A good wine starts with a good harvest and favorable conditions for the grapes. The vineyard next door was harvested early this year, and the yields on grapes were incredible.
The God Bacchus, or, if you prefer the Greek version, Dionysus, is sometimes known by scholars as “The Arriving God”, often referred to as Der Kommende Gott, which is German for the same thing since a German renowned German scholar of the last century was the first to apply this moniker to Him. (Please note the caps – usually pagan deities do not get caps when referring to them as “god” or “goddess”, but in my opinion Bacchus deserves caps!) The appellation comes from the possibility that Dionysus was not a Greek deity initially, but an import from the East, and is often depicted in ancient art as in procession on a panther or tiger, animals that in antiquity were related to India and the eastern most edges of the known world.
Dionysus arrived early on our farm this year because of the super-abundance of fruit, and being a good hedonist, I always like to honor him by spreading the good news in the booziest way possible, making cider and wine. Call it an alcoholic form of evangelicalism. The ancient Greeks and Romans in fact felt The Buzz to be a manifestation of the God Himself, that you could actually feel the presence of Dionysus in the wine, and that to partake was to ingest the God into you and to experience His actual presence and mystery.
Our two modest vines in the back yielded a prodigious harvest of grapes this year. I spent a Saturday picking no less than 25 gallons of grapes, and was so spent by the task (it’s pretty intense work making your way through the tangle of the old vines to get to the clusters) that I left probably a good five to eight gallons of grapes on the vine. Here they are being pressed for juice that I’ll ferment for a decent home brew that is good but not great.
The God had a long and illustrious history in antiquity. The Athenians honored him with religious festivals, and Greek comedy and tragedy in Athens was a part of religious rites celebrating Him – such as the Dionysia. The Romans moved at one point to suppress Bacchus rites as immoral, but still honored the deity once the state took control of His cult. My personal favorite religious observance in His honor was an Athenian festival known as the Anthesteria, or festival of the blossoms, that took place around February (in the month of Anthesterion). It was called Anthesterion because that’s when the wild flowers start to bloom in Greece, and the festival celebrated the opening of the new wine. It took place over three days, one of which included ritual drunkenness, when the new wine was uncorked and celebrants got quite intoxicated. In fact, the Greeks used wine as a cultural marker: for the Greeks there were two types of people in the world – civilized ones who spoke Greek, and all the rest, who were barbarians; similarly, civilized people drank wine, around which there were elaborate rituals, or they drank beer and other forms of liquor, marking them as uncultured savages.
Of course, the pre-modern world was quite a boozy place, and as one reads one begins to see that intoxication has quite a pedigree. Alcibiades, the famous Athenian statesman, gives an inebriated biography of his friend Socrates in Plato’s Symposium. Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, was quite the tippler, while it’s dubious whether his son ever went into battle without knocking back two or three or nine. Mark Antony, a notorious drunk, wrote a work titled De Ebrietate Sua (Latin for “Concerning His Drunkenness”), and even showed up at the forum in his capacity as consul with a hangover that entailed repeated vomiting in public. The Latin word for hangover, by the way, is totally awesome: crapula. You could not make that one up! Cato the Younger, the great opponent of Julius Caesar who chose suicide over living under the tyranny of his illustrious rival, was a notorious drinker, and it was said that Cato was the only one who could save the Republic drunk while Caesar was the only one who would destroy it while sober. Caesar’s successor, Augustus, was known to be an abstemious drinker, consuming no more than a pint of wine a day (Augustus and Caesar – what a couple of damn prigs!) Augustus’ successor, Tiberius, was a heavy drinker – his full name was Tiberius Claudius Nero but he was jokingly referred to as Biberius Caldius Mero, which translates roughly to Mr. Imbiber of Pure Hot Wine. When you dined with Tiberius big cups were the order of the day, as was witty conversation. And by gosh by golly, all that wine killed him off prematurely at the age of 78. His mother, the empress Livia, lived to be 86, dying in 29 AD, and attributed her longevity to only drinking wine from Picenum (in Italy). The emperor Claudius (Mark Antony’s grandson, Augustus’ grand-nephew, and Tiberius’ nephew), was so bad a drunk that he couldn’t even remember issuing the order to have his wife, Messalina, executed for adultery and conspiracy.
