Author Interview: Paul Lukacs on “Great Wines”
The literary genre known as wine writing is a fairly robust one in America, and it has been for some time. Yet, for the plethora of books, magazines, newsletters, web sites, blogs and newspaper columns, it’s quite rate to come across an excellent writer whose work is both compelling and exceedingly well rendered.
Paul Lukacs is one of those rarities. A professor of literature who made the jump into wine writing as most do, to get more involved in their love of wine, Paul has through well chosen topics, beautiful writing and persistence risen to the top of the American wine writing field. Yet he is not so much a wine critic as he is a wine writer. That is to say that while he reviews wines regularly, he is becoming best known as a prose writer and the best contemporary chronicler of the American Wine industry.
His "American Vintage: Rise of American Wine" (Houghton Mifflin, 2000) was an enormous critical success winning the International Association of Culinary Professionals Award for best Wine Book, the James Beard Foundation Award for best Wine book and the Veuve Cliquot Book of the Year Award. American Vintage chronicles America’s rise to viticultural heights.
Lukacs most recent book, "The Great Wines of America: The top Forty Vintners, Vineyards and Vintages" confirmed his place as one of the pre-eminent wine writers, in America or elsewhere. This ambitious book is much more than a list. It is an exploration of significance and fairly comprehensive look at what makes American winemaking great and those wines that exemplify those qualities.
I reviewed "Great Wines" in an earlier post. Yet, I kept going back to the book, re-reading several parts over again looking in particular for a deeper understanding of what Lukacs meant by "great." Paul was kind enough to agree to be interviewed on this and other subjects.
FERM. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this type of book is the criteria you use and conclusions you draw based on the criteria. To some extent you explain this process in the introduction. The 10 year rule is the only hard and fast criteria in play. The inherent quality that you refer to is your own subjective conclusion. What really interests me is the “significance that transcends the glass” you point to.
As I read “Great Wines” and thought about the “Significance that transcends the glass” of each wine, I kept wondering what came first for you when you chose the 40 wines? The inherent quality or the significance? For example, did you know you needed to have wines of outstanding quality that represented the “Classic Napa Valley Cab” (Montelena) and the “Cult Cabs” (Harlan)? Or were these wines deemed by you to be simply great and you found in them some importance significance as you began to think about them more?
Lukacs: Both were important issues. I approached the task with a template of sorts in mind—i.e., roughly a certain number of Napa Cabs, Oregon Pinots, etc.—but I didn’t stick to it slavishly. (In fact, the results proved quite different from the initial plans.) And within the various categories, different criteria came into play. (For example, the choice of which wine from Long Island to include involved different sorts of decisions than which California Cabs to include.)
I would say, though, that in all the categories, longevity mattered to me a great deal. I think the selection of wines reflects that, as I invariably chose a wine with a 20-year track record of consistently high quality over one with a 10-year record. My reasoning simply was that in a country with such a short history of quality winemaking, the wines that have demonstrated excellence over the long haul are the ones that should be deemed truly great.
FERM: One criteria that used to be applied to assessments of greatness, but which you don’t mention, is the ability of a wine to improve in the bottle with age. You don’t seem to have included this as a primary consideration of significance or greatness. Can you address the significance of ageability and how it might relate to “greatness”?
Lukacs: Ageability is a factor with those wines designed as such—most reds, some whites (few though in the US). But surely it would be ridiculous to say that Sancerre cannot be a great wine because it doesn’t age well. So too in the United States with most wines made from white grape varieties, as well as some made from reds. Historically, ageability was a big factor when assessing red Bordeaux and, to a lesser extent, red Burgundy. The Bordeaux model may well be the most esteemed in the world. But it is NOT appropriate when assessing (and enjoying) other types of wine made with other models.
FERM: Was there any significant type of wine or region that was left out of the book that you would have liked to include but didn’t for some reason? For example, I’m thinking here of Stony Hill Chardonnay, which might have been deemed significant for it being one of the first real cult wines as well as the epitome of a style of Chardonnay that ages well and offers an austere style.
Lukacs: Sure—lots of them! The original template, for example, included a California Cabernet-based wine produced south of the Bay Area. I tasted lots of very good ones, but none with a track record that could match the other Cabs/ Bordeaux blends in the book, so didn’t include one. I also would have liked to include a wine from Texas, but never found one that measured up in terms of quality. (I can think of many other examples.)
As to Stony Hill Chardonnay: I almost included it a number of times. In the end, the choice came down to Stony Hill or Mount Eden—two Chardonnays that age well, have excellent track records, offer distinctive styles, and are if not cult wines certainly boutique ones. It was a tough choice, as I think both are superb examples of their types.
FERM: How was “Great Wines” conceived and how long did it take to finish from start to final editing?
Lukacs: It was conceived as a follow-up to my earlier book, American Vintage. That book won what one person called the “triple crown” of wine writing back in 2001—the James Beard, IACP, and Clicquot “book of the year awards.” Because of that success, W.W. Norton & Co, expressed interest in the new project. American Vintage is a history of American wine; The Great Wines involves history, but is a more of a survey of the present scene.
The project took me about four years from start to finish.
FERM: In addition to perhaps having an easier time getting a publisher to say yes to your proposal, were there any other ways that the success of “American Vintage” changed your life?
