Vintage volume: The Story of Wine

The story of wine is a glorious story which illuminates the topics of more conventional histories

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This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


The Romano-Germanic museum in Cologne contains some exceptional examples of late-antique glassware. Two contrasting but complementary examples stand out. The most spectacular glass in the collection is a diatreta, or cage glass.

The Story of Wine: From Noah to Now by Hugh Johnson Académie du Vin (new edition), £25.

The lower part of the bowl of this goblet is encased in a frame or cage of very delicate and elaborately carved glass of a contrasting colour. It would be a miracle of craftsmanship even were the external cage separately produced and then somehow attached to the bowl.

But close inspection of the joins proves — astonishingly — that these cage glasses were carved and filed from a single, thick piece of glass. Unsurprisingly, such glasses are exceptionally rare, usually surviving only in small fragments. The Cologne diatreta is one of the most complete examples, and to see it close up inspires wonder
and disbelief in equal measure.

The second glass is a trunk beaker, which dispensed the liquid it contained in unpredictable and uncontrollable spurts, covering the drinker and those companions who were nearby in wine, and presumably stirring up mirth in the assembled company. Taken together, these two ancient wine glasses crystallise a powerful but contradictory truth about wine. On the one hand, the diatreta speaks to the status of wine as a luxury, a liquid so special that it has been used, without sacrilege, to represent the blood of God himself, and which is worthy —indeed, demands — to be drunk from the most exquisite object that human skill can fashion. On the other, the trunk beaker evokes another aspect of wine, namely its ability to promote human sociability and commerce (in all senses of that word) through its potency to stimulate mirth even to the point of riotousness. And in a pagan culture, of course, there was very little tension between these two facets of wine’s potency.

In Euripides’s The Bacchae it is Pentheus’s fate to discover that those who refuse to acknowledge the divinity of wine run the risk of being dismembered by the bacchantes, those followers of Dionysius who celebrate the god in mysterious, orgiastic ceremonies. For the Greeks and Romans, the riotous and the numinous could be surprisingly close.

In The Story of Wine: From Noah to Now Hugh Johnson narrates the course taken by wine, from its origins as a presumably accidentally-discovered liquid with beguiling properties of dispelling cares and releasing the drinker from inhibitions, to what it is today, an important commercial product refined and diversified through centuries of innovation, but still retaining those vital, original virtues.

It is a glorious story which touches and illuminates the topics of more conventional histories at many points (for instance, how thought-provoking it is to have it noted that the birth of political parties in England coincided with the establishment of the first great private wine cellars).

However, the real pleasure of this book is not so much in the long course of its narrative (which after all has its melancholy side, demonstrating, as Johnson mildly complains, that “wine has joined the tedious world of luxury goods”) as in the wonderful details with which it is studded, and that resist being conscripted into such a sobering trajectory. These, in a clever instance of book design, are often separated out on the page into a small, separate box — to use the language of the vineyard, a kind of clos.

Some of these details relate to the very variable ideas men have had about what a reasonable daily consumption of wine might be. Saint Benedict prescribed half a pint a day. Charlemagne’s consumption was usually no more than three glasses with a meal. But at one hospital on the Bodensee, each patient had a ration of 4.8 litres a day — surely very generous, and comfortably in excess of the advice offered by the government’s chief medical officer. However, it is pathetic in comparison with the no less than 10 litres a day specified by James VI and I for the households of Highland chieftains.

Other details relate to the sometimes decisive turn that particular nationalities have given to the history of wine. The Dutch have, I believe, no vineyards of their own, but they have contributed hugely to the development of wine.

Their commercial acumen and their strong thirst for spirits led to the development of the Armagnac region, while it was their long expertise as drainers of land (a skill that has left its mark also on the landscape of England’s eastern counties) which made it possible for the Médoc, originally “a long tongue of forested and marshy land running north from Bordeaux”, to be made suitable for the cultivation of the vine. The Dutch also were the first to understand that sulphur had a role to play in stabilising wine.

Moreover, who would have suspected that it was the Scots who encouraged the development of the wine industry in eastern Europe, by acting as agents for the Poles, who for some reason had been blacklisted by the Hungarians as customers for their wine?

And does it not stagger one to learn that Marsala, the drink associated most closely with that most Italian of heroes, Garibaldi, was in fact the creation of a Liverpudlian, John Woodhouse, who had been inspired by stories from antiquity of the great sweet wines that were grown in Sicily, and who went on to make a large fortune by selling the wine he made to Nelson’s navy in place of rum?

Such unexpected flashes of forgotten interactions are frequent in The Story of Wine, and keep the reader chained to the text. Wine promotes sociability not only when consumed, but also when produced — the connectedness of peoples from all over the world has been stimulated and strengthened by the gradually ever more global trade in wine.

Hugh Johnson is the most versatile, trusted, and engaging of writers on this intoxicating subject. While there are a host of authors who have written books about particular wine regions (many of them of exceptional quality), Johnson alone has taken the whole of wine for his province, and done so with complete success — a fact all the more remarkable since, in his lifetime, the world of wine has expanded and changed at breakneck pace.

The World Atlas of Wine was perhaps Johnson’s most significant and trail-blazing publication. Its wonderful maps allowed the reader imaginatively to explore every important wine region in the world. But The Story of Wine is also a remarkable book in its own way. To read it is like having a series of conversations with someone at once formidably knowledgeable and yet still excited by what they know so much about. That combination of vivacity and expertise is a rare thing. To encounter it is like opening a rare bottle retrieved from the back of the cellar, and, against all expectation, finding it in perfect condition.

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