If you spend all your spare time pondering the fine points of fermentation or noble rot, or if you stay awake at night wondering “Who the heck was Veuve Clicquot, anyway?,” then A Short History of Wine is the book for you. From wine’s humble beginnings as a medicine in ancient times to fears that there would be a champagne shortage on New Year’s Eve 1999, author Rod Phillips knows his wine. But for those who have only a casual interest in the beverage – myself included – A Short History is a long slog.
Clearly, Phillips’s interest in wine is purely academic. He chronicles its history with painstaking detail, but his chronicle is oddly passionless for a beverage with such a complicated background. Alternately thought of a health tonic, a social drink and a dangerous releaser of inhibitions, wine has been the subject of a love-hate relationship with imbibers the world over for centuries. That doesn’t really come through in Phillips’s book, which, though it addresses these conflicted opinions, is more concerned with how the wine industry grew and changed over time.
Sure, there is the occasional scintillating tidbit (Veuve Clicquot champagne gets its name from the woman who invented the process of turning champagne bottles so that sediment will settle in the neck of the bottle; during the Dreyfus affair, a champagne manufacturer came out with a “Champagne Antijuif,” an anti-Jewish champagne). However, Philips’ book is little more than a history text, listing dates and events in a slightly snore-inducing manner. If your passion for wine is so far-reaching that you must know every chapter in its history, then that’s fine. But those seeking a more compelling dissection of the fruit of the grape would do well to check out Love by the Glass by wine columnists Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, which does a far better job of explaining the passion that some people have for wine.
After all, a book about wine shouldn’t be dry.