The Magon Project

This post is based on a trip to Tunisia which I took before the onset of Covid-19 – but which the pestilence rather pushed to one side.  However, it’s time to continue (the new) normal service and return to some aspects of wine and culture that go beyond plague.  This post also (coincidentally) follows the one I wrote before Christmas, as it is also about religion, although in a very different context.

Most people probably wouldn’t associate Tunisia with wine but – both historically and in contemporary society – that would be a mistake.  Even today, despite having a majority Muslim population, Tunisia makes wine and has it widely available, including in many restaurants. The capital, Tunis, is just to the south-west of the site of Carthage, the major ancient settlement in the region.  Carthage was founded in about 814 CE by the Phoenicians – the seafaring peoples from what is modern Lebanon, who were the first great traders of wine across the Mediterranean (a large wine press dating from this period has just been discovered in Lebanon which may have fuelled this trade). This turned into an autonomous state, Carthage, which at its peak challenged the growing power of Rome, so that there were a series of wars between them eventually won by the Romans.  They destroyed Carthage – although the city was later rebuilt within their empire.  The destruction included a great library and the Romans left all the books in their wake.  All, that is, except the works of Mago, which the destroyers retrieved because of their fame and took back to Italy.

Why these books?  Mago – known now in Tunisia as Magon (who some claim  was one of the earliest settlers although others think he lived around 500 BCE) wrote a treatise on Agriculture, probably the first such book.  He was very influential on later Greek and Roman authors.  So why does this interest us?  Because viticulture is one branch of agriculture, and Magon wrote on planting and pruning vines and making wine.  He even had a section on why the most productive vineyards face north – which is, of course, not what we would normally claim in the Northern Hemisphere but makes sense in a hot climate like that of North Africa.

Magon is still revered in Tunisia; so much so that there is now the ‘Magon Project’; this is a transnational partnership between Tunisia and Italy – specifically Sicily, only about 125 kilometres away over the sea – to underscore their culinary and cultural links; it is part financed by the EU.  One of its major foci is on the links relating to wine (another would be couscous, the staple food of Tunisia – and which has a European history only in Sicily as the island was ruled by Arabs for over 100 years).  It seeks to ‘trace the footsteps of Magon’ by using the archaeology of the two countries; it is also part of an international network of wine routes – and even has its own Facebook page.  The project focuses on the ruins of Carthage and Cap Bon, a peninsula to the east of Tunis where most of the vineyards are based.  One of the key archaeological sites, Kerkouane, was conquered briefly by a Sicilian tyrant, Agathocles of Syracuse, during his fight with Carthage, so I was told.  Relations between the two regions were not always as harmonious as they seem to be now. The Magon Project is explicit about the vinous link with Sicily and Italy – but of course, as a Muslim country it has to be careful not to play it up too much.  One of the interpretative panels at Kerkouane talks about moscato, and the famous wines made from it on the Italian island of Pantelleria.  This latter, just 60 kilometres away, is visible in the hazy distance from Cap Bon.  It also forms a link to the only wine I tried in Tunisia which I really enjoyed.

The key beneficiaries of this (at least while international tourism was operating) were tour companies who could take you on wine and/or history tours outside the capital, Tunis.  The country needs this industry; its infrastructure is woefully underfunded, and it urgently needs more capital.  As an aside, my own view was that the tourist attractions were far too cheap to enter and international visitors could contribute a lot more for the privilege of exploring a great archaeological heritage; Carthage – where you can spend hours exploring – costs less than 4€ to enter.  There is also a national museum with the greatest collection of mosaics in the world which is well worth visiting.

So, 2800 years on, Magon still has an influence – even if it is no longer on viticulture or the better production of wine.  He has been co-opted as an icon for the heritage and agricultural dynamism of the country’s ancestors.

Water into wine

A merry (sort of) Christmas story about the transforming power of wine

As it is Christmas I thought it was a good time to reflect on the source of Christianity and his relationship with wine.  Many of you will know about the use of wine in Christian ritual (Holy Communion or the Mass) and a number of writers have picked that relationship, so I want to focus on something different in this post – the marriage at Cana. 

The stories about Jesus record that he performed miracles and if you know anything about these then you will think of him curing the sick, feeding starving people or giving sight to the blind, all designed to show his power and his mastery of nature.  One of the New Testament books about him, the Gospel of John, records seven of his miracles culminating in bringing his friend Lazarus back from the dead.  Yet an earlier miracle, which the author of the Gospel records as his first, is rather different.

Jesus was invited, along with some friends and his Mother, to a wedding celebration in a town up in the hills above lake Galilee, called Cana.  As is common in most cultures, a wedding celebration was an extravagant business – both in terms of time and money.  The party could go on for some all day and overnight with lots of food and drink provided for the guests.  Managing the party was the responsibility not of the groom, nor the family, but a Master of Ceremonies, whose role was to make sure that all had a good time.  Yet this party, in the home of what seems to have been a fairly well-off family, went wrong.  In the middle the wine ran out!  Maybe the guests were more in need of alcohol than had been planned; maybe the groom was just trying to save a bit or money.  In any event, Jesus’ mother, Mary, picked up that there was no more to drink.  For whatever reason she thought her son ought to know, to which his response, broadly, was ‘what’s it got to do with me?’ 

