Did you know that?

It was not uncommon for a Greek to drink 2-3 cups of water for every cup of wine he or she drank. The Greeks believed that by diluting the wine with water they could better appreciate its subtleties and also minimize the ‘bump’ or ‘hangover’ that sometimes occurred when they had too much wine.

Though the central focus of this blog concerns ecommerce and its relation to the wine industry, we must not forget the real reason all of us are in this to begin with: wine. And we integrators have a suspiciously coincidental tradition of having literary backgrounds. Thus, in that tradition I wish to treat the subject of wine according to its classical accounts.

The history of wine – the Greeks

The Greek treatment of wine (or ‘oinos -pronounced “woynoss” from which we derive our word “wine” ) is extensive as would be expected of any Mediterranean culture. Wine was always mixed with water, as drinking unmixed wine was considered barbaric, as was becoming observably drunk -unless that was the goal as it was a Dionysian festivals. Homer’s use of wine is well known. It is present at every feast and sacrifice. Mixed, of course, wine is considered a necessary part of the social sphere. Throughout Homer wine is seen as indelible to meals, but also crucial for soothing the mind in order to speak true thoughts, and also release oneself from oppressive ones. Helen mixed her drug with wine to allow Menelaus and Telemachus to forget their sorrow over friends and father lost after Troy. For Homer, wine’s place is primarily social, to prepare for the telling of stories, or for enticing strangers. The Phaeacians offer Odysseus copious wine, after consuming which he tells of his travels. Polyphemus, the cannibal animal Cyclops, is at first approached with rich wine, though it fails since Polyphemus is “without culture and fear of the gods,” thus wine’s culture will not affect him as it does the higher faculties of others.

Later in the Odyssey, Odysseus addresses Eumaeus, his former servant in whom he seeks an ally against the suitors hitting on his wife; Odysseus tells him: “for the wine urges me, fooling wine, which impels one, though he be right minded otherwise, to sing and laugh, it makes him stand up and dance, and say words word which were indeed better unsaid” The Greek is here. As is evident, many of our traditional associations with wine take their precedent in this ancient epic, if not in real life. Wine encourages an individual to enjoy the activities that the Greeks considered integral to a good life, dance, song, stories and laughter.

Another central aspect of wine is its faculty to succor. Euripides, the true tragician as it were, reiterates certain Homeric aspects of wine in his Bacchae, with a discussion of Dionyses (the god associated with wine) wherein he writes: “[wine] gives mortals ease for pain, eases them to sleep, gives forgetfulness of life’s evils (kaka) and there is no other medicine (pharmakon) for misery” (Bacchae 280-283). These were well known faculties of wine, forgetfulness, alleviation, anti-depressant (though ironically alcohol is a depressant). Euripides finds wine’s place in Tragedy as allowing just enough alleviation to move forward or recount the direness of the situation more eloquently, than the usual aiaiaiai of mourning mothers and lovers.

The Greek literary tradition of wine

But the important part of the aforementioned Homeric selection is the last line, about loosening the tongue; for wine has impelled Odysseus to risk exposing himself in order to gain a vital ally. Thus wine may make one foolish, but it also breaks down boundaries, thus encouraging compromise and accord. Later Greek authors increasingly treated wine as symbol of poetry and peace.

Aristophanes, in his explicitly anti-war play Acharnians (Acharnians were poor farmer folk caught in the middle of the Peloponesian war), the hero -or antihero- Dikaiopolis (lit:just city), having become disgusted with the warmongering rulers of the city, decides to make peace himself, using wine as his weapon of treaty. After trying various vintages, he finds the right one, the wine that has been aged the best and therefore will ensure the longest peace. His description easily rivals modern wine reviews: “Oh! by Bacchus! what a bouquet! It has the aroma of nectar and ambrosia; this does not advise us, stock enough bread for three days. But it softly suggests, tread where you will. I accept it, ratify it, drink it in one gulp and call on the Acharnians to rejoice. Freed from the war and its ills, I shall keep the Dionysia in our country.” The Greek is here. Wine is what life is about, what work and labor and sacrifice are for, not the quixotic patriotism of war. So now wine is not only a personal relief from pain, but a national one as well. See in his lines how wine encourages rather than forces or commands. Wine is depicted here as a positive, adding joy to life, as opposed to Euripides’ view of wine only nullifying pain. As an aside, Aristophanes repeatedly lampooned Euripides as a hack and wardrobe designer who appealed too readily to easy emotions instead of rational humor. So this departure from the traditional view of wine fits with Aristophanes overall view of life as laughter, in which pain is a necessary interruption, instead of the Euripidian view of life as pain, with minimal relief. We can guess who enjoyed their wine more….

The Greek relation of wine and poetry

Finally, the great Callimachus, librarian at Alexandria, renown for his craft during his lifetime and afterward, most notably by the Roman Augustan poets, writes of wine in its relation to poetry, or more specifically, to the poet himself. A master of the epigram form, in Epigram 35 Callimachus gives one of his few self-referential passages. “You pass by the tomb of [Callimachus], who knew the poetic song well, and knew well to laugh along with wine’s proper place.” The Greek is here. Here the poet sums his own poetic life as revolving around song and the laughter generated by wine. For Greeks of the Hellenistic period, the two amounted to the same experience, for poetry was not read as much as it was recited (Homer was not written down for the first 200-300 years of its existence), and ubiquitous with the recitation of poetry was the consumption of wine. Moreover, we have Callimachus’ prescription for how to enjoy his poems, with the same ease, objective humor and appreciation for subtlety brought on by the experience of wine, or we should add, the more Aristophanes experience of wine, enjoying its fragrance and promise of peace, as well as its intoxication. This is not something we can do all day every day, for he is careful to include “xairia” or proper place, evenings after the work is done when the mind and body are ready to relax.

And in just such a vain, even on a Monday, we can leave this discussion appreciating the deep Greek literary tradition wine has been involved in, if not outright encouraged with its effect. And in that vain, when work is done, don’t forget to fill your life with copious poetry, and your cup copiously with wine.