New Bottle, Old Wine
‘Mmmm, a refreshing, ovine little vintage; I’m getting barley, olives, lard….’ Ancient Greek wines were often stored in sacks of sheep or goat skin, with more than a touch of the mammarian about them. The variety in taste must have been huge given the various honeys, spices, such as myrrh, and herbs which went into the making, as well as the pitch and resin used to seal ceramic amphorae which in turn inflected the taste. (In Georgia today they are using exactly the same process as the Greeks to make wine, and probably the same methods that have been used since 7000 BCE when the earliest signs of wine production have been found. Type ‘wine production Qvivri’ into YouTube to see a film.) They had black, white or amber coloured wine, which came as sweet, dry and in-between. Gourmets described them as ‘fragrant’ or ‘fat’ (‘mouth filling’- or perhaps just lardy) and one, anticipating Nigella, spoke of ‘Thasian wine upon whose surface skates the perfume of apples’.
They knew the benefits of aging wines, ‘women like old wines, but not old men’ was a standard joke, and all the consequences of drinking it to excess, or undiluted. Drinking it unmixed would certainly betray you as an ingenue, or barbarian even. You could buy wine ready mixed from the local taverna, or get your slave to mix it with warm or ice-chilled water to your required proportions. He would then ladle it out from a ‘krater’, first sieving out any skins and debris. The well-heeled made a ritual out of the mixing, the numbers of kraters to be prepared, the order guests were served, the topics of conversation. But that styles of consumption were as individual as today is shown by this comment in a play: ‘one krater for health, two for love and pleasure, three for sleep’. More than three, and you passed from arrogance, through shouting, dancing, black-eyes, the police and vomiting, to madness and throwing furniture about. One group of lads did just that, they got so drunk they thought they were on a ship in a storm and threw the furniture out of the windows to save themselves. They were still telling this story when the police arrived next morning.
Satyrs (from which we get both the word satirical and the style) were the imaginary creatures who carried those generic aspects of masculinity we all recognise and understand, but consequence free. They had a tireless capacity for drinking, with no fear of a hangover, were in a constant state of optimistic Priapic alert, but never suffered from the pains of rejection, and were always happily diverted into a bit of subversion or opportunistic acquisition of wine. On many Greek vases showing respectable types performing a solemn rite on the front, there is often a scene with satyrs on the reverse, sending it all up. This habit of subversion fed into the entertainment at parties. Singers, accompanying themselves on a lyre, would adopt women’s voices, abuse politicians and insult the guests, all in pentameter verse (at least the songs we know about were). Imagine a blend of Stewart Lee and Fascinating Aida. Strange brew.