Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.07.48 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.07.48

Stavroula Kourakou-Dragona, Vine and Wine in the Ancient Greek World. Translated by Maria Relaki.   Athens:  Foinikas Publications, 2015.  Pp. 294.  ISBN 9789606849510.  €80.00.  


Reviewed by Michael Fontaine and Justine Vanden Heuvel, Cornell University Department of Classics; Cornell University Program on Viticulture and Enology (fontaine@cornell.edu; jev32@cornell.edu)

This gorgeous book—large and lavishly illustrated—collects twenty scholarly papers on the subject of wine in ancient Greece and ancient Greek literature by Stavroula Kourakou-Dragona, a scholar whose career is unlike anything we typically see in BMCR.

A retired oenologist, Kourakou-Dragona spent her career in Athens at the “Wine Institute, one of the research foundations of the then Ministry of Agriculture.” Later rising to Director, she represented Greece in the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV), an intergovernmental organization that coordinates and negotiates all aspects of wine and viticulture worldwide. In that connection, she had to do her homework (p. x):

Naturally, it was a vital necessity that I become familiar with Greek viticultural zones, the history and peculiarities of the wines from each region, so as to be in a position to champion the interests of Greek wine production in the international decision-making forums. In order to come into close contact with the rural population and take advantage of the experiences of the elder inhabitants, I read, before visiting each region, anything that had been written about the vines and wines of that particular area: folklore and travel literature, traditional songs, ampelographies, archaeological publications etc.

The fruit of these astonishing labors is on display in the 20 essays that follow. Kourakou-Dragona commands all the ancient literature about Greek wine known to us and quite a bit more. Channeling the rhetoric of a classical historian, she explains the genesis of those essays in her preface (p. x):

So when, following a period of intense scientific activity, the time had come to retire after 35 years of service, I had the idea of completing all the collected wealth of information and memories with a retrospection on the distant Past: to see the roots of lesser known ancient Greek wines, to research the technical knowledge of the ancient winemakers based on the surviving records of mainly ancient Greek scholarship and to attempt to interpret through modern scientific knowledge the secrets of their art, which allowed Greek wines to travel along the sea routes as a precious merchandise.

After long years of study, I collected worthwhile material, but I also discovered crucial mistakes made by renowned, mainly foreign, scholars, on ancient treatises and translations published during the 20th and 21st centuries, mistakes that were perpetuated by repetition, resulting in erroneous interpretations and often serious misconceptions.

The 20 papers that document these claims were originally presented at conferences in Greece and abroad, often in Greek, and hence limited to a restricted audience. The papers are all newly revised and translated here into English (sometimes, as these extracts show, not entirely idiomatic, but always intelligible). Greek and French editions of the book are being simultaneously published, too.

The chapters are not connected but they do ask and answer many interesting questions, ranging from investigations of familiar passages of classical Greek literature to actual winegrowing regions of Greece in antiquity and today. For example:

•Could the delicious wine that Odysseus gave the Cyclops have really been simultaneously sweet and high-alcohol? (Answer: no.) (Chapter 1).
•What is or are the Pramnian wines of Iliad 11 and Odyssey 10, and why are they served sprinkled with goat’s cheese, barley, and honey? (Answer: Like the colloquial use of the word champagne to describe almost any sparkling wine, “Pramnian” is a generic term for a type of high-alcohol wine, rather than the name of a wine that comes from a particular locale—but unlike Champagne, whose name memorializes its region of origin, Pramnian wines were produced in several different regions.) (Chapter 2).
•If Hesiod knew the method of producing homemade sweet wine from grapes, how is it that—despite his poverty—he also drank imported biblinos wine, which came from Phoenicia or Thrace? (Answer: Actually, he was probably drinking homemade biblinos wine he produced himself from biblinos grapes growing on the slopes of Mount Helicon.) (Chapter 3).

In making such arguments and weighing probabilities, Kourakou-Dragona invokes literature, etymology, climate, and her personal experience and scientific expertise.

After these early chapters on epic, the central chapters provide strong technical background on grape growing and winemaking processes in ancient Greece and Rome. Topics include the color of grapes and the winemaking processes required in antiquity to produce differing colors of wines, the techniques used to replicate the wines produced or mixed with saltwater when made a distance from the coast, the scientific basis for separately referring to several varieties that varied in color but that we now know to be the same variety, how grape pomace was crushed with and without the use of rocks, how ancient vineyards were protected from pests, and a technical discussion of the fumigation or smoking used to artificially age Roman wines. We also get a viticultural interpretation of an ancient law of Thasos intended for protection of winegrape growers.

Elsewhere Kourakou-Dragona draws our attention to interesting novelties that throw light on everyday life. In a “Satire of Wine Tasting” (chapter 7), she demonstrates that a fragment of the 5th c. comic poet Hermippus (fr. 77 KA [incert.]) is a satire—the only example of its kind—of exaggerated boasts of the sort that sommeliers today tend to make of their own abilities.

Students of wine culture may benefit most from Kourakou-Dragona’s social and biological explanations of myth. In “The Interpretation of Dionysiac Viticultural Myths” (chapter 16), the emergence of Dionysus from Zeus’ thigh is put into perspective with the phenological development of the vine, where the new shoot (which will bear clusters) emerges directly from the cane above a node. The text is well supported by photographs, such as an old vine during dormancy with a title comparing it to Semele (“like a dry trunk hit by lightning”). In similar fashion, local details in mythic stories, such as that of Icarius of Athens, are explained via the actual wine-growing properties of those locales.

In the credit column, we applaud the many vases, maps, statues, and photographs of modern vineyards that are reproduced in color on nearly every page. Some are merely decorative, but in general these images are well chosen and help illuminate the arguments. In the demerit column, a few problems of translation will limit the book’s potential audience. Ancient Greek is often quoted to make a point but is not translated (or even transliterated) into English—and some of the vocabulary used in those passages is rare or technical indeed. The book also presumes familiarity with the ancient authors; hence readers are not routinely told when (say) Archestratus or Nonnus or Columella lived. Nonspecialists might also be troubled by some oddities and inconsistencies in transliterating Greek names and toponyms; hence Maron in Odyssey 9 is called Maro in chapter 1 and Maron in chapter 2, Eustathius is called Eustace (p. 31), Helicon is called Elicon (p. 39), and so on.

But make no mistake. There are very few people in the world who could have written this book; most scholars have either the technical knowledge or the classical background but not both. The impressive harmony with which these two perspectives are synthesized makes Vine and Wine in the Ancient Greek World a treasure house of information and a monumental capstone to an impressive career. We recommend it highly.

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