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The Story of Wine

Most wine books provide some historical context for the regions they discuss.  Over the course of my studies, I went from dismissing this information as superfluous, to finding it interesting but not essential and finally to complete fascination.  The history of wine is the history of man.  Wine has played a greater role in the advance of civilization than most any other commodity.  As my knowledge of this subject has increased, I increasingly view the wine in my glass as an inheritance from those who depended on it for their lives.

The text that receives the most acclaim for its exploration of the subject is The Story of Wine by Hugh Johnson, who has been working for nearly five decades and is the most read wine writer in history.  The book is expansive, but is humble enough to preface that no one work can be completely comprehensive.  It details the early years of discovery, the empires who depended on wine for wealth and the journey of the vine as the world expanded.  After reading it once straight through, I find myself referring to it regularly.

The incorporation of history into my classes has been well received.  The background information lends a humanity to the wines that is equally important to giving background information on the individual producer.

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Book Review: A History Of The World In Six Glasses

A History Of The World In Six Glasses by Tom Standage

In my last round of studying, one of the most intriguing facts I came across was the vital role that alcoholic beverages played in the foundation of ancient civilizations.  When humans became stationary, the ground water became contaminated.  Wine, due to its alcohol content, and beer, due to the fact that it must be boiled during its production, provided a safe means of consuming water.

Once my formal preparation was completed for the year, I decided to dig deeper into the history of wine and beverages in general.  All of the beverages concerned are still popular today; an in depth study of each would undoubtedly reveal a wealth of historical information.  As I read Six Glasses I was also reading Hugh Johnson’s The Story of Wine (a review on that book is still to come). Six Glasses does not come close to approaching the depth that The Story of Wine explores, but that is not the point of the book.

Standage uses each beverage to describe the historical circumstances during the height of each drink’s influence.  He also details the origin of each and how they rose to such prominence.  The accessibility of the presentation makes for a relatively quick and entertaining read.  A synopsis of each of the beverage is provided below.

The epilogue touches on the coming challenges that the next important beverage – water – will present to civilization.  The gulf between developed nations and under-developed nations is found in the supply of clean drinking water.  It is the citizens of the most developed nations, with the best municipal water supplies, that turn to bottled water for its supposedly better taste, unique sources and fashionable containers.

Water is also tied to land development in arid regions, whether it be for crops or cities.  The result is the tapping of water tables that cannot support the new infrastructure indefinitely.  Drought is currently taking its toll in Australia, where the city of Perth is threatening to be the first city in modern civilization to be entirely abandoned.

On the whole, A History of the World in Six Glasses is an entertaining read that has changed the way that I approach the beverages that were covered, particularly the caffeinated beverages, since I had no concept of their origin.  I’ve been drinking lots of tea of late!

Synopsis –

Beer is associated with the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations because of its connection to the infancy of agriculture and its water purification.  It was used as currency and the symbols for beer are found on the earliest writings.

Wine is associated with the Greeks and Romans, since it was the principle commodity that supported the cultures.  The focus on wine could have been extended through the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, as it provided the economic foundation for the Church, which was the most powerful force at the time.  This portion of history was omitted altogether.

The age of exploration and colonization was viewed through the trade of distilled spirits.  Spirits were the only alcoholic beverages capable of surviving long voyages.  The production of rum became a principle industry in the New World.  Rum also completed the triangle of the slave trade, as it was the preferred currency of those who caught and sold slaves in Africa.

Coffee is associated with the Age of Enlightenment because of its invigorating qualities and the coffee houses that provided a venue for the discussions that fueled the revolutionary ideas of the time.

Tea was used to describe the power of the British empire.  “It is not too great an exaggeration to say that almost nobody in Britain drank tea at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and nearly everybody did by the end of it.”  The East India Company became as powerful as the government itself.

Coke was used to describe the power of America in the 20th century.  It is by far the worlds most recognized brand.  It was provided to the soldiers fighting during World War II and was introduced to the world.  The only phrase that is more recognizable than “Coca-Cola” is “OK”

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