The Barnes & Noble Review
In October 1999, plans for a state visit to France by the president of Iran were disrupted because of a dispute over wine. The president of Iran, a Muslim, said he could not even sit at a table where wine would be served. The French declared that a state dinner without wine on the table was unthinkable. And so, the visit had to be changed to a "state visit" without an official dinner.
This incident, points out Rod Phillips, demonstrates the power of wine in divergent societies. Muhammad banned wine for the Muslims in the early seventh century, because he saw that excess wine made his followers destructive. The French have long regarded wine as an emblem of national identity and a facilitator of social relationships and alliances, thus mandatory for every important occasion.
Wine has long been considered something more than a simple beverage -- whether it is seen as a sacred drink, an inebriant, or the work of the Devil. Phillips, a Canadian history professor who teaches a course in the history of alcohol, reminds us that Bacchus presided over wine-friendly Rome and that Christ's first miracle at the wedding of Cana involved turning water into wine.
Phillips examines the flow of wine through history, from the earliest days in the Fertile Crescent to ancient Greece and Rome and through the Middle Ages and the Napoleonic wars to the early days of viticulture in the so-called New World -- California, South Africa, and Australia. He devotes a chapter to the Time of Troubles, which began with the phylloxera crisis of the late 1880s and continued with the advent of Prohibition in America. Phillips peppers his history with lively anecdotes even as he traces the advances in viticulture (where and how to plant the vines) and viniculture (how to extract juice from the grapes, age it, store it, and deliver it to the public). His somewhat scholarly history will be welcomed by any avid wine lover.
The consummate companion to any good glass of wine, this engaging book delves into the robust history of the beverage and investigates its vitality as what Phillips calls "a product, a commodity and an icon." An opening anecdote regarding the cancellation of a recent Iranian state visit to France (the French demanded dinner wine; Muslim law forbids alcohol consumption) perfectly frames both the range of cultural dispositions toward wine and the complex role it has played on the stage of world history. Investigating archeological and botanical evidence, Phillips, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, travels 7,000 years into the past to uncover the historical roots of wine-production and, by detailing the earliest bacchanals and trade routes through which wine entered public life and value systems, he investigates the role of wine as a commodity. In addition to studying the shifting economic and cultural importance of wine throughout history, Phillips also closely analyzes the effects of alcoholism and drink-induced violence. Wine, he poetically suggests, can be both a yield of the gods and the fruit of the devil, a commodity that paradoxically crosses borders while establishing lines between classes, and a product "of society more than of nature." Phillips's work wonderfully reveals all the histories readers might only have guessed at while thumbing through Chaucer, Boccaccio or Rimbaud, and his book provides a comprehensive reading of Western civilization through the bell of a wine glass. (Nov. 1) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Phillips, a history professor and author of several other books, including Society, State and Nation, looks at the various sociological, economic, political, and religious forces that have shaped the supply and demand for wine from ancient times to the 20th century. Phillips does a good job of illustrating how such factors as storage methods, means of transportation, changing tastes, and taxes have influenced what wines are produced and consumed in various parts of the world, but the broad scope of his work limits the amount of space devoted to any one particular wine-producing region in a given time period. The author's dense, scholarly writing style may deter readers in search of a quick, popular overview of this subject, for which Hugh Johnson's Vintage: The Story of Wine (1989. o.p.) would be a better choice, but academic and large public libraries in need of this type of historical survey should consider this for their collections. John Charles, Scottsdale P.L., AZ Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
A limpid overview nestles wine-that most charged and symbolic of foods-within its historical and cultural contexts. Wine's past is as rich and complex as anything ever put inside a bottle, writes Phillips (History/Carleton Univ.), as a result of circumstances both natural and social. And it is close attention to this pageantry that makes Phillips's history so estimable-besides its spirited writing (and his wisdom in avoiding the dreaded winespeak, tasting notes scarcely figuring in the text)-with its facility in mixing the big trans-historic picture with the anecdotal episodes that make it up, giving the tale a human dimension. Few subjects have such a wealth of oddments, and Phillips treats them like beloved children. Working chronologically, the author is able to pry out nuggets of wine lore as far back as the Stone Age (ironically, of course, it is in Iran where vines may first have been tended), but he really gets cranking with the Greeks and Romans, who truly appreciated the "gladness of the grape," as Euripides put it, both in terms of its medicinal use (Hippocrates was a champion of its consumption) and its democratic qualities (as Thomas Jefferson would later say, "No nation is drunken where wine is cheap"). Phillips points out that the Dark Ages had at least the glint of wine-wine cups have been found carved with the words "Give me a drink"-and that wine's ability to facilitate friendship and alliance has been deeply appreciated in social and diplomatic circles. He's as comfortable talking about the hot-cold relationship of wine and religion as he is discussing the advancements in viticultural and vinicultural techniques; he is also at ease, unlike most wine fans, talking aboutthe dead end of chronic drunkenness. A laudably compact and versed telling of wine's story.
