Quality Vintages/Roman Wine: Sixty-million-year-old fossil vines are the earliest evidence of grapes. Wine must have occurred naturally shortly thereafter, and even our pre-human ancestors probably figured out that old grapes were more fun than fresh ones. The earliest recipe for making wine was probably something like this: put grapes in a pot, and let it sit until the flies start to stagger. Drink the juice. Don't move your head too quickly the next morning.

That recipe has never really been found, but some of the pots with grape waste and decayed flies have been. Shortly thereafter, somebody figured out that pressing the grapes got you more wine, and some 7000-year-old wine press mats -- skins, seeds, and stems pressed flat -- have been found in the Middle East. By 1000 BC the process had been standardized and spread around the Mediterranean. The Etruscans to the north of Rome started making wine as did Greek colonists in southern Italy. The Romans gradually got into the wine business, making major contributions to classification of grape varieties and characteristics, disease control and soil-types for viticulture. Roman vintners also may have been the first to put wine in glass bottles, and they certainly invented the wooden wine barrel. In the early stages, Rome made wine for export and sent tuns (really big barrels) of the stuff north over the Alps to Gaul, where the uncouth natives drank it straight instead of diluting it like the southerners did. The Romans themselves knew all about wine, but they still preferred the more manly drinks -- mead and beer -- of their warrior past.

The Phoenicians, who had by this time transferred their headquarters to North Africa and were calling themselves Carthaginians, produced the first known book about winemaking and agriculture, and copies were captured by the Romans when Carthage fell and was destroyed in 146 BC. The Roman Senate decreed that the work should be translated and circulated, and it became the source of all later writing on viticulture. Attention conspiracy theorists: Cato, who had so vociferously demanded the destruction of Carthage in the last Punic War, made a fortune just fourteen years later by writing De Agri Cultura, which was, as you might guess, about winemaking and agriculture. Cato's book is the earliest surviving Latin prose text. Cato was just one of several authors cashing in on the Phoenician knowledge, but his book is one of the more detailed and is still a concise basic reference used by winemakers and viticulturists. (Columella's De Re Rustica, written in 65 AD, is more precise and comprehensive, but less easily available.)

But most Romans suddenly became much more interested in how to get the next bottle of the good stuff rather than in growing, pressing, fermenting, filtering, etc. By 100 BC mead and beer were out, and wine was in. A hundred years later, choice vintages and regions had been defined, and everyone craved the Falernian. Caecuban wine was legendary, but disappeared half a century later when a Neronian public works project destroyed the vineyards. Setine, Rhaetic, Surrentine, Massic, Calenian, Statanian, Mamertine -- all should be in a rich man's cellar. Wine drinking parties were very popular -- often with poetry readings and philosophical discussion (topic: How much wine can a Stoic drink and still be Stoic? Demonstrate.) Dancing girls and orgies also figured in. A master of ceremonies would call out the toasts, the type of wine or blend of wines, how much water should be used for dilution, and other additives for each round.

"Pore folks" also got their wine, often free from political candidates or from the rich families to whom they were clients. A mixture of cheap wine and honey called muslum was distributed free at the games and around theaters to put the patrons in the right mood and to ensure their support for the sponsors in the next election.

By the 2nd century AD per capita annual wine consumption among all Romans had risen to 250 liters, and Rome had become a major importer of wine. The population of the city itself was over one million by that time, and that goes a long way toward explaining mounds of broken wine amphorae that accumulated around the city. (Mount Testaccio, the biggest and best-preserved amphorae mound, outside the old port on the Tiber, is actually composed mostly of olive oil amphorae -- a different story.)

Wine was also used for religious purposes and was poured out in great quantities in temples and cemeteries. Graveside funeral feasts with much wine were the rule, and wine was poured into specially designed orifices in tombs and columbaria -- the dead were expected to share with the living.

Nobody knows what ancient Roman wine really tasted like. Some certainly must have absorbed the tastes of resins and pitches that lined the amphorae in which they were stored -- think of the Greek Retsinas. Roman authors praised sweet wine, and honey was often added to cheaper wines, but they also added lemon and other sour juices and even sea water. But we have absolutely no reason to worry: they liked what they had, and very nice local wines are available to us here today. I prefer the Campanians, especially Castellis, but I have enough sense not to argue against the Tuscans.  "Tutti gusti sono gusti."

Internet Links:

The Social History of wine from the Professional Friends of Wine: http://www.winepros.org/wine101/history.htm

Origins and Ancient History of Wine from Upenn: http://www.upenn.edu/museum/Wine/wineintro.html

Wine http://ancienthistory.about.com/homework/ancienthistory/msub_wine.htm and Dionysius/Bacchus http://www.ancienthistory.about.com/homework/ancienthistory/cs/dionysusmyth/ from the Ancient/Classical History section of About.com: from the same sec

Cato (in English): http://www.kal69.dial.pipex.com/807frame.htm

Roman Wine Festivals -- Vinalia and Meditrinalia:  http://www.ku.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Vinalia.html