The Origins and Ancient History of Wine

By Patrick E. McGovern; Stuart J. Fleming et al. | Go to book overview
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Patrick E. McGovern

The Making of a Unique Conference, Its Accomplishments, and an Agenda for the Future

The international symposium on “The Origins and Ancient History of Wine” was held at the Robert Mondavi Winery during the week of April 30 through May 3, 1991. The Napa Valley of California was the ideal setting for such a meeting. Although Old World vines and wines were the focus of our discussions, Napa Valley wines vie with the best that the Old World has to offer, and Robert Mondavi has recently joined forces with Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Médoc to produce a first-class Cabernet Sauvignon wine, Opus One. At the time of the conference, this grape variety and others such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Merlot, all of European descent (Vitis vinifera), were setting their fruits on the Napa vines. Our deliberations, in the spirit of a Greek symposion, liberally interspersed conversation with fine wines and cuisine.

The circumstance that led to this unique symposium was the discovery in the summer of 1990 of the earliest wine vessel as yet attested by chemical analysis. The ancient pottery jars from Godin Tepe, Iran, which are discussed in detail and illustrated in chapters 4 and 5, date between ca. 3500 and 2900 B.C. Here was a finding that pushed back 3000 years the earliest chemical evidence for wine, from the Roman period (see chapter 7) to before the Bronze Age, and that showed that wine was already an important commodity before the rise of the great civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Once the deposits in this jar were identified as “well-aged” wine lees, the cultural and biocultural “fallout”-the implications of the findings-have been enormous. Wine, as a valuable trade commodity and as an important beverage in everyday life and the cultic ceremonies, evidently played a role in the earliest development of literate complex societies-civilized life as we know it-in the ancient Near East.

The Godin jars were excavated at a site high up in the Zagros Mountains of western Iran by a team of archaeologists under the direction of Dr. T. Cuyler Young Jr. of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The vessels came from what is believed to be a proto-Sumerian colony, which serviced traders, administrators, and the military from lowland Mesopotamia. These groups were involved in procuring valuable raw materials, including lapis lazuli and other semi-precious stones, metals such as copper, silver and gold, and even such mundane goods as wood, which were unavailable in the Tigris-Euphrates valley. One of the goods that might have led to their establishing an outpost in the Zagros Mountains could have been wine, since grapevines are grown with difficulty in the lowlands but flourish in upland regions such as the Zagros Mountains.

The proto-Sumerians at this time, the so-called Late Uruk Period, were already well on their way toward developing a thriving urban economy (see chapter 8). The city-states in the Tigris-


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