Those of us who are fascinated by wine live in a world where we looked upon by most people as at best peculiar and at worst a total wastrel. If get your thrills tracking wine quality through variations in soil, weather, climate and production style you’re a geek. If you provide detailed, public analysis of those variations you’re pretentious. Spending hard earned dollars on a distinctive bottling borders on immorality. And heaven forbid if you write about wine and try to capture its complexity you’re guilty logorrhea (i.e. excessive verbosity, too much jabber jabber).
So I found Lauren Mowery’s recent article in Wine Enthusiast to be immensely inspirational. Entitled “Pliny the Elder, the First Wine Critic and Why He Still Matters” Mowery traces some of our current practices in wine appreciation back to the ancient Romans especially the great military officer and author, Pliny, who had an interest in all things fermented.
Pliny’s extensive writings on “first growths” encompassed Falernian, the legendary wine of ancient Rome. This grape from Campania came from the slopes of Mount Massico, today the Falerno del Massico DOC.
He recorded the best sites of modern-day Lombardy, Venice, Emilia-Romagna, Marche and Tuscany. He detailed the finest vineyards south of Naples, along the Adriatic coast, where he acknowledged the high-quality estate of Mamertine from Messina, Sicily.
Pliny wrote of the healing properties of Prosecco. He recounted the rich, tannic wines of Pompeii, which was recreated recently using two ancient strains (Piedirosso and Olivella) in an experiment to taste wines of his times.
In other words, many of the preoccupations of wine lovers today have not only deep historical origins but continuity over two millennia.
The fact that a practice has such a tradition behind it does not in itself make it valuable. Some traditions are better left behind. But the fact that very different people in vastly different societies under utterly different historical conditions were serious and knowledgeable about wine appreciation shows that the allure of fine taste captures something deep in the human imagination.
Ridiculing wine tasting is a bit like ridiculing Shakespeare or great athleticism. You can do so but what you’re revealing about yourself isn’t pretty.