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 about the dead end of chronic drunkenness.
A laudably compact and versed telling of wine’s story.