Monday, August 31, 2009

Off the Shelf: 'American Vintage' by Paul Lukacs

Who doesn't love wine? It's great with a meal, without a meal or as a meal. And it's wine that is the subject of Paul Lukacs' "American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine."

His tale begins with Nicholas Longworth, who settled in Cincinnati in 1803. Eventually, he owned the first commercially successful winery in the U.S. He wanted wine to be a tool to forge an agrarian republic, living off the fat of the land. What I found interesting -- and it certainly makes sense in hindsight -- is that wine was the main or only use of grapes in the early 1800s.

Later, leading up to Prohibition, wine was used in taverns as a liquor. It's interesting to see that that perception has changed and that wine is now viewed more familial and less as a liquor.

Prohibition, unsurprisingly, shrunk the number of commercial wineries, from about 1,000 before to about 150 after. The Depression saw the industry change as speculators began to populate it by buying on the cheap and then ramping up production. Without that care to the product, it didn't help to enhance wine's image.

But Prohibition has left a stamp on the industry in other ways, too. For example, inter-state laws and regulations prove heady for some wine producers and fine wine advocates. Washington had a law to protect its wines, but a lot of wines grown in the state in the mid-1900s were cheap and, well, awful.

In 1966, Robert Mondavi left Charles Krug to start his own company. Before I started getting into wine and learning more about it, those were probably the only two names I could recognize. It's interesting to note how interconnected the California wine industry was in the 20th century.

Like a lot of other industries, it's interesting to note how commercialized the wine industry is. Coca-Cola, Pillsbury, Nestle and Schlitz Brewing are just some of the corporations that have owned a piece of the wine dollar. Nestle helped to breathe life into the Beringer label.

Boutique wines began to rise, and they began with Chardonnay. The varietal quickly became the before-dinner cocktail alternative.

Wine tended to rise with that of American cuisine. And regionally, one of the dishes mentioned in the book is sour cherry soup. I've heard of it in passing, and certainly never tried it. But the mention of it made me want to taste it some day.

Later, terroir (French for place in different senses: geographically, geologically, meteorologically, for some) began to creep into the industry. It's interesting because that certainly dovetailed in with the themes from Longworth and his ideals for wine in the early time of wine in America.

And wine has its own overseeing board, the American Viticultural Area, which I had never heard about.
  • And Julia Child note: "While Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were telling American women to get out of the kitchen, Julia Child showed them how to change their role in it." I just thought that was a great way to put her influence on American cooking.


Lo said...

So, was the book a good read?
Just saw the movie "bottle shock" the other evening -- fun, if you haven't seen it. Not quite as heavy on the history, but definitely part of the tale.

Dan said...

The book was good, but it was a bit slow at times. I didn't express it as much in the post, but it delved into the history of a lot of winemakers, especially in California.

I haven't seen that movie yet, so I'll have to add it to the Netflix list. Thanks for the tip.