It’s 340 CE.
Constantinople has just become the largest city on the planet without a Starbucks or a McDonalds, Constantine II is attacking his brother, Constans I, because he stole his name, and is unfortunately killed in the ensuing skirmishes, and Wulfila is ignoring all of this and preaching the gospel and teachings of Jesus Christ to the Goths, the Germanic people from north of the Danube that is, not the group of D&D wizards that hang out at the chip shop on my high street on Saturdays, pandemic lockdown notwithstanding.
Anyway, in a small village somewhere where the terroir is perfect, grapes are being harvested and crushed for use in the ancient art of winemaking. The fermentation, pressing, and ageing bits will come next, and at the end of this wondrous and certainly god-given process, wine will flow.
In this case, into a bottle, to be handed, maybe ceremoniously, maybe as a gift at a toga-swishing soiree, or maybe with an outstretched palm awaiting the price in a jangle of siliqua, to a Roman nobleman of some standing.
That nobleman, however, who we shall call Marcus Mamercus, because that would've made his Roman neighbors smile, won’t drink this particular bottle. For whatever reason, he’ll keep that vintage for an occasion far in the future, and one which we can thus be part of.
Just like, I would imagine, the purchaser of the 1945 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which changed hands for more than half-a-million dollars, in 2018. It was that expensive because it was the last year that grapes were harvested from the winery’s oldest vines, and was one of only six-hundred bottles produced, at a time when producing wine wasn’t exactly the top of anyone's list, just above avoiding Nazis and fascists, and surviving a World War.
Unlike this extraordinary Burgundy, Marcus Mamercus’ prize was bottled in a one-and-a-half litre vessel, and sealed with an olive oil-soaked wax ‘cork’, as a way to prevent both air getting in and wine getting out. Of course, Romans didn’t use trichloroanisole in their wine bottle stoppers as we do now, so at least that would have prevented the dreaded cork taint, but, conversely, would have done nothing to aid their genital warts.
Cork taint was the warning one wine reviewer waved when they wowed the world with the world's worst wine in one of the world’s worst years, 2020.
They cited as the very worst of the worst the Mogen David Blackberry, USA, which, while sounding like a label in the lost property box at Chicago O’Hare, is actually a wine that arrives in splendidly-convenient three-liter flagons, with a pop cap.
I haven't ever tasted this particular variety, using any of the five-steps of see, swirl, sniff, sip, or savor, but I suspect I can pass and be fairly sure it’s not a 1945 DRC, farmed biodynamically, cared for like you would your ageing grandmother, and with grapes that are sorted individually and given names like Poppy and Justin.
Now, back to the Roman Empire, and our high ranking citizen.
So, Marcus Mamercus placed that particular bottle of wine somewhere safe, at between twelve and nineteen degrees celsius, in a dark vibration-free room, and with no more than seventy percent humidity, of course.
Instead, he drank water, and other, less favored wine, that he probably learnt to lace with exotic spices like saffron, and with globules of honey, while serving in the military. When legions of soldiers sometimes passed by his villa, they would salute him and he would salute them, and then he’d watch as they surreptitiously swigged a vinegar-wine mixture called posca, made by watering down the worst wines and adding secret ingredients to make them taste better, like squirrel.
I think he probably shuddered at the memory, and went inside to the warmth of his hypocaust-heated living room, to caress his bottle of Römerwein, diluted to perfection with a mixture of exquisite Roman herbs.
Maybe he wondered at what it would taste like, maybe he didn’t, but it certainly would’ve tasted better than the droplets of wine the waiter at the Four Seasons Hotel licked off the floor on his hands and knees in 1989.
Those were the last remains of Thomas Jefferson’s rare 1787 Château Margaux, which was dropped on the hotel floor by the New York wine merchant, William Sokolin, as he fumbled with it while looking for the pop cap. He only paid a quarter-of-a-million dollars for it, so I’m sure he just smiled and ordered some Angostura bitters and a sword.
Meanwhile, our Roman, Marcus Mamercus, is dying of something like smallpox or teeth, after a long and happy life, and several surprise trips to stand by a huge frozen wall, fight blue-tattooed tribes with wild hair, and march endlessly up and down Provincia Britannia in scratchy subligaculum, and has one surprising wish for his imminent burial.
To be buried with his precious wine. And so he was.
Which is why we now have a bottle of vintage wine, from around 340 CE, to marvel at in its rather unusual glass bottle, intact, and still sealed. Experts doubt it’d be very tasty at this point, as much of the alcohol would've evaporated, but it’s still an absolute treasure of a find.
As was the treasure that Marcus Mamercus bestowed upon his descendant, Marilla Mamercus, who turned on her shower on March 4th, 2020, to wash the morning out of her hair, only to be soaked in red wine. Like all good residents of Castelvetro di Modena, she rushed to the kitchen, emptied all the San Pellegrino bottles she could find, and filled as many as she could with the liquid meditation that the gods and her ancestor Marcus had sent down.
Of course, it wasn’t actually heaven-sent. It was a malfunctioning valve at the local winery that diverted this precious product into the town’s water pipes. Still, Marilla thanked her ancestor for hitting the valve with his harp.
No thanks for flowing wine were given by George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, brother to Edward IV, and Richard II, the last Plantagenet king of England, who murdered his own nephews, though. The War of the Roses and various other court intrigues, including treasonous behavior toward his brother, led the Duke to the Tower of London in 1478, a particularly bad year for grapes by all accounts.
In this case, the wine was so bad that it had to be fortified with spirits and heavily-doctored with sugar to create a Madeira Malvasia, or Malmsey wine. Not that it mattered to the Duke, as he only had a few quick sips on his way to drowning in it in a barrel, a bitter-sweet execution one might say.
But for us, probably no quarter-million-dollar vintage, I pray no three-liter flagons of crud, unfortunately no wine-on-tap, but hopefully also no demise in a large vat either.
And maybe, if we find a cheap bottle of Domaine Leroy Musigny at Aldi, or a bottle of Domaine Georges & Christophe Roumier Musigny on sale at the Coop, or even a flagon of Henri Jayer Cros Parantoux on Amazon Prime, we’ll have the self-control to hide it away somewhere safe and take it with us when we go to the other side, the Graves.
photo by Cottonbro