I may speak rather self-deprecatingly about my ability as a wine maker, but all modesty goes out the window when it comes to my home brewed hard cider. It is, quite simply, the best alcoholic beverage I’ve ever tasted. It starts here with grinding the apples. Note the fermentation buckets in the background – that is what the juice is poured into for the initial fermentation.
As for my own personal history, being a good Classicist, I’ve always enjoyed wine. As a teenager growing up I would drink rarely – my parents carefully regulated any consumption and it was reserved only for special occasions.
When I traveled Europe in 83 though, well, I lived on beer; I was on a budget, often sleeping on trains, eating lots of bread and cheese, and getting plenty of calories from drinking beer (and goodness, I was still so thin!). My boozy peregrination through old Europe started in London pubs – that’s where I first encountered Scrumpy, a slang term for hard cider, which I enjoyed immensely, though I loved the British stouts as well – the bitter quality was invigorating and refreshing I found. My time in France and Belgium was pretty sober, but once I arrived in Spain I encountered Sangria. It was like nothing I ever had – being on a tight budget, it was a joy to be able to go into a tapas bar and have wonderful delicacies washed down with a pitcher of red wine fortified with brandy and infused with fruit; by the time I reached Spain it was hot, I was on my feet 8-10 hours a day sight-seeing, and a couple of pitchers of those a day went down pretty easily. I traveled from Spain to Portugal with a couple of cute Canadian girls I met on the train in Madrid. When we arrived in Lisbon it turned out it was a ntional holiday, and everything but the cafes were closed. I recall a long day with them and an Australian gentleman in an outdoor café in a lovely square and we had about 40 bottles of beer on the table by the end of the day.
Oddly enough, once I arrived from my time in Spain and Portugal in Italy I don’t recall having much in the way of anything to drink, perhaps because Italy was so expensive and I ate on the fly out of pizzarias on the street and rosticcerias where you could get chicken and salads or potatoes. Once in Austria and Germany, however, the beer flowed: Pilsner, Berliner Weiss, Helles, I tried them all many times over. Much to my surprise, however, were the white wines in both Austria and Germany, and to my delight, in Austria, the white wines were sometimes served in small mugs (awesome!), and were refreshing and delicious, since by the time I arrived in the northern countries in Europe it was summer. At the time I had no idea Germany produced such outstanding wines. However my first impression of Germany was not the best – I arrived in Munich and was wandering its charming streets and taking it all in, and wandered into the famous Hoffbrau Haus because I was a young American tourist and was told I absolutely had to go, so I had “ein Mass”, then went to use the facilities when a large German fellow with an amble main of red hair and a whispy beard stormed in, slammed his hands against the wall, and proceeded to vomit in a way that could make Linda Blair in the Exorcist look like child’s play. Oof!
The next step after grinding the apples for cider is the squeezing and pressing of the fruit. I can extract 3-4 gallons on a good day, and much of the time is spent simply sanitizing equipment. I used to joke about how my brew was the triple D (DDD, Down, Dirty, and Dangerous), but some tainted cider cured me of my cavalier attitude towards sanitation – no alcohol doesn’t really kill every germ!
After I spent a couple of months in the Germanic countries I headed to Scandinavia, where I have relatives in Denmark and Norway. Before visiting them, however, I traveled to Finland: the only thing I’ll say about it is vodka, knife fights, and living near Russia are a very bad combination. As far as Norway goes, the booze is too expensive and the people pretty staid and sober, although my second or third cousin Per, who was a Norwegian bachelor dairy farmer and looked like a cute little elf, brewed homemade beer in a large wooden vat in the basement of his house, and I remember him leaning over the vat stirring in Juniper sprigs for flavor. He drew off pitchers of it for lunch and it had a very distinct taste of what I imagine glue must be like.
