Even Greeks spoke geek

Times Staff Writer

THOSE lovable wine geeks -- holding their glasses high to check a wine’s color before they swirl and slurp, memorizing vintages and debating the terroir of this or that vineyard. What a feature of the modern world.

Only they’re not new. They just seem new to us because it’s only recently that Americans have become wine drinkers. Wine geekery goes way back.

The first wine geek might have been some forgotten Babylonian who could tell you exactly why Hulbunu wine was better than Tupliash, or an Egyptian who knew all the vintages of the Southern Oasis. But the top geeks of the ancient world were the Greeks.


For one thing, wine was their everyday drink, while the Egyptians and Babylonians were basically beer drinkers. For another, the Greeks were seafarers, so they had wines from all over the eastern Mediterranean to compare.

So they carried on about wine in a way we all recognize. Archestratus, writing in the 4th century BC, dismissed the wines of Lebanon in favor of the Greeks’ favorite wine region, the island of Lesbos off the coast of present-day Turkey:

“I praise the wine of Byblos in Phoenicia, though it does not equal Lesbian. If you take a quick taste of it and are unacquainted with it, you will think it more fragrant than Lesbian, for the fragrance lasts a very long time. When tasted, though, it is very inferior.... If some scoff at me -- braggarts, purveyors of empty nonsense -- saying that Phoenician has the sweetest nature of all, I pay no attention to them.”

A century earlier, Hermippus had written real tasting notes: “Sweet generous Magnesian, and Thasian over which the scent of apples plays, this I judge much the best of all the other wines, after fine and harmless Chian. There is a certain wine that they call saprias, from the mouths of whose jars when they are opened there is a smell of violets, a smell of roses, a smell of larkspur, a sacred smell through all the high-roofed hall.”

Saprias comes from saprios, rotten, so perhaps it was made from grapes that had been attacked by botrytis, the noble rot mold, which creates the famously perfumed French Sauternes.

We have to remember that the Greeks nearly always mixed wine with water before drinking. They were looking for wines with a flavor that would survive dilution, so their favorites were made from partly dried grapes or even raisins, like Malaga or the Italian recioto wines of today. They would have lacked the fresh-fruit qualities we admire in wine.


One sort of wine geekery you don’t find in the ancient world is the concept of “pairing” or “marrying” particular wines with particular foods. The ancients didn’t drink wine with the meal -- they drank it afterward, with snacks such as fruits, nuts and cakes. That was another reason for them to prefer raisiny wines. In effect, the only food they “married” wine with was dessert.

Surprisingly, they also liked salty wines. Maybe winemakers on the islands of Cos and Lesbos started adding seawater to their wines to help them survive the voyage to the mainland, but it was also said that a slave came up with the idea of “stretching” wine with saltwater, and his customers just found they liked the taste.

The Romans took over the Greek approach to wine, salting and all. In the 1st century, the writer Pliny the Elder gave a recipe for counterfeiting Coan wine by adding seawater aged 70 days (probably to reduce the iodine smell) to whatever wine you had on hand. If your farm wasn’t near the sea, he added, you could just use table salt.

The final stage of ancient wine geekery came in the medieval Arab world. The Arabs were the first to pay much attention to the color of wine. The Greeks and Romans hadn’t, because they drank from pottery cups. The Arabs, though, drank from clear glass. So they distinguished the dark red of a young wine, the brownish tinge of an aged wine and the pale hue of a really old red, which they compared to rose petals or even a rooster’s pinkish eye.

The Koran disapproves of wine, and Muslims did not make it or sell it, but Christian monks did, and they had many Muslim customers. Even caliphs drank wine. The first to do so openly was Yazid III (died around 745), who wrote a verse about it: “Friends, distract me with a glass of Isfahan, the wine of old king Chosroes, or a wine from Kairouan [in Tunisia].”

In the 9th century, al-Shabushti wrote a sort of traveler’s guide to monasteries, carefully mentioning which were nice places to drink. For instance, the nunnery of Dair al-Khawat made the famous wine of Ukbara. At these monasteries, and the wine shops that sprang up around them, the Arabs continued the Greek and Roman custom of diluting wine with water and showed the same reverence for the complex, delicate flavor of long-aged red wines. In one 11th century tale, the barmaid at a wine shop boasts of how old her wine is:

“It is as if my grandfathers squeezed it from my rosy cheek.... Bidding farewell to age after age, a secret in the pocket of pleasure, it has inherited bounties and the days and nights have taken from it until there remain only fragrance and sunbeams and the fire that stirs the blood, and the aromatic herbs of the soul.”

Of course, she was not a wine geek -- she was a clever wine merchant. But this wasn’t the first time geek talk worked on wine buyers; her customers eagerly ordered a round.