Picks and Pans Review: Vintage: a History of Wine, Volume I

updated 02/19/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/19/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Hugh Johnson

A barefoot Soviet farmer climbs inside a hollowed-out tree trunk filled with grapes. Squish, squish. He crushes his harvest between his toes, lets the juice run into a clay pot and buries it in the frosty ground. Within this primitive "cellar" in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, the natural union of the grapes' sugar and yeast will eventually transform this rustic concoction into a pungent wine.

It is in this desolate outback that wine-making is believed to have begun 7,000 or so years ago. And it is here that British wine fancier Hugh Johnson begins this four-volume set of tapes originally broadcast as a 13-part PBS television series.

Soviet Georgia is a fitting starting line for what becomes a daze of wine and roadways as Johnson, the author of such works as World Atlas of Wine, darts off to Egypt, Spain, Greece, Israel, Iran and other countries where the fruits of the vine have been cultivated, peddled and venerated for centuries. Along the way he promises to tell "the intricate, turbulent, sometimes mysterious story of wine," And he does so in a series that is as much history lesson and travelogue as it is a celebration of a beverage.

In the 117-minute Volume I, Johnson explores not just the origins of winemaking, but its place in ancient history, its use in religious ceremonies and its commercial impact on the societies that have embraced it. In Spain he pops up at a raucous wine festival. In Egypt he translates notations on wine amphoras from King Tut's tomb. In Israel he pokes around a kosher winery. Wherever he wanders, Johnson fortifies his observations with maps, drawings, artifacts, poetry and interviews, which help make his story all the more vivid.

Volume II

An abstemious Benedictine monk with a passion for blending wines, but never drinking them, is credited with inventing champagne in the 17th century. His name was Dom Pierre Pérignon, and he is but one of the intriguing characters introduced in a segment on sparkling wine on this 88-minute video, which also includes excursions to a handful of rich vineyards in Burgundy (La Côte d'Or). Here Johnson explores the rare alchemy of soil, climate and mystique that shape an individual wine's character and value.

Volume III

Johnson begins this 88-minute tape in the jagged hills of Portugal, birthplace of such fortified wines as Madeira and port. The first became a favorite libation in the colonies. Jostled and overheated in the bellies of 18th-century galleons that lurched across the Atlantic, the sweet wine seemed to improve as it traveled, and demand for it in America flourished.

Port had an even bumpier ride on spindly wooden rafts that got tossed over the rapids of the river Douro on its way from the northern highlands to the Atlantic coast. The British established a rich trade with Portugal for this crude dark wine.

More refined tastes have since been coddled with the careful nurturing of the vine in western France's Bordeaux region, home of such illustrious names as Lafite, Latour and Margaux. Here Johnson tours some of the chateaux, sampling the goods and engaging in tête-à-têtes that are sometimes un peu précieux. Such meanderings on the characteristics of quality wines are best suited to more seasoned oenophiles.

Volume IV

Vine cuttings came to New South Wales along with convicts when Australia was little more than a penal colony in the early 19th century. Since then the nation has developed a thriving industry of reds and whites. In this 88-minute tape, Johnson takes viewers across a landscape of intoxicating beauty, to talk to some pioneer vintners.

Then he is off to California, offering a dash of history, a dollop of facts and some chitchat about American techniques in a superficial study of the wine industry in Napa and Sonoma counties.

Concluding his tour in a kind of grab-bag segment, Johnson shines a light on the hype that launched the craze for nouveau Beaujolais and the technological advances that allow wine to be produced in such unlikely locales as Japan.

Whether he is washing down sushi with a thimble of sake, finding the most polite adjective to compliment a swig of plonk from a clay pot or inhaling the bouquet of a 150-year-old Madeira, Johnson is ever the convivial guide. It seems just right that he end his journey at his own home in Suffolk, England, with a toast to the fruit he calls "one of nature's greatest gifts to man." Cheers, Hugh. (Each tape $29.99. Four in a gift box, $119.99; includes a free copy of Johnson's Pocket Encyclopedia of Wine 1990. Home Vision, 800-262-8600.)

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