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The Yank Paradox

April 25, 2001|RUSS PARSONS

Americans are justly proud of the achievements of the fine wine industry in this country, yet if we pass a bum passed out on the street, we might well call him a "wino." That paradox lies at the heart of our tumultuous love affair with the grape and also at the center of Paul Lukacs' "American Vintage" (Houghton-Mifflin, $28). At various times, American wine has been hailed as a great civilizing influence and as hootch. As Lukacs shows in this carefully researched history, the truth is a little bit of both. There are few wine books that could be rationally described as "important," but this is one. Though Lukacs does pay some attention to the art of wine (actually, this is by far the book's weakest part), his game is much bigger and it will last long after this year's vintage chart is out of date.

Lukacs' story begins with the founding of the colonies. One of the first crops attempted was grapes for wine. And why not? Native grapes grew so rampant that earlier explorers had called the continent Vinland. But these hardy local grapes were from a different species than European Vitis vinifera and the wine made from them was not potable (as a mark of native American grape quality, consider that the development of the Concord--the great grape of Mogen-David--was considered a stunning improvement). At the same time, European grapes refused to grow on these shores, falling victim to various rots, mildews, viruses and molds within a couple of years of being planted.

That so many tried for so long to grow wine grapes in this country is a tribute more to transplanted Europeans' utopian vision of the self-sufficient yeoman farmer than to agricultural common sense. Famously, Thomas Jefferson planted wine grapes, yet so did a long line of equally interesting though largely unknown idealists and crackpots. Chief among these may be the long-forgotten Nicholas Longworth, who planted a thriving vineyard outside of Cincinnati in the 1840s as an exercise in temperance. At a time when such beverages as milk and water could be deadly, he reasoned that cheap, low-alcohol wine was a prudent alternative to the plentiful spirits of the day.

Though Longworth may have been reasonable enough, his view did not win the day. How wine descended from this idealistic plane to the alcoholic gutter is as much a story about America's dueling attitudes toward pleasure and responsibility as it is about this industry in particular.

Make no mistake, though, the wine industry is at the heart of the problem. The ultimate in introduced species (most of the grapes won't grow naturally here; most of the founders were first-generation immigrants), the wine industry seems to be constantly buffeted back and forth between competing directions. Sadly, the industry seems compelled to be always stepping on its own feet. That wine came to be included in Prohibition may owe as much to the creation of 17% alcohol domestic "burgundy" as it did to the persuasions of the teetotalers.

Even when Lukacs is treading familiar ground, he makes good points. In this argument, Jess Jackson's introduction of $5 "fighting varietal" Chardonnay (sweetened with just a touch of residual sugar), falls neatly into historical place as another skirmish in the longstanding battle between aristocratic "art" wines and plebian "beverage" wines. That Jackson made almost $1 billion in the wine business as a result indicates that he found a very sweet spot indeed.

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