That didn’t stop Mary, who clearly had a lot of confidence in her son’s ability.  She said to the servants ‘whatever he tells you to do, do it’.  Even more, whatever Jesus had previously said, he decided to get involved.  In the courtyard of the house were six large earthenware jars which held water which was used for ritual purification: cleaning hands before meals, preparing utensils and other forms of washing.  They were empty (no doubt with all the washing of the guests and the wine cups) and Jesus told the servants to go and fill them with water, which they did – ‘to the brim’ according to the story.  Then Jesus told them to take some of the water out and give it to the Master of Ceremonies who drank it, and found that it was wine.  The party kicked on – but the Master of Ceremonies (who clearly had no idea where the wine had come from) went to the Groom and complained to him that the wine he had kept to serve now was better than that which they had started with: ‘surely you know that everyone has the best wine first, and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink – yet you have saved the best wine until last’. Not ‘saving the best till last’ by implication meant that the guests would not usually realise that the later wine isn’t so good any more.

And so what?  I’m not interested here in arguing about the veracity of the story; what does interest me is what it means as the first supernatural action of the founder of the most widely accepted religion in the world.  You see, this wasn’t about curing disease or calming storms.  Instead, it was about conviviality.  A party is running out of wine (the implication is that they’ve already drunk quite a bit) and they need more – so miraculously it is provided.  Much of the history of Christianity is about restraint, asceticism, and piety; yet the first miracle is about fun, partying and alcohol.  The first Christian meetings were not structured religious services, with a rubric and ritual, but a sociable meal (agapé – a Greek word meaning a ‘love feast’) which all the believers shared in and which included shared bread and wine.

The next point is the link to the idea of wine being a great transformative agent – it changes us.  It is hardly surprising that from its first discovery wine gave rise to a link with the supernatural.  There was no knowledge of the science of fermentation; no understanding that sugar is changed to alcohol and carbon dioxide.  There was just the empirical evidence: you leave grapes or juice for a few days and the result is something very different.  It is less sweet and has a strange, slightly bitter, taste; yet it is also warming and – noticeably when you’ve had a few gulps – it makes you feel changed.  There could be no other explanation for this than the logical one – that it is magic.  Some god must have touched the grape juice and allowed this transformation which in turn changes you.  It defines humans, changing them from animals (who cannot make wine) into rational beings with a command of the natural world; changing them also from savages into thinking beings, able to project a future, anticipate their own death, and maybe seek to overcome it.  John, the writer of this story, is thus clearly identifying Jesus with what was – even then – a millennia-old tradition which associated wine with religion, and the gods; a big claim. 

Further, the fact that Jesus used the jars reserved for purification – for cleansing from what is bad or dangerous and thus ‘improving’ us – was no surprise either.  The wine is something which makes its drinkers better people and it allows them to celebrate another significant transformation – a wedding which brings two people together to make a new family.

Nevertheless, having said all of this, it’s also important to remember that this story is not about ‘Christianity’.  At the time it refers to there was no Christian religion, and no believer.  It is a story about Jewish culture, and a Jewish man who tries to teach, as a Rabbi, fellow Jews how to live a better life, and who perhaps aspires to personify some of that better life.  Wine has also been a fundamental part of Jewish religious and communal ritual as well, both weekly on the Sabbath and annually at Pesach (Passover).

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Paradoxically, the Christian message about the value of wine in instilling a sense of community, and indeed in representing how lives can be transformed, has often been ignored or even rejected by the Church.  This seems bizarre, given that wine is incorporated into religious ritual, yet with the growth of prohibition movements in many countries this changed, because one mainstay of the campaign to stop people drinking were groups of Christians.  These were invariably Protestants, generally of a fairly extreme persuasion (Catholics have never warmed to the idea of banning alcohol). 

Thus, my grandparents, who were Protestant missionaries in a small town in Algeria (at that time part of France and the major source of cheap wine in that country) were adamantly opposed to drinking alcohol.  It was the work of the devil, and the fact that (according to them) the Catholic priest in the town was regularly drunk merely compounded his heresy.  Money and time spent carousing was money that could be used to ease the lot of poor people and time which should have been spent in the service of God.  Thus, they never drank, and never knew that any of their offspring did – they would have been mortified by that.  It was a joyless, hard religion. Often, with the widespread abuse of alcoholic drinks, its opponents had a good point to make.  However, as history has taught, banning doesn’t solve the problem – restraint is what has an effect and fun and enjoyment are healthy, necessary and good, not evil.

Yet, of course, as firm believers in what the Bible taught, they had a problem.  Jesus drank wine, and left the Church a ritual of wine drinking to remember him by.  So how could wine be so diabolic?  Because, it was argued, the wine Jesus drank was not alcoholic – it was grape juice: that is what as being drunk at the wedding at Cana.  That ignores the fact that in a hot country like Israel any grape juice would naturally ferment within a few days, and that couldn’t be prevented; modern life taught that wine was evil so, self-evidently, Jesus could not drink it, so (not for the first time) science had to be thrown out and reason had to be turned on its head in pursuit of the truth.

