It's Harvest time in the Valley.

It's Harvest time in the Valley.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Of Wine and Heritage. A very personal story.

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Wine Country is but a few hours away, and food and wine is a near daily obsession for many residents, I found Wine Appreciation an easy hobby to pursue.  

Thirsting for knowledge, I did it all: read books, scoured magazines, studied wine newsletters, attended winemaker dinners, signed up for tasting classes, sipped samples in stores and peppered sales clerks with endless questions. These initial efforts got me through the ABC’s of wine—how a wine looks, smells and tastes. 

While the ABC’s were an adequate introduction, they did little to feed my hunger for the subject as a whole.  I was curious about the origins of wine, as well as its historical development; where it was first discovered and how it became such a beautifully crafted, international product. It wasn’t nearly enough to be able to recognize a particular wine’s aroma and flavor, or how highly rated it was, I needed to know its provenance and who were its best producers.

While my Bay Area residency provided the initial impetus for exploring wine appreciation, my heritage evolved into a more gratifying motivator.  As a first generation Greek American, I was attracted to the subject because of numerous references to ancient Greece, and its pivotal role in the cultural and economic aspects of wine’s development.

In ancient Greek culture, reality and myth were inextricably intertwined.  Virtually all aspects of daily life, including wine, were under the watchful eye of the Gods on Mount Olympus.  Just as the Greeks had a god of the seas (Poseidon), a goddess of love (Aphrodite), and a goddess of agriculture (Demeter), they also had a god of wine (Dionysus).  Wall paintings, sculptures, mosaics, vase paintings and coins provided eternal evidence of the various myths surrounding Dionysus’ adventure-filled history.

On the wine-growing and economic side, the early Greeks were one of the first to tame vitis vinifera vines, the wild grape vines that grew haphazardly in nature.  Instead of letting them randomly intertwine around shrubs, bushes and trees, they developed organized planting and trellising systems.  In time, a thriving exporting industry resulted.  In that sense, the Greeks were major players in the democratization of wine.  Prior to that, royalty, particularly the Egyptians, reserved it for themselves and/or visiting dignitaries.

It was during the period of exporting its wines that Greek vineyards became known and coveted throughout the Mediterranean.  They weren’t simple, generic wines, they were exceptional wines from specific locations.  And it was while reading Homer’s Odyssey and other sources referencing the Wine Dark Sea of the north Aegean, that my ancestral sensors began to vibrate with heightened interest.  My mother was born in that region on the island of Lesvos.  These references caused me to wonder, could her birthplace have been one of the sources of those acclaimed, ancient Greek wines?

The answer is not a modest, self-effacing "yes."  It's an exuberant, "high five" YES!  Numerous amphorae, specially designed clay containers for storage and shipping, have been unearthed from ancient excavation sites throughout the Mediterranean.  And those clay pots contain seals and inscriptions that very clearly identify the wine's origin:  Lesvos.  Moreover Hugh Johnson, an acclaimed British author, confirms that the wines of Lesvos were highly regarded, and they were likely the prime source of a rare and lusciously sweet wine that was not produced anywhere else.  A truly unique, ancient wine from my Mother's birthplace?  It couldn't get any better than that!!  

Of course, my imagination ran wild.  Could it be that ancient relatives--faces and names lost in the mists of oral history--toiled in the vineyards, pressed the grapes, and made those famous wines?  Was the study of wine "in my blood?" Intriguing thoughts to be sure, and fun to ponder, especially over a glass of wine.

There is, however, a bittersweet ending to my prideful chest beating.  My Mother passed away before I made my joyful discovery.  Even though we shared many lunches together prior to her passing—sipping wine and eating savory, homemade mezethes—she and I were deprived of the opportunity to regale ourselves while talking about those famous wines of her birthplace.  I can only imagine what great fun it would have been.  


Note:  A longer version of the above was published in the January 2014 edition of Still Crazy: A Literary Magazine, which is no longer published.