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25 september 2013

Marc Millon's global history of Wine, for the Reaktion Edible series, is an elementary and introductory book; but I learned things from it, and it's the rare reader who won't.

For instance, wine grapes were probably first cultivated in the Transcaucasus, somewhere in the hills between the Black and Caspian Seas. It's likely that the Phoenicians brought grapevines to Cadiz in Iberia, planting them in vineyards that are still used to grow grapes for sherry. Young white wine contains significant amounts of malic acid, which account for its fruitiness; aging turns the malic acid into lactic acid, mellowing the wine.

I acquire information one indelible, disconnected bit at a time, so I love books like Millon's. Wine is redundant, euphoric, insistent, and informative. It's got a good pedagogy going.

Millon's book is truly global, and ranges from prehistory to the present. Wine is, of course, a beverage closely associated with the Mediterranean. This isn't just occidental prejudice speaking; vitis vinifera, the wine grape, may be native to Asia, but it adapted best to the great wine nations around the western inland sea: Palestine, Greece, Italy, France, and Spain. The Romans brought grapes a little further north, to Germany and to Hungary. In fact, they very probably brought vineyards to Britain, but the climate of the centuries between the fall of the Empire and the rise of global warming prohibited growing wine grapes commercially anywhere north of Champagne.

Thanks to Vasco de Gama and Columbus and their successors, vineyards spanned the world after the 1400s, from South Africa to California, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand. The current wine world is largely populated by vintages from these areas, supplementing those of the traditional European wine countries.

Wine is currently made much further afield, though. Grapes are being grown in Britain again (see "global warming.") Canada, Switzerland, Uruguay, China and India have established and expanding wine traditions, as do almost all of the United States. Globalization of tastes, similar to those that have made whiskey such an international drink, have fostered wine industries around the world.

I mention California, Australia, France, Italy, and Chile/Argentina, however, because nine-tenths of the supermarket wine we get in Texas comes from those five (large) regions. Texans suck down enormous quantities of wine, most of which travels extraordinary distances to get here. Meanwhile, we have a flourishing Texas wine culture, which produces a few bad, expensive bottles. I'd like to buy them, just on the "buy local" principle, but neither my palate nor my wallet can afford it.

It's a puzzling phenomenon. Unless you have way too much money to care, the best wine is always local. On my last spin around European wine regions this summer, I had extremely local wine in Baden, Geneva, Provence, the Piedmont, and Austria – all of it fresh, cheap, and delicious, none of it particularly renowned or cellarable. Back home in Texas, my standard daily table wine is The Winking Owl, currently $2.89 a bottle from a discount supermarket, apparently made in California, perhaps Oregon or Washington at the outside; at least the arrow on the back of the bottle points to a dot on the West Coast. The Winking Owl comes in four varieties: Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz. The first is at least a different color. I suspect they pour generic red into all the latter three indiscriminately.

But The Winking Owl at least approximates the cheap wines of Europe. I can't afford to drink even $10 wine, and the difference between $2.89 and $7.99 means almost nothing in terms of quality. And what goes for $7.99 is just The Winking Owl with a few more bells and whistles: the vast ranks of Cabernets and Chardonnays that compete for shelf space in our big stores, with nothing to recommend one over another except label decoration and price. I might as well go for price. Besides, The Winking Owl has a cute label, too.

As I drink my Owl, I avoid the big wines of Texas, the tannic $25.99 bottles of something that may eventually taste like Cabernet Sauvignon if you keep it long enough to be able to choke it down. For all I know, there is wonderful wine here if you wait for it. But I tend to distrust winemakers who can't produce something young and drinkable for under five bucks. At the same time, one of our better local wine chains has started to carry a $2.89 brand. It's made in Moldova. Some post-Soviet entrepreneur is chortling. They've managed to get a foothold in a market halfway around the world, in a region capable, surely, of producing wine much better (simply because local) while even cheaper. But the vagaries of the wine marketplace mean that there's little prestige in catering to the low end and the everyday. Far better to go under making Château de Lubbock than flourish with Buck-and-a-Half Bronco Buster.

The everydayness of wine, however, has been its hallmark throughout history. In America, we still think of wine as a special-occasion thing, despite its increasing familiarity. A quotidian glug out of a screwtop bottle, or worse yet a paper box, is anathema here. Marc Millon shows, by contrast, the extremely basic qualities of wine across the world and throughout history – an everydayness that makes the truly special wines all the more special.

Millon, Marc. Wine: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2013.