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Radical Wine Thought

Month: January 2007

A Brief History of Wine, Part 1

Did you ever wonder about the history of edible plants? I grew up with a garden that contained Rhubarb. My mom always told me, “Don’t eat the leaves. Only the stalks are good.” How did she know this? My guess is that her mom told her the same thing, and her mom’s mom told her mom, and so on backwards through time… to what?

Well, it would seem we would have to conclude that at some point the world was a blank slate and our ancestors were hungry. They either drew straws, flipped a Drachma, or picked that gullible cousin, Grug, to take a bite out of the various plants around them. “Here, Grug. Try this little red phallic thing growing in this wildebeest dung. Looks delicious.” After several hours of observation, if Grug was still alive they added a new item to the menu. If Grug was dead, for generations to come parents would tell their kids, “Don’t eat the leaf of that plant. Grug ate the stalk and he was fine. But when he ate the leaf he spewed green slime and turned inside out.” Of course if Grug was alive, but suddenly standing upright, speaking a new language, and seeing God…they might have discovered hallucinogenic mushrooms. But that’s another article.

Isn’t it amazing the variety of edible plants we now have? Think of all the poor, gullible cousins who sacrificed their lives so that we would know what we could and couldn’t eat – which brings us to the grape. The grape was one of those discoveries that must have been cause for celebration. It’s pretty, it’s sweet, it’s juicy… and it doesn’t kill you! We probably stopped trying other plants for a while once we discovered the grape… why risk death when you’ve got something so yummy and safe already?

So here it is… an end-all, be-all scrumptiously perfect edible plant and what do we do? We jump up and down on it, mash it into a big mushy pulp, and then let it rot. So I ask you, from an evolutionary standpoint, does that make any sense at all? I can see why some might point to divine intervention in the case of the invention of wine. I mean we couldn’t even legitimately ask of the inventor, “What was he drinking?”

Whatever the happy accident that caused it, wine has been around since before recorded history. It’s first mention was around 5400 BC in Sumeria. Back then it was socially acceptable to be drunk. Heck, the gods went around smashed most of the time. It was almost a sign of being godly. In the Epic of Gilgamesh the gods had a being whose sole purpose was to make wine for them – Siduri, the Woman of the Vine. In the Hebrew Bible, the first thing Noah did when he got off the ark was plant a vineyard, make wine, and get plastered. What would you do if you just spent a year on a boat with thousands of animals and ancient plumbing? Jesus was a big fan of wine too. His first miracle in fact resulted from his having forgotten to bring a gift to his cousin’s wedding, so he made up for it by turning the water into wine at the reception.

What about recent history? Read A Brief History of Wine, Part 2.

A Brief History of Wine, Part 2

The U.S. is responsible for nearly destroying wine forever, and also saving it… twice!

In 1863 an American grape vine root louse hitched a ride on a native species of grape vine taken from America to England. This louse, known as phylloxera, eats grape vine roots, causing the vines to die. Not a good thing if you like wine. By 1865 the louse had made its way to the mainland and over the next 20 years it destroyed over 75% of the grape vines in Europe. You think the Europeans don’t like us now? Imagine if they were sober!

Extinction was near. They didn’t know what to do. Until one day a Texan realized that American grape vines had evolved a tolerance to the louse by growing roots with thick, strong bark. The European vines could be grafted onto American roots, and thus be saved. And that’s what they did. One by one, every vine in Europe was grafted onto American roots, thus saving the vines from extinction. What I want to know is did we charge them for those American roots used to save the European vines from the American louse… hmmm?

While our hit-louse was wreaking havoc on the European continent, the U.S. wine industry was enjoying an unprecedented boom. Coincidence… hmmm? However, it didn’t take us long to screw that up. In 1920 Prohibition cut the legs off the wine business. Never mind that Jesus himself had made some fine wine in his time, the “Drys” claimed the mention of wine in the Bible was misinterpreted grape juice. By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933 the wine industry had been decimated, as had respect for legal authority. Another irony: the term “wino” was coined during the 1920’s… when you couldn’t drink wine… hmmm.

Well, the U.S. is now just as good at making wine as we are at making war, and perhaps a bit better actually. But there are lessons to be learned from knowing your wine history. Primarily: enjoy it now because you never know when we’re going louse it up again. And buy a round for your European friends… we owe ‘em one.

Pinot Now Recommendation:

Klinker Brick Old Vine Zinfandel – From Lodi, California, this gargantuan flavor bomb owes some of its immensity to vines that are up to 110 years old – which means they survived louses, Prohibition, two World Wars, Vietnam, and every other pestilence in the last epoch of trouble… and they’re all the sweeter for it. Taste the love.

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