Denmark was another story. I spent almost all my time with my mother’s cousin Erik in Odense. Erik lives in a story book home with a story book setting – a red brick house with a red tile roof, a huge victory garden, and a lovely canal in the back of the house with ducks and swans that glided down its waters. It was lovely. Every night for the time I was there we ate outside in the garden, and at every meal there was a bottle of aquavit and several beers. Aquavit, for the uninitiated, is Scandinavia’s answer to Schnapps: it tastes literally like liquid caraway seeds and is kept in the freezer at all times; shots of it are consumed and chased by beer. Danes claim that it helps herring to “swim” in one’s stomach. It is a great accompaniment to the open face sandwiches the Danes consume in their infinite variety: shrimp, herring and egg, ham and Havarti, Tybo cheese and radish, liver pate with thin slices of onion, rollepolse (the Danish version of rolled beef), frikadeller (ground pork patties with some sage), lax with butter and dill, and on and on and on. The Danes even drink Aquavit in their coffee in the evening with a bit of sugar in a concoction they call “A Little Black”: you put a Danish kroner (I guess they’d use a Euro now!) in the bottom of the cup and pour in coffee until is vanishes, then add Aquavit until it reappears. Of course, the requisite pastries and cakes are there on the side, or Rod Grot med Flot (sorry, I am not slashing my “o”s!), a porridge of lightly sweetened berries with cream poured on top – delicious!
The final step in home brewing is the bottling – after three weeks of fermentation in the bucket (and I add in a couple of packs of champagne yeast and a couple pounds of brown sugar for every five gallons of cider to produce a nice dry product); I then at bottling add in a syrup of one cup water and three-fourths cup brown sugar to produce carbonation and let it ferment for another three weeks in the bottle. As an historic note, cider was one of the drinks of choice in colonial and revolutionary America (President Adams reportedly drank two tankards of the brew a night); it was driven out in favor of beer by around the 1840s as German and Irish immigrants with their tradition of beers and ales flowed into the young republic. Happily it is making a comeback!
My cousin Erik and I actually took a little trip down the Rhine and Mosel, camping all the way. Of course the Rhine valley is well known to tourists, but the Mosel was an eye opener for me. We drove down a relatively narrow stream with steep hills on either side, vineyards and castles to the right and left everywhere, not to mention a plethora of charming German villages. It was there that I discovered Mosel Wein, wonderful, sweet, crisp, refreshing wine from the Mosel vineyards, and generally low in alcohol, so we would drink several bottles at night with dinner. It was particularly nice since we were there in July and the days were very hot and humid.
Drinking in the US is often associated with the college experience. I was odd in that by the time I started college in earnest I was married, and given my heavy work load as an undergraduate and what I was studying, simply didn’t drink for years, period, end of story. When you have a professor who makes you read eight books of Homer’s Odyssey in Greek when you are only in your fourth semester of the language, you barely have time to breath. So, a long hiatus until I started to go to Europe again as a grad student in 1994 and 1995. It was then that I made up for the wines I had never tried in Italy in 1983, when I was on a program for art and archaeology at the American Academy in Rome.
I will never forget my first encounter with a Roman white: a friend of mine from the program and I sat down at a little café on a side street just off from the Pantheon. We ordered a liter of house wine, and got what we thought was champagne. It was exquisite: light, crisp, refreshing, and fizzy – what the Italians call frizzante. And we were horrified. It was outstanding: how much was this going to cost? Then we got the tab and settled in – about the whole of $4.00 – so we settled in. Over my years of frequent travel to Italy I became acquainted with some outstanding wines of various character: Montpulciano, Regaliale, Lacrimae Christi, Frascati, Castelli Romani, Est Est Est!, Orvieto Classico, Granano di Sorrento, the list goes on and on and on. Prosecco, that wonderful bubbly produced mainly in the north, became a personal favorite. In my opinion, none of this stuff travels well, except for Vin Santo, a sweet dessert wine served with biscotti. Then of course there was grappa (a strong grape liquor), and a personal favorite, limoncello, a lemon liquor popular in Campania, the region surrounding Naples in the south. The hotel I used to take students to in Pompeii always had a giant bottle of it in the lobby for their guests, often surrounded by filthy shot glasses. I will never make home-brewed wine like the Italians, but I can boast that I have them beat with the limoncello, and even make a homemade cream version of the drink. As one scholar put it to me however, just before I left, just stick your face in the gutter in Italy and eventually some fine wine will flow over it!
