their Glenfiddichs, since a new name is about to be added to the list." Colin Breech Price, Literary Review (London, U.K.)
"Optimistic about the future of wine making and deeply versed in its past, Phillips is actively bridging the gap separating the curious novice and the connoisseur, and his enthusiasm is infectious enough to take even a standard-issue bottle of plonk and make it seem rare and luminous." Peter Schneider, Ottawa X Press
"Vividly... masterfully... Phillips blends a knowledgeable historical sweep with primary sources and social commentary to create a fascinating narrative of the world inside a bottle." Christine Buttery, Amazon.co.uk
"In conversation, [Phillips is] all breezy erudition and audacious charm. He makes you think about wine in interesting ways. What he has to say about wine trends... sends you back to the book again and again." Bruce Ward, Ottawa Citizen
"Rod Phillips does break new ground with his A Short History of Wine.... The books major virtue [is] a grand marshalling of conspicuous detail. Phillips unreels it plainly, yet almost every page contains a nugget or two that astonishes." Andrew Jefford, Evening Standard (London, U.K.)
If you want to buy a copy, here's the information:
Rod Phillips, A Short History of Wine (London: Penguin Books, 2000) ISBN 0-713-99432-0 Paperback (London: Penguin, 2001) ISBN 0-140-29028-1.
U.S. edition (New York: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2001): ISBN 0-06-621282-0.
Dutch and German-language editions were published in 2001. Portuguese and Korean editions are in press.
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