Look Where Most Others Don’t

You don’t need to consult a scholar or master sommelier to find the right wine for your next gala or dinner party. But if you did ask renowned wine expert Paul Lukacs, he’d have a simple piece of advice.

“I wouldn’t, if I’m throwing a gala, worry so much about the name on the label,” said Lukacs, who has been critiquing and writing about wine for more than 20 years. “I’d worry about what the content of the bottle tastes like.”

Paul Lukacs

Paul Lukacs

Sure, people in Palm Beach, like most places, enjoy Chardonnay and Cabernet, two of the leading varietals in the country.

“But I’d also look for wines that are a little bit offbeat, let’s say that are not something that one finds in every restaurant or, if you’re going to lots of galas, that aren’t at every gala.”

Lukacs, a professor of English at Loyola University of Maryland and a James Beard, Cliquot and IACP-award winner, is the author of the new book, “Inventing Wine: A new history of one of the world’s most ancient pleasures.”

Not Plato’s wine

The book focuses on the history of wine and examines wine’s changing role in societies since it was first tasted 8,000 years ago.

While today wine is as common as food and music at celebrations, that wasn’t always the case, a fact that caught Lukacs, the author of two other books on wine’s history, by surprise.

Inventing Wine by Paul Lukacs

‘Inventing Wine’ by Paul Lukacs

“The original idea of the book was going to be a book that celebrated wine’s unchanging role in Western culture for thousands of years,” he said.

“When I started doing research for the book, I increasingly became convinced that this simply isn’t true. That wine, in fact, plays very, very different cultural roles throughout history, and that its story is marked not by continuity, by sameness, but instead is marked by disruption and change.”

In ancient Rome, Babylon and Egypt, for example, consuming wine was a way to communicate with the gods. In classical Greece, it was believed that god was within the wine itself. So drawing a straight line in the history of wine from ancient times until today is impossible.

“The standard story of wine is a story of continuity, in which people think it’s really pretty exciting that we drank what Plato drank. And I want to argue that we don’t drink what Plato drank, both because the liquid would taste very, very different and because it played a fundamentally different cultural role in that civilization than it does in ours, and I would extend that from the ancient world through much of its history since then, that wine only really starts to become modern and recognizable to us 200 to 250 years ago.”

There were several milestones beginning a few centuries ago that were key to developing the wine we recognize today, Lukacs said.

The development of bottles and corks, for example, were key to preventing oxidation, the great enemy of wine, and keeping wine stable over time.

Additionally, the cultural role of wine changed dramatically beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries. “From originally being a spiritual need, a physical need, a caloric need in the Middle Ages, then to becoming a choice, something that people deliberately chose from among many different options,” according to Lukacs.

A third significant development, traced to the second half of the 20th century, was “the radical narrowing of the qualitative gap and stylistic gap between ordinary, everyday wine, inexpensive wine, and so-called fine wine. These used to be very, very different from each other. They now are increasingly similar in terms of the stylistic models that they aim for and in terms of overall quality,” he said.

Look at the less common

Today, as wine has exploded in popularity, there are varieties and price points to suit almost every taste. For the adventurous seeking value and something different, Lukacs suggests looking for wines from places like the Alto Adige region in northern Italy; or in Argentina where, for example, Torrontés, a white grape, is cultivated; or in Galicia, in northwest Spain, where Albariño, another white, is made.

For the anxious gala chairman, it’s easy: Look for wines made in the style you like in places people wouldn’t normally look. Or else, pour Champagne or a non-Champagne sparkling wine.

After all, he said, “Nothing makes people feel more festive than wine with bubbles.”

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