Wine's History, Beer's Blueprint

American Vintage

Paul Lukacs

Houghton Mifflin, 2000



I've been reading American Vintage for two months. Not that it's hard to read; Paul Lukacs's text is lucid and engaging. But I keep re-reading parts, and finding new insights every time I open this history of American winemaking. The more I read it, the more I am convinced that not only is this an excellent history of winemaking in America, as Lukacs meant it to be, it is a roadmap and a blueprint for American brewing. I wish every small brewer in America would read this book.

Beer drinkers and brewers in America today can't help feeling intimidated by the wine establishment. Wine gets all the respect, wine is the sophisticated drink with food, wine is the acceptable gift at dinner parties, wine gets all the serious press attention. Wine is special, the favorite of the cultured and the educated. Sure, it's true. 

But forty years ago, wine was crap. American wine was jugs of raw grape booze, bottles of fortified "port," or Thunderbird, a pre-packaged mix of fortified wine and lemonade. Wine was a cheap drunk, and cheap drunks were called "winos." Big producers dominated the market and anyone who wanted to drink something of better quality was looking for a fight. There were a few dogged producers who knew that American-made wine could be better, because before Prohibition it had been better. American pioneers in the craft had learned how to blend the bounty of the new world with the techniques of Europe to develop wines that were similar to those of the old world and good wines that were different. Then the ham-fist of Prohibition leveled this developing artistry and knocked wine down to the level of a mere intoxicant, juice for drunks.

Stop me when this sounds familiar. You should be stopping me now, by the way. Everything Lukacs says about wine in this vein applies precisely to beer. And whiskey, for that matter. Except for one thing on page 92: "National Prohibition lasted only fourteen years, but its legacy lingered much longer. Brewers and distillers recovered fairly quickly, but serious wine growers did not really begin to recover until the 1960s and 1970s, a full half centuy after the initial fall. When recovery finally came, it involved building almost completely anew."  Okay, so Lukacs is typically wine-blind and doesn't see that American beer and whiskey both not only suffered from the same reduction-to-booze effects after Prohibition, they're taking even longer to come out of it than wine did. Light beers and Coke-mixing whiskey still rule. 

But that's the only thing Lukacs gets wrong. Oh, granted, his story wanders a bit after 1970, if only because so much was going on, and the last chapter reads like a grab-bag instead of a solid conclusion, but these are truly minor points. This book is inspiring reading for a beer lover. Not only do you learn a lot about wine, including a few things that would probably surprise your wine-geeking friends, but you can see a future realized. Winemakers visualized a future where their fine wines would not only survive, but be appreciated and loved and purchased by the carload, and they made it happen. It worked, and not only did the small winemakers succeed and do well, Gallo realized it had to play their game. The mega-winery started making varietals just like the little guys, and they did well, and now everyone succeeds because the market grew to support everyone's full production. It's remarkable, and it's true. It's already happened. 

If I had $50,000 to spend to advance the cause of good beer in America, I would spend every penny buying as many copies of American Vintage as I could, and send one to every small brewer in the country. I defy you to read this book and not get fired up and believe that the current talk in the craft-brewing industry of 5% of the market being a "realistic" goal is defeatist talk. Dammit, the small winemakers didn't take a tiny corner of the market, they went out and conquered the whole damned thing! They did it with education of themselves and the consumer, they did it with wines that were consistent and high-quality and true to their vision, they did it by not under-estimating the American palate, they did it by working with chefs and the press. They damned sure didn't do it by making so-so table wine or by making exactly the same stuff Europe made or by trying to fight Gallo on their home turf. 

American craft-brewers need to find new ways to reach a broader market. Here it is, fellas: reach out and take it. Read this book, then go recruiting in the wine industry for a sales and marketing person who can teach you how they do it. They already won. You can do it too.

This was the best book I've read all year as far as drinks writing goes. It's well-written, it's exciting, it's galvanizing. It is packed full of good stories, personalities, and inspirational examples of fighting the good fight. And winning it. Read this book, and get fired up.


Copyright 2004 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: December 20, 2004