Would you like water with your wine?

Posted on August 30th, 2010 by

Guest blogger, Associate Professor of Classics  Matt Panciera, writes:

The food science writer Harold McGee recently wrote on the benefits of adding water to various beverages. He found that gin, coffee, and wine all improved their aroma and taste when diluted with water.(See his “Curious Cook” piece on the subject in the New York Times.)

The ancient Greeks and Romans knew this well. They regularly added water to their wine. It was a sign of civilized and refined behavior.

Figure 1 (http://www.utexas.edu/courses/larrymyth/images/dionysus/CA-Young-Dionysos-Altamura.jpg)

In Greek society men often gathered at a party, the symposium, to drink, gossip, have sex, or perhaps just talk philosophy. At these parties the dilution of wine with water was a regular practice with its own conventions and special paraphernalia. The ancient food writer Athenaeus devotes several pages to the topic. The Greeks often added as much as 3 parts water for ever part wine. This would be mixed in a beautiful and very large vase known as a krater (see figure 1), from the Greek word “to mix”.

This may have enhanced the taste but it also reduced the expense for whoever was throwing the party and allowed the participants to drink more over a longer period of time – often with predictable consequences (see the vomiting seated partier in figure 2).

Figure 2 (http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2423/3897499139_86f7ddf245.jpg)

The Romans developed more particular customs of adding water to wine. They were known to mix snow into wine in the summer, hot water during the winter, and even salt water. This was not done in a central mixing vase, but rather was adapted for each person at a dinner party to suit his or her individual tastes.

There are many examples of hot water cauldrons from Pompeii which used coals to heat water and had taps to dispense it. The ancient science writer Heron of Alexandria describes a fantastic water cauldron with a central chamber of coals that heat water in one adjacent compartment, and generated steam in another. The steam rose through tubing to the mouth of a cupid who blew on the coals and kept them hot (see figure 3).

Figure 3 (p.126, fig. 15b, in “Wine and water at the Roman convivium,” in the Journal of Roman Archaeology, volume 6, 1993, by Katherine M.D. Dunbabin)

Sometimes too much water was added, especially by bartenders and innkeepers, to increase profit. An ancient Pompeian complained in the following graffito: “May you pay for your cheating ways, innkeeper. You sell water and drink the unmixed wine yourself.”

The most famous ancient account of someone who did NOT add water to his wine, with disastrous results, was the monstrous one-eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus. The Greek hero Odysseus came to the island of the Cyclopes on his way home from the Trojan war. He stopped there to stock up on supplies and according to the ancient Greek custom of hospitality he should have been treated well by Polyphemus. The Cyclopes, however, were uncivilized in many ways – they had no interest in ships or seafaring, had cannabilistic tendencies, preferred milk to wine – and instead of giving his visitor a gift and sending him on his way he trapped Odysseus and his men in his cave and began eating them. Odysseus hatched a plan to exploit Polyphemus’ ignorance of the Greek custom of mixing wine and water. He had with him an especially fine wine given to him by a priest of Apollo, Maron:

Maron gave me splendid gifts : seven bars of gold

A solid-silver bowl, and twelve jars of wine,

Sweet and pure, a drink for the gods.

Hardly anyone in his house, none of the servants,

Knew about this wine – just Maron, his wife,

And a single housekeeper. Whenever he drank

This sweet dark red wine, he would fill one goblet

And pour it into twenty parts of water,

And the bouquet that spread from the mixing bowl

Was so fragrant that no one could hold back from drinking. (trans. Lombardo)

Having prepared in advance his men and a pointed stake heated in the fire, Odysseus sprang his trap:

His chores done,

Again he seized two of my men and made his meal.

Then I went up to the Cyclops and spoke to him,

Holding an ivy-wood bowl filled with dark wine.

‘Cyclops, have some wine, now that you have eaten

Your human flesh, so you can see what kind of drink

Was in our ship’s hold. I was bringing it to you

As an offering, hoping you would pity me

And help me get home. But you are a raving

Maniac! How do you expect any other man

Ever to visit you after acting like this?’

He took the bowl and drank it off, relishing

Every last, sweet drop. And he asked for more:

‘Be a pal and give me another drink. And tell me

Your name, so I can give you a gift you’ll like.”

Wine grapes grow in the Cyclopes’ land, too.

Rain from the sky makes them grow from the earth.

But this – this is straight ambrosia and nectar.’

So I gave him some more of the ruby-red wine.

Three times the fool drained the bowl dry,

And then the wine had begun to work on his mind . . . (trans. Lombardo)

Polyphemus falls into a drunken stupor and has his one eye gouged out by Odysseus and his men who eventually make their escape from the Cyclops’ cave.


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