Heard It On The Grape Vine

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough,
A flask of wine, a book of verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow. [Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam]

On second thoughts, Omar, forget the loaf and thou. Just leave the flask.

King Ashurnasirpal II drinking wine. Palace of Nimrud relief, Iraq, 879 BC. Photo: Pergamon Museum Berlin
King Ashurnasirpal II drinking wine. Palace of Nimrud relief, Iraq, 879 BC. Photo: Pergamon Museum Berlin

“You can trust me with your life, My King.”
“But not with my wine, obviously. Give it back.”
[The King of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner]

The 17th century English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote: “Of all things known to mortals, wine is the most powerful and effectual for exciting and inflaming the passions of mankind, being common fuel to them all.” Emerging statistics from the recent pandemic suggest plenty of exciting and inflaming has been going on around the globe. Times of trouble now play out to a background of popping corks, as do times of celebration. Not that this is new, far from it. In the ninth century BC, King Ashurnasirpal of Assyria threw a mighty wine-drenched party to celebrate the foundation of his new capital city, Nimrud. In Mesopotamia and Assyria, the everyday drink was beer, a beverage whose origins lurk in the dawn of human history.

“What was most impressive and most significant was the Assyrian king’s choice of drink,” Tom Standage wrote in his bestselling A History of the World in Six Glasses. “Despite his Mesopotamian heritage, Ashurnasirpal did not give pride of place at his feast to the Mesopotamians’ usual beverage. Carved stone reliefs at the palace do not show him sipping beer through a straw; instead, he is elegantly balancing a shallow bowl, probably gold, on the tips of the fingers of his right hand so that it is level with his face. This bowl contained wine.” Records of the feast in carved cuneiform tablets report the king served equal quantities of beer and wine to his thousands of guests. But it was the wine that displayed his wealth and the extent of his power — some of the wines came from remote regions of Ashurnasirpal’s empire. Wine was in fashion, but it was still mainly the drink of the elites, being too expensive and probably not to the taste of the beer-drinking masses. But wine was not new and its origins remain almost as obscure as those of beer.

The Mesopotamian afterlife was said to be located in the Zagros Mountains that sprawl across the western border of Iran and into northern Iraq and southeast Turkey. A staircase led down to the underworld gates located deep in the earth. Archaeologists have suggested that wine production may have started in Neolithic times in the northern Iranian region of the Zagros. One piece of evidence came from a pottery jar from 5400 BC, found in a Neolithic village in these mountains and contained a red residue of grape origin.

In 2017, archaeologists uncovered evidence of wine-making in a Neolithic village in Georgia in pottery dated to around 6000 BC. Interestingly, pottery manufacture began in the near east in the 7th millennium, which would have significantly facilitated the storage and movement of wine once its production and trading as a valuable commodity began to increase. (Since writing emerged in the region around 3500 BC, it is also curious to ponder how traders recorded prices, deals and inventories before then). Scientists said the conclusions from the Georgian site were unquestionable. The age of the Georgian find beat the record held by traces of Iranian wine that were found just 500 km to the southeast and dated 5400 to 5000 BC. Even older evidence of wine-making was uncovered in China’s Henan province, dating back to 7000 BC, but it’s complex and inconclusive.

The discovery of wine may well have been accidental. The fermentation of yeast in a container of grapes is a natural process that requires no human intervention, and this could have been noticed even 5,000 years earlier. However, the substantial evidence so far is from the Neolithic sites in the Near East. Science will undoubtedly explore wine’s beginnings with ever-increasing accuracy. Archaeology, archaeobotany, and palaeontology offer more than poring over unreliable ancient texts for clues. The future of the past now belongs to radiocarbon dating, electron microscopy and DNA analysis — it is they that will reveal the mysteries of the origins of early viticulture.

As wine began to flow significantly through the ancient Near East, Egyptian society began to take notice, though its wine production started relatively late, around 3100 BC. The early wine was for religious ritual rather than drinking because it resembled sacrificial blood. Egyptian tomb paintings, sculptures, and papyri attest to the later popularity of wine-making and drinking by priests, scribes, and the social elites and in offerings to the dead. Paintings in the tomb of a prominent 18th-dynasty astronomer and priest in Thebes show him entering the afterlife with supplies of poultry and wine. The young King Tutankhamen had 26 jars of wine buried with him. Inscriptions record the year his reign began, the location and owner of the vineyard, and the name of the wine-maker. This is equivalent to today’s labelling with the vintage year, appellation contrôlée, and originator. Tutankhamen’s royal vintages were obviously of the best but lesser wines were available to ordinary mortals — one inscription details the daily ration of wine provided to men working in a quarry.

Phoenician sea traders saw the potential of Egyptian wine, and they, rather than the producers, began to market wine aggressively across the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and North Africa. Phoenicians became the leading suppliers to the region’s Jews who used wine in their religious ceremonies. In Europe, archaeologists have found pips of the wild grape Vitis vinifera in ancient sites like the Franchthi Cave in Greece (12,000 years old) and Balma de l’Abeurador, France (10,000 years). Excavations in Greece at Dikili Tash have revealed grape pips and empty skins, dated to between 4400 and 4000 BC, the earliest example in the Aegean. Researchers have also found a wine production site dated to around 4000 BC at a cave complex in Armenia, including evidence of fermented red wine.

The early European culture of wine is most associated with the ancient Greeks and their cult of the wine god Dionysus. The 5th-century BC Greek general and historian Thucydides wrote: “The people of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine.” Greeks began serious wine-making around 800 BC, and to the Greeks, wine symbolised prosperity and health. In the age of Homer, warriors used wine to sterilise wounds. (Polyphenols present in wine do have some antibacterial properties). As the Greeks expanded around the Mediterranean, wine followed them. Sicily in Southern Italy became one of the first Greek colonies on the Mediterranean to begin making its wine, and the beverage soon travelled north to Rome.

