SAN FRANCISCO — In many areas of the world, wine is such an integral part of daily life that no one would think of ranking the merits of one bottle against another. In those areas, it is just a mere beverage but a most necessary ingredient in the upgrading of the quality of life.
In America, wine is perceived by most Americans as merely the admission pass to snob's paradise. Except for its regular, daily, moderate use by a few ethnic groups, wine is ignored by more than a third of American society, many of whom still regard it with fear, feeling it to be akin to demon rum. It has been estimated that two-thirds of all the wine bought in the United States is bought by 20% of the purchasing households.
And thus the role of wine in world civilization is known by so few Americans. Wine "weaves in with human history from its very beginnings as few, if any, other products do . . . wine alone is charged with sacramental meaning, with healing powers; indeed with a life of its own."
From the foreword to his new book does Hugh Johnson state the case that wine is, "before all else, a human story," and a story that has never been told in full.
Indeed, in his book "Vintage: The Story of Wine," Johnson finally, and glowingly, lifts wine to its rightful place as an integral part of the history of man.
"Vintage" has just been published (Simon & Schuster: $39.95) and it is long overdue, but timely since the debate about the effects of wine and all other distilled spirits are making spirited conversation, fodder for the "taxationists" as well as an argument for attorneys who seek reparations from companies who produce alcoholic beverages for failing to tell people that the products have the potential to intoxicate.
Johnson--who holds a liberal arts degree from Cambridge University and is considered a superb researcher--claims modestly that he is not a historian. So this book is not labeled as a history of wine. Yet this magnificent work digs more deeply into the roots of the vine than any book I have ever read (and I've got a lot of wine books). One reason is that Johnson used a professional historian, Helen Bettinson of Cambridge, to do much of the research for the book in its four-year creation.
Most significantly, the 480-page book breaks new ground in discussing the path wine took from its (probable) accidental discovery in the dim past, to the (likely) cultivation of the vine specifically for wine production about 7,000 years ago.
All of this is presented in a beautifully written, flowing text that includes references to the use of wine in all eras of human existence, in all societies, and in all forms from religious to medicinal to bacchanalian.
It's true that other histories of wine have been written (and many of them are referenced in the extensive bibliography), but Johnson pointed out that few of these books were written with the general reader in mind, and few of these past efforts have included illustrative photos and maps. (The Robert Mondavi mission program, in which wine's history is discussed, is one of the better discussions of wine's past. Bettinson and Johnson helped the Mondavis with their research.)
The Johnson book is not a textbook.
"A history like this was never before written for the general reader, for the international reader and I knew it had to be made palatable," said Johnson in an interview last week during a national tour. "I could have done a straight narrative, and there is so much material to draw from, but I had to find stories that would illustrate what happened."
The project began more than four years ago, Johnson said, and included, midway in production, a side trip into the realm of film. Realizing he had a monumental research task on his hands that would take him thousands of miles around the globe, Johnson sought and found funding to produce what initially was conceived as a 10-part series of video tapes, half-hour episodes on 10 different vinous topics.
Villa Banfi sponsored the project and Johnson went on the road to film them--to Georgia in the Soviet Union (one of the earliest regions to cultivate the vine for wine and still a thriving wine-growing region), to Bordeaux, to California, to the southern hemisphere and elsewhere.
The project, sold in advance to the U.S. Public Broadcasting System, grew more complex as Johnson toured, and at one point expanded to 12 episodes. A 13th was added because the material was so voluminous. In fact, a huge amount of material was never used, to Johnson's dismay.
"I did interviews with a great number of wonderful people, most of whom had very good comments that I wish I could have used," he said. "To leave them on the cutting room floor was agonizing."
As I watched the series unfold on PBS this past summer, it reminded me in some ways of the PBS documentary series "Connections," which was produced with James Burke as the guide to the history of man's development as seen through objects, mechanisms and inventions.