When it comes to ancient intoxicants, two drinks loom large on the bar tab of human history. The brewing of beer is believed to be one of the motivating factors behind the cultivation of the first crops. And not long after, the first vineyards and wineries appeared.
The oldest winery on record is known as Areni-1. Discovered in Armenia in 2007, this cave and its contents date back to around 4000 BCE. But by the time the Romans came around an epoch or so later, winemaking had been elevated to a spectator sport for the wealthy.
Wine as a spectator sport?
So argues a new piece in the scientific journal Antiquity. With its “ostentatious luxury” and “bizarre degree of opulence,” the ancient Roman winery at the Villa of the Quintili was a bit more “hands” on than what we see at modern vineyards. Or should we say “feet on”? Apparently, the social elite of the time would visit this large, lushly decorated facility to watch members of the lower class trod the grapes underfoot.
I enjoy winery tours as much as the next person, but the idea of watching folks smush fruit with their toes seems a bit outdated. Now, if they were riding through the grapes on specialized bicycles, or holding pro-wrestling matches amongst the juice and seeds, that might be a bit more intriguing. But however this first human-powered pressing was made (horrifically dubbed “free-run juice” by Wikipedia), the wine it produced was considered the most “highly prized.” And once it came time to enjoy a bottle, the drinking was almost as different as the production.
Ancient wine was generally watered down
If you read enough ancient history, you’ll know that binge-drinking parties were a pretty big deal. Take Plato’s Symposium, for instance. Basically, a bunch of Greeks (some already hungover) show up at a friend’s house to discuss the true nature of Eros, or love, as you do. But before the wine can be poured, it must first be mixed with water. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the ratio was “usually three or four parts water to one part wine,” and was mixed in a large central bowl known as a krater.
Now, those examples are decidedly more Greek than Roman. But this practice, and indeed many of the customs surrounding Rome’s ancient drinking rituals, were assimilated from the Hellenistic cultures. The adding of water to wine can be chalked up to a simple fact: Throughout classical history, the quality of your average drinking water was sketchy. Wine was considered a purifying agent, or at least a way to mask unpleasant tastes.
Not a fan of watered-down wine? Well, drinking it straight was a sure way to find yourself labeled as a barbarian. Unless you were an old man, or sick, in which case it was considered to be “beneficial and warming.”
The additives in wine were no joke
Water wasn’t the only substance frequently added to wine and, as food storyteller Max Miller points out, the Romans had interesting tastes. Citizens liked to doctor up their drinks with ingredients such as saffron, ground pepper, honey, and dates. Watch this video for a fun deep dive on the topic, including some snarky quotes from a few writers of the time.
One such historical figure goes by the name of Columella. And if you pay attention to his accounts from the first century CE, you’ll find something that might make you pass on the sweeter vintages. These styles were perpetually in vogue and, according to Columella, one of the best ways to amp up the flavor was to boil the crushed grapes in a lead vessel. That’s because lead, indeed, provides a natural sweetness. Remember those paint chips your grandparents told you not to eat? Same thing—and the side effects are a doozy.
But hey, maybe a little lead-based craziness is what makes Ancient Rome’s drinking culture so appealing. If we had witnessed the spectacle at the Villa of the Quintilii’s winery, it’s not too hard to imagine hopping the guard rail and stomping grapes with the plebians.