Lukacs:Well, getting the publisher was a big deal. I know lots of writers, very talented ones, who have manuscripts but no publishers. So I’m very grateful to the folks at Norton (who are genuinely excited about the new book). I don’t know about other ways. I suppose the awards gave me a certain confidence, as they served as a kind of validation of my work. But I don’t think they changed me very much. At least I hope they didn’t!
FERM: The only “official classification” system we have in America is the American Viticultural Area designation granted by the Federal Government. There are no regulations that impose quality, varietal or winemaking standards at any level. Do you believe that any such regulations or other type of classifications will ever make it into the American wine industry? Or is it possible that some element of the American character won’t allow that?
Lukacs: I suspect that some sort of appellation system may well emerge in America, but no time soon. I don’t think, though, that the American character works against such regulation. Rather, I think American history—specifically, the lack of any sustained history of serious, high quality wine growing—works against it.
FERM: Look into the future and speculate for me. Let’s assume we have in the future an appellation system that “gives preference” to particular varietals in particular areas, such a Cab for Napa Valley or Pinot Noir for Willamette Valley. What other areas would you imagine would be closely associated with or overwhelmingly dominated by which varietals?
Lukacs: How about these three: Riesling in the Finger Lakes; Syrah in Santa Barbara County; Viognier in central Virginia.
FERM: As you wrote “Great Wines” did you ever ponder the idea of classifying wine on a geographic or varietal level? For example, the great American Pinot Noirs or Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs or Napa Valley wines. Is there any reason such a list couldn’t or shouldn’t be created today using your “Great Wines criteria?
Lukacs: There’s absolutely no reason that one couldn’t—or shouldn’t—do it. I wanted, though, to survey the country as a whole.
And I think I got it roughly right. Even if you disagree with my specific “top forty” choices, I suspect you’ll agree that the following percentages are roughly right for America’s great wines: about 70% from California; about 15% from the Pacific Northwest; about 15% from various places east. Some people have wondered if that’s too California-heavy. I don’t think so; but ten or fifteen years from now, it very well might be.
FERM: You note in your introduction that the ‘American wine revolution” has run its course after having gone through a number of different phases in the past. What “phase” or course would you say American wine is currently in or on now? What’s the next task for American winemaking?
Lukacs: The great challenge for the American wine industry is to change people’s perceptions of wine (away from booze towards a mealtime beverage), and to increase consumption. To do the latter, the industry needs to market, promote, and sell wine as a part of daily life. The industry has done a terrible job of this, and as best I can tell continues to do so. I talk extensively about this problem in the new “Afterword” to the paperback edition of American Vintage—in bookstores this month.
FERM: Through your writing you’ve marked yourself as a historian and commentator, and you review and rate wine as well. As to what is under this last hat, how do you approach the rating or reviewing of wine and what are your thoughts on the utility and effect of the 100 point scoring system?
Lukacs: Unlike the criteria I used when writing the book, I rate or review wines (in competitions, for the newspaper, etc.) based primarily if not exclusively on what I sense and perceive in the glass at that moment. That is, a wine’s history or track record is irrelevant. I think the 100-point system is silly, but now entrenched. And since it’s easy to understand how it became entrenched, I also think it’s silly to get up on soapboxes and rail against it.
FERM: Alcohol levels in wine have continued to trend up over the past two decades. As a wine critic, how do you view this trend. A response to consumer demand, to preferences by critics, to technical developments in the vineyard and winery, and what are you thoughts on the now very common site of the 14.5% Pinot Noir?
Lukacs: Wine styles are like fashion. Hemlines go up and down; so too do styles go in and out of fashion. I’m confident that the pendulum will swing back. Why is this particular style so trendy right now? Influential critics’ preferences have something to do with it, but I wouldn’t give Parker, Laube, etc. all the credit (or blame). No one can explain why certain wines become popular with Americans. Think of the recent craze for Italian Pinot Grigio.. Now how does that fit into the trend you’re talking about? Personally, I prefer wines that display finesse to wines dominated by power. I think my “top forty” reflects that.
FERM: Can you explain what it took to rise to the top of the American wine writing field? How did it start for you? Was there a moment when you decided being a “wine writer” was something to really pursue? Was there anyone or any set of writers that inspired you?
Lukacs: I became a wine writer because, as a university English professor, I figured that I might be able to write about my hobby and so enable it to grow. I was very lucky, as I didn’t realize back then (1995) how few such jobs there actually were and are.
I admire many of my colleagues. But if there is any one person whose prose I would hope to be able to if not match at least come close to, it would be Gerald Asher—whose columns in Gourmet back in the 1980s were truly inspirational to me. I might add that I’m honored that he has seen fit to say very nice things about both of my books.
FERM: Do you think it’s possible for a mediocre writer to become a well respected and successful wine writer?
Lukacs: Yes – but I’m not going to name names! I also think that it’s possible for a mediocre taster to become successful. Again, no names; but chutzpah can make a difference.
FERM: I see a stylistic difference between American and British wine writers. Do think there is more that separates the vast body of American wine writers from the typical British wine writers besides palate preference, if indeed you think preference separates these two groups.
Lukacs: It’s tough to generalize, but I think that many non-American writers like to talk about wine in a context—the context of a place, a grape, a meal, etc. That’s because wine inevitably is appreciated in a context. By contrast, many American writers talk about wine in isolation.
FERM: Are you working on the next book?
Lukacs: Not yet, but I will be. This time, I’ll be moving away from the United States, and focusing on the history of wine as a whole. Talk about audacious! But give me time. This one promises to be another multi-year project