The Boston Globe
“Concise, rich, and enormously entertaining.”
Food & Wine
“This is a must-read backgrounder for budding wine-history Ph.D.’s”
Read an Excerpt
On the Trail of the Earliest WinesFrom the Fertile Crescent to Egypt
The origins of wine are as cloudy as the first vintages must have been. We will never know who first allowed grape juice to ferment to the point that it became wine, just as we will never know who ground grain and baked it to produce the first loaf of bread. But the impossibility of tracing the very first batch of wine ever made has not deterred archaeologists and historians from searching for the earliest evidence, a quest that has taken them back more than 7,000 years. There is, of course, no possibility that 7,000-year-old wine could have survived in liquid form. What was not consumed at the time would have evaporated long ago. The most we can expect to find now is earthenware jars or other vessels bearing evidence that they might have held wine: the remains of grapes seeds, stalks and empty skins or stains and residues from wine. Evidence of this kind has been found in pottery jars at a number of sites in the Middle East dating from the neolithic period (Late Stone Age), which lasted from about 8500 to 4000 BC.
Even then, seeds and other residue of grapes are not in themselves evidence of wine. Jars were used to store both dry and liquid goods, and jars with grape remains could have originally contained fresh grapes, raisins or even unfermented grape juice. But it is likely that grapes or grape juice stored in jars would ferment and become wine, especially in the warm temperatures of that part of the world. More important, we alsoknow from literary and pictorial sources from later periods that wine was fermented and stored in jars and that skins, seeds or other grape residue was often left in it, rather than being filtered or strained out.
The most persuasive evidence of early wine has been obtained by a combination of chemical analysis and archaeological inferences. At a number of neolithic sites in the Zagros mountains, in what is now western Iran, archaeologists have located jars that have reddish and yellowish deposits on their interior walls. Analysis of these deposits has shown them to be rich in tartaric acid and calcium tartrate. These are good indicators that they are the remains of a grape product that evaporated thousands of years ago, because grapes are rare among fruits in that they accumulate tartaric acid. Although it is still not direct, unassailable evidence of wine, the presence of a liquid grape product in a jar leads us to assume that wine must have been made, for, as suggested above, at room temperature in that region any grape juice kept in a container for more than a short time would have fermented into wine. It is not clear why some of the deposits were red and others yellow, but it is possible that they are the remains of different kinds of wine.
The earliest of these neolithic finds were six nine-litre jars embedded in the floor of a mud brick building, dating from 5400-5000 BC, in the community of Hajji Firuz Tepe in the northern region of the Zagros mountains. These vessels contained not only the residues appropriate to grape juice but also bore deposits of resin. Resin from the terebinth tree that grew wild in the region was widely used as a preservative in ancient wine because it has the ability to kill certain bacteria, and tree resin (generally pine) is still used in Greek retsina wine.
Beyond the fact that wine existed in Hajji Firuz seven thousand years ago, we know little about its derivation or consumption. The community is in a region where vines grew wild in ancient times (and still do), but it is not clear whether the wine was produced from wild or cultivated grapes. The volume of wine that could have been kept in these vessels a total of fifty-four litres suggests that wine was made on a fairly large scale. Consumption, however, could have been gradual and extended over the year following the harvest: not only was the wine preserved by resin but clay stoppers about the same size as the jars' mouths were located close by, suggesting that the wine might have been protected effectively from the air.
Further evidence of ancient wine comes from Godin Tepe, a trading post and administrative and military centre also in the Zagros mountains, but much further south than Hajji Firuz. There, archaeologists discovered thirty- and sixty-litre earthenware jars dating from 3500-3000 BC, just after the neolithic period. The deposits in these jars not only contained tartaric acid but they lay in a line along one side of the interior of the jars from the base to the shoulder. This suggests that the vessels were lying on their sides when they contained the liquid and that the deposits remained when the liquid evaporated. These jars also had clay stoppers, which reinforces this impression; the vessels might have been stored like bottles in modern wine cellars to protect the wine from oxygen, which would turn it into vinegar. Other discoveries at Godin Tepe included a large basin that might have been used for treading grapes and a funnel that could have been used for straining grape juice before or after fermentation.
Future discoveries might well push the date of the earliest known wine back even further or, more likely, broaden the known geographical range of early viniculture. Even so, we will never know who first made wine or the circumstances under which it was made. This has not deterred scholars from speculating about possible scenarios. One suggests that as pre-neolithic humans foraged for food, they gathered wild grapes into an animal hide or crude wooden container and that some of the berries at the bottom ruptured and exuded their juice. 'As the grapes are gradually eaten over the next day or two, this juice will ferment... Reaching...'A Short History of Wine. Copyright © by Rod Phillips. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.