Wine expert Paul Lukacs dishes on drink's history, his tastes

Loyola professor has earned second James Beard nom for 'Inventing Wine'

  • Paul Lukacs wrote "Inventing Wine," which is a finalist for a James Beard award. He is pictured in his home with some of his many bottles of wine.
Paul Lukacs wrote "Inventing Wine," which is a finalist… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
April 01, 2013|By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

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Unlike those of us who merely sip wine and try to appreciate it, Paul Lukacs has channeled his passion for the drink into a second career, one in which he's increasingly recognized as one of this country's most authoritative voices on the topic.

Lukacs' most recent book, "Inventing Wine," was just nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award. If he wins, it would be his second time earning the prize sometimes referred to as the food world's Oscar.

When he's not writing books, reviewing wine or traveling the country as a wine judge, Lukacs can be found at Loyola University Maryland, where the 57-year-old is an English professor and director of the school's Center for the Humanities.

Lukacs spent time recently with The Baltimore Sun, fielding questions about his new book, his favorite Baltimore places to tip a glass and, of course, about his favorite topic — wine.

Congratulations on your latest James Beard nomination. What's it like to get such prestigious recognition for your work?

I think that the James Beard award is only growing in prestige. I've been hearing from friends and colleagues for days, and I got very little of that in 2000. Awareness of food and beverages and such are becoming bigger deals in our culture.

What most surprised you as you delved into the history of wine?

The original idea of the book was to write a book celebrating wine's continuity over thousands of years. When I started doing the research, I quickly learned that wine today is radically different than wine in the past. The book is really a revisionist or rather a contrarian history. ... Most books celebrate Plato and Aristotle, saying, "Isn't it cool that we drink what they did?" What we drink is nothing like what they drank.

People who write about the book are drawn to your point that early wine was really vile stuff.

Wine is 8,000 years old. For the vast majority of its history, its physical property to our palates would be virtually undrinkable. It was vinegary. It was sour. It turned. People didn't have effective ways to seal, store and contain it. And we all know what happens with a glass of wine you leave out on kitchen counter. It's fine the next day. And maybe OK the day after that. But two weeks later, it's pretty unpleasant.

What sparked your interest in wine?

Pretty early in my career at Loyola, I was doing an independent study with some grad students, and we evolved into a reading group. Then it was a reading and wine-tasting group. Eventually we dropped books, and it was a wine-tasting group.

You write that through history, wine has brought people pleasure in a wide range of ways. What for you is the pleasure in wine?

The pleasure is this combination of the hedonistic and the intellectual, the sensory and the contemplative — two very different pleasures. For me, wine brings both. It's something that brings me great sensual enjoyment. It feels good in my mouth. It tastes good.

You're also an English professor who teaches courses in great American literature. Do books and wine intersect?

As someone who teaches literature-slash-art, I am teaching something that has no inherent value. The value of literature is something that comes from the people that read it. The value of the "Mona Lisa" doesn't come from the paint; it's from the people who view and esteem it. So too with wine. Wine is fermented grape juice. It has very little value itself. The value of wine comes from what we as its consumers, readers, appreciators bring to it. That's why bottle A at the Wine Source costs $10 but bottle B costs $500. They're both fermented grapes.

Tell us about your wine collection.

I'm not a really big collector. When you write for newspapers and magazines and such, though I do less of that now, you get samples of wine and people give you wine. I don't spend a lot of money on wine, not because I'm parsimonious but because I don't really need to.

Do you have a favorite type of wine?

I really don't. I'm not a white wine-versus-a-red or a New World-versus-Old. But if I had to be stuck on a desert island with only one kind of wine, I would want to drink very, very good champagne.

You're married to Marguerite Thomas, who's also a wine writer. This sounds like either the perfect marriage or serious trouble choosing a bottle at restaurants.

We met on a press trip to Chile. Both of our lives changed in the Santiago airport. ...

It is the perfect match of couples with "perfect" italicized. But, no, we do not always agree. We're people who really care about wine. ... It's more than lucky. It's wonderful.

In the book, you write that one of the most exciting things about wine today is its ability to come in styles that can transcend both region and grape variety. What's your take on Maryland's growing roster of local winemakers?

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