May 11th, 2005


Ancient Wines

This evening's entertainment was a lecture at Stanford by a Dr. Patrick E. McGovern, titled after his new book Ancient Wine : The Search for the Origins of Viniculture

Interesting stuff, about a new field called archeochemistry. He and his gang of experts were looking for the oldest digs they could find where jugs and jars were found, and with the clever use of solvents and spectroscopy and other chemical analysis tools, they would look for traces of compounds which had been absorbed into the clay of the jars. When they found tartaric acid or certain calcium compounds, they knew wine or beer had been in the jar at some time. The oldest they found was almost 6,000 years old. He's got a theory that things have been fermenting for more than 9,000 years, based on theories about neolithic man's capabilities, and how easy it is to notice that there's Something Special about the juice at the bottom of the fruit basket after a few days. The idea being that yeast grows naturally on the skins of most sweet fruits.

He also looked into beer and mead. He seemed confused about the definition of wine vs. beer. He was under the impression that beer is made from grain, wine from fruit, and mead from honey. Truth is, it's got to do with the level of alcohol. Rice wine is wine because of its high alcohol content, despite it being from grain.

The digs mostly centered in the Euphrates Valley, Turkey, Iran, etc. since that's the Cradle of Mankind, but he also did China.

His photos of jars from digs were museum quality, which was not surprising since he is on the staff of a Pennsylvania museum. But his field photos were grainy and the people in them were not identifiable for the most part. Except for photos of himself, which other people took. I don't think it was vanity, more like a lack of photographic skill and taste. Some people just don't know how to use all the tools of their trade.

From the illustrations in his presentation, I would not recommend spending good money on the book, but it would be an interesting library check-out.
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