Dionysus was the god of viticulture, wine-making, festivity and theatre. The Romans quickly adopted wine, and in 146 BC, they began honouring Dionysus as Bacchus, their Roman god of wine, with the wild festivities of Bacchanalia. Also known as “the liberator,” his wine, music and dance freed the followers of Dionysus from their cares and inhibitions. The Bacchanalia evolved from earlier Greek Dionysian festivals. The Roman Livy wrote that the Bacchic rituals arrived as a novelty in Rome, at first restricted to women and held three times a year. Inevitably, he lamented, as the wine flowed freely, the mysteries became corrupt. Drunken, uninhibited men and women of all ages and classes cavorted in sexual orgies five times a month. Livy condemned their various outrages against Rome’s civil and religious laws and traditional morality. The state eventually suppressed the cult with great ferocity, arresting 7,000 revellers, and it executed most of them.

Beer was also an excellent and popular drink that was not notably cheaper than wine, but in Greece and even more so in Rome, wine-drinking acquired an elitist aura. Those who drank wine were refined and cultured and ate and drank in aesthetic surroundings. Beer drinkers were lower-class and preferred rowdy taverns and crude entertainment. It is a snobbery that has endured in various cultures. In early modern England, distinct cultures of beer and wine coexisted. Illustrations of English drinking habits often feature the setting for gentlemanly wine drinkers in the comfort and beauty of classical homes and landscapes. The scruffy lower classes quaffed their pints of brown ale in bleak working men’s clubs in less civilised environments.

Romans advanced the art of wine-making, and their territory produced some of the era’s most famous vintages. As the Roman Empire expanded, so did their wineries, with vineyards appearing in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. So, during the Roman period, wine production reached most of the Mediterranean area and western Europe. By the end of the first century BC, wine was a highly prized economic and cultural commodity. It also further developed those class associations that endured in some countries into the 20th century. As Christianity spread through the late Roman empire, some orders of monks became pioneers of wine-making technology. The monasteries became essential producers of wine for use in Catholic sacraments. Christian monks became the master vintners of Europe, and it was the Church that introduced wine to the ordinary people who attended Sunday masses. However, wine and religion have had a long and uneasy relationship — and still do.

Wine Crucifix by Arnulf Rainer, 1978. The artist evokes the Christian metaphor of blood and wine. Photo: Tate Gallery

Genesis, which mainly was written sometime after the 10th century BC, tells the legend of Noah building his ark and with his menagerie braving the great deluge. When the waters recede, the ark comes to rest on the mountains of Ararat in eastern Turkey. On going ashore, Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard, making the biblical patriarch the world’s first vintner. Genesis recounts how he drank his wine and was shamed when found drunk and naked in his tent. The chronology of the Bible is notoriously implausible. However, scientific evidence for the dating of a great flood in the region of the Black Sea supports the biblical account of the founding of viticulture, even if written 5000 years after the event.

There was no equivalent to Dionysus in early Hebrew religion, but wine plays a not insignificant role in the culture, if not so miraculously dramatic as in Judaism’s offspring, Christianity. Moses and his followers believed the bounty of the promised land was exemplified not so much by milk and honey as by a cluster of grapes so large that it took two men to carry it on a pole. Wine figures prominently in any number of Jewish rituals and celebrations ranging from circumcisions and weddings to the Passover seder, down to the present. Jews living in the land of Israel eventually adopted Hellenist and Roman dining customs, but their celebrations remained more family and religion centred.  Old Testament narratives are highly ambivalent about wine and its associations — it’s either a blessed gift from God or the source of debauchery and evil. On the one hand, it’s “May God give you the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, plenty of grain and wine.” On another, in the Song of Solomon, it’s an erotic simile:

Your breasts are as clusters of the vine,
the scent of your breath like apples,
in kisses like the best wine,
going down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth.

Scattered throughout the other books of the Bible are rants against the evils of wine — loss of control, confusion, violence, poverty, arrogance, abuse and above all, how drunkenness can lead to forbidden sexual shenanigans.

If Jews have their ambivalence about wine, Christians have tied themselves in theological knots over one story in particular. The gospel evangelist John relates how Jesus went to a wedding in Cana of Galilee with some of his disciples. His mother tells Jesus, “They have no wine,” and Jesus replies, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother then tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Jesus instructs the servants to fill containers with water and to draw out some and take it to the chief steward of the wedding. After tasting it and without knowing where it came from, the steward asks the bridegroom why he had not followed the usual custom for a wedding, serving the best wine first and then the inferior when everyone was drunk. “But you have kept the best wine till last.”

Among fundamentalists, this is a problem, especially for the American female temperance leagues that used to proclaim, “Lips that touch wine shall never kiss mine.” Attempts to explain away the miracle at Cana and Jesus’ promotion of wine-guzzling have resorted to fatuous arguments, including fake science claiming that in the time of Jesus, wine was not alcoholic. Historically, wine of course has had a central role in secular social rituals as well. Herodotus wrote of its importance at ancient Egyptian dinner parties, Xenophon described the famed Athenian symposia, Roman writers chronicled their lengthy banquets. Bloggers, Instagrammers, Face Bookers, and Tik Tokers have inundated us with their tales of Covid19 pandemic tippling for the past year.

The wine-drinkers sit on the porte cochère in the sun.
Their lack of success in love has made them torpid.
They move their fans with a motion that stirs no feather,
the glare of the sun has darkened their complexions.

Let us commend them on their conversations.
One says “oh” and the other says “indeed.”  [The Wine-Drinkers, Tennessee Williams]