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VINUM: The Story of Roman Wine, through a blend of classical literature, archaeology and vineyard science, describes how the Romans perceived wine's significance in their everyday life at all levels of society, senator to slave.
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Stuart Fleming is currently Scientific Director at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. He is the author of five previous books, including Authenticity in Art (1975), The Egyptian Mummy: Secrets and Science (1981), and Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change (1999). It was the dynamic story underlying the last of these that inspired him to tackle the sometimes,confusing, but always fascinating topic of wine's cultural importance in the Roman World.
Personal intersts tend to be outside archaeology, however. He takes constant pleasure from classical music—particularly Dvorak and Larssen—and learning about technical aspects of European painting. And, despite the flavorsome topic of VINUM, his enduring hobby is the brewing of Belgian-style beers.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
And there was something unique to wine that troubled Roman legal authorities for centuries—the fact that it could turn to vinegar during its storage and no one would be aware that change was happening. The vinegary odor and flavor of truly spoiled wine results from a secondary fermentation in the presence of special bacteria that grow by changing alcohol into acetic acid and ethyl acetate. The Romans recognized the endpoint of this chemistry well enough:
"It is a proof that wine is beginning to go bad if a sheet of lead, when dipped in it, turns a different color."
(Pliny, Natural History XIV.130)
—they called it acor—but they had no idea what caused it.
During the latter part of the 1st century A.D., there were plenty of patent remedies aimed at prevention of such spoilage. Whether he was writing from a background of some bitter experiences, I don't know, but the agriculturalist, Lucius Columella, seemed particularly concerned about the problem. He recommended addition of salt to the must—that certainly will have usefully increased the wine's acidity—and he suggested that storage amphorae be fumigated with rosemary or laurel, both of which have recognized antibacterial and antifungal properties.
ON HANGOVERS I have yet to see the modern hangover cure of a raw egg or two promoted in ancient literature, though there certainly were plenty of notions of the kind in vogue at certain times. For example, a doctor who was close to the emperor Tiberius' son, Drusus, swore that the eating of a handful of bitter almonds before a party prevented him from getting drunk. To explain his immunity to intoxication, he invoked the notion that, because the almonds were recognized for a cathartic property which could even remove facial pimples, then it was clear their bitterness irritated his body's pores. The wine's vapors then would be drawn away from his head before befuddlement could set in. The proof of the pudding about this, according to one convivium guest, was what happens to foxes: ". . .if they eat bitter almonds and drink nothing afterwards, they die of complete desiccation." (Plutarch, Table Talk I.6); notwithstanding that their feed was really rich in poisonous hydrocyanic acid.
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