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

WinesRestaurant and Catering IndustryBeverage IndustryConsumer Goods IndustriesLoyola University ChicagoLoyola University Maryland

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?

There is no reason why Maryland cannot produce first-class — and by that, I mean world-class — wine. The proof is that people are doing it in Virginia, where there's a very similar climatic and geological and geographic situation. There are some people in Maryland that are really trying, but we lag far behind both Virginia and New York in terms of our success so far. That is due not to any kind of cultural problem. It instead has to do with politics and government. ...

In Virginia, for close to a quarter of a century there has been active support for a wine industry from the state government. There's wine tourism being promoted. There's tax advantages given to people who want to convert from other crops to wine grapes. Very early on, there was a state oenologist at Virginia Tech who could help people figure out what to do. Maryland is woefully slow in doing those kinds of things to encourage an industry. The people in Maryland are largely on their own.

Where are your favorite places in Maryland to sip?

The Wine Source is probably the best shop in the city. For buying wine. There's been a big improvement in wine lists and wine knowledge in local restaurants from when I started following this stuff in early- to mid-'90s. Then there were only a handful of restaurants that paid wine any attention, and now there are a lot of them. There are the obvious places like Charleston and Fleet Street Kitchen and Wit and Wisdom, and then lots of small bistro types of places that do a nice, interesting job with wine, like Salt and Bluegrass in Federal Hill where I live.

Is Baltimore a wine or a beer town?

Probably used to be only a beer town. Now it's both.

Ravens game: beer or wine?

If you're going to a Ravens game, it's a beer event. When they won the Super Bowl, it was a champagne event.

White zinfandel: Yes? No? Ever?

White zinfandel is dying.

I used to do some restaurant wine list consulting. People would say, "Should you put a white zinfandel on your list?" It was the '90s, and I always said yes because you have people who come in who like to drink it. Why not? Today I'm less apt to put a white zinfandel on a list rather than a Moscato or Torrontes from Argentina. They'll all appeal to same consumer, slightly sweet, not super-alcoholic, not tannic, not overly acidic, easy to drink, easy to enjoy. I just think there are better choices out there than white zinfandel. That's part of the changing and evolving world of wine in which we live.

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

Paul Lukacs' books

"American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine," a James Beard Foundation Award winner in 2001, the Clicquot Wine Book of the Year and the International Association of Culinary Professionals' best cookbook award in the wine and spirits category.

"The Great Wines of America," 2006.

"Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World's Most Ancient Pleasures," a James Beard Award nominee for 2013.

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