And right he was – metaphorically speaking! I recall while excavating the ancient Roman city of Fragellae, about half way between Rome and Naples, wonderful lunches of cold salads like bread and tomato or tuna and beans, with a large jug of white wine passed around. After a long morning of swinging a pick and hauling dirt, sometimes even working a jackhammer (yes, a jackhammer), it was hard to pass up even the standard white table wine that was so cold and delicious.
Greece is another story. Although known for its wines in antiquity, I am not fond of most Greek wines. The stuff you get from around Nemea on the Peloponnese in southern Greece is okay. The Macedonian roses are actually good. Retsina is an acquired taste, though I could tolerate it (and there are some good retsinas). But my favorite Greek beverage is ouzo – I love it. However it does NOT translate well to America. You need a beach on a Greek island on a hot summer day, with plenty of ice and fresh fish. In fact, it is like German beer, Italian wine, and anything else – best there; it just doesn’t work outside of its environment, like training a giraffe to pull a plow – that’s a job for an ox, a giraffe just won’t work. That having been said, I have never seen so much alcohol consumed as at the American School for Classical Studies in Athens during my year there – it seemed as though everyone in my class had livers like Aegean sponges. The favored drink was a cocktail called a Navarino – blood orange juice and vodka.
Once home from Greece and gainfully employed at a public university where I was struggling to get tenure I turned to cocktails on Friday to get through the ordeal. I started to make Manhattans and Martinis for a while, and when we went to the opera wine was our thing. Opera was an all day event on Sundays, and we liked to come home and cook a great dinner accompanied with a fine wine. But hard liquor was never my thing, and I like the civility and conviviality of wine and beer, so it was a brief affair and I’ve not seen either Ms. Manhattan or Martini since the late 90s!
All I can say about life here today is that living in the heart of one of the finest wine regions in the world where we are is awesome. What can I say – it just is! Every week at the market a local winery is featured and I buy their wine and they buy our eggs. I have a collection of fine 2011s – a great year, and plan to snap up the 2014s asap since it was such a great year for grapes.
This nifty little wine cooler is home to my little collection of fine Oregon Pinot Noir, and lives next to my aging homemade feta and a few apples we’re saving for pie this winter. An Anthesteria, anyone?
Of course, just as God thinks in Latin and speaks in Greek (and sometimes Arabic as well!), Bacchus is fluent in grape. He speaks in three dialects, white, red, and rose; and his syntax is alcohol, juice, yeast, and natural sugars. His magic is powerful, erratic, marvelous. And he has followed us from the ancient brews of Mesopotamia, to the famous Falernian of Opimius’ consulship in 121 BC, to the coastal foothills of modern Oregon. He truly is an “arriving” God. And he has come to us once again. The bubbles in my fermentation locks are his muezzin calling us to worship. His thyrsus, garlands, and komos – they comfort us. His logos is written in the scripture and tells us: you won’t be alone this winter, the God will be with you, until he mounts his panther, and brings autumn, with its grape presses, and fermentation, and joy, to another part of the world. And it is also the message of Siduri, the divine wine-maker and brewer from the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, comforting the eponymous hero over the death of his friend Enkidu: “Fill your belly with good things, hold a child’s hand, and made your wife happy in your embrace, for this too is the lot of man.”