*          *          *

In case you think this post unduly focused on Christianity, the next one early in the New Year will be in a different religious context.  Meanwhile, for many of us this will be a holiday time.  So to everyone who reads this – whatever your religion or none, whether the most significant day for you is the 25th or 31st December or the 1st or 6th of January – a very merry holiday and a healthy and safe New Year.

Wine in the Time of Pestilence I

One of my fellow Masters of Wine, one of the most amusing and dynamic, is Fongyee Walker, who runs a Wine School in Beijing.  The one aphorism I remember from her above all others is ‘it’s only wine, after all; it’s not a fucking cure for cancer’.  In these times those of us who work with wine can only sit back and carry on with our work as far as possible but feeling fairly superfluous to the world-changing events unfolding all around us and the very significant work that so many are doing to keep us alive and well.

Nevertheless, enforced confinement in France does give a bit of space to ponder more how alcohol in general and wine in particular is fitting into this world turned upside down.  We are in a state of near lockdown with all but essential services closed, yet this being France I have still received an email from a local drinks store reminding me that (presumably as one of those ‘essential services’) they remain open for all my liquid needs.  I wonder how long that will continue.

One of the puzzling things about human choices in a time of crisis is the obsession with toilet roll – something which appears in Australia, France, the UK, and seemingly everywhere.  Toilet roll seems for many to act as the adult equivalent of the infant’s comfort toy.  As long as we can exit a supermarket clutching three or four super-sized packs of Andrex, Cottonelle, or Charin we will sleep safely at night, knowing we are now able to face any crisis.  Yet it’s not just toilet paper; alcohol too can offer some of that comfort.  When I was in a supermarket the other day the person in front of me was bulk-buying bottles of rosé wine.  Nor is it just wine – as this picture of the lager aisle in a UK supermarket, courtesy of the blog’s editorial manager, reveals.

Some commentators are suggesting that wine is now a ‘crucial survival tool’.  According to an article posted by W. Blake Gray on Wine-Searcher.com the Californian Wine Institute has stated that wineries are ‘essential’ services in their State so that they should continue working during the state of emergency there.  Meanwhile the same article notes that Sonoma County has specifically allowed wineries to go on making wine (although they can’t sell it); the thing is that (as is happening in many places) regulations are issued very speedily yet without precision or clarity.  As a result the Wine Institute have advised its members that they consider what their members do is essential, so they should carry on making wine.  Meanwhile in the UK the Mail Online has noted that sales of wine ‘soar as tipplers stock up on the essentials in case they have to go into coronavirus self-isolation.  Purchases by ‘panicked customers’ mean that Naked Wines have had to suspend accepting orders temporarily.  Again – it’s an essential.

In a time when chaos and disaster seems to lurk just outside the front door we all need treats to ease our worries.  As the Bible says, ‘wine gladdens the heart of man’ (and maybe women as well), and certainly all of us who drink it know how a glass or two can lift the spirits.  Maybe, though, it goes further than that.  Wine is a magical product, which can transform us; we may try to rationalise that magic now, but for millennia drinkers with no knowledge of fermentation attributed the drink to some kind of deity; so because a god or goddess made it so it can magically change us in turn.  Perhaps in drinking wine (or any kind of alcohol) there remains a subconscious belief that the drink will transform us into an immortal, and keep the disease away.  No one will seriously believe this, of course – but then no one really thinks they need 150 toilet rolls to survive the next few weeks.

At a more personal level, I’m currently very fortunate.  At the time of writing, one of the five very specific reasons for which we are allowed outdoors in France (each of us clutching a sworn statement ‘on our honour’ explaining why we are not at home) is ‘short excursions, close to home, for physical exercise’.  As we live by vineyards, hills, and forests we can get good walks (maybe not so short) to break up the monotony of being indoors.  You occasionally meet a few like-minded people, smile and pass on opposite sides of the path, keeping as much space between you as possible.  Then, when we get home, the cellar has enough wine in it to last us a few years if necessary.  Meanwhile the market in the village is still open (although fairly deserted) as are the supermarkets.  Families with uncomprehending young children are stuck in small flats in towns and cities and single frail elderly people struggle even to get necessities.  It induces a level of guilt.  What to do?  I think this is the time to revisit Camus’ greatest work la Peste, which I haven’t read for 40 years.  After that, maybe, read for the first time Love in the Time of Cholera.  They won’t make the world a better place, but may help us to have more understanding of what others are going through and ensure that how we live can take more account of them. This particular blog theme is likely to be continued…

Wine and the end of life

When my favourite aunt died we held a party to celebrate her life – and we drank wine at it.  Not just wine, in fact, but champagne (although in the mind of most consumers a death is the one time it is inappropriate to drink champagne she had loved it, and it seemed entirely appropriate).  We don’t talk about death and wine so often but there is a long historical link.

The oldest wine press in Europe

I’ve just visited an ancient wine press from the Minoan era at Vathipetro in Crete – said by the Greeks to be the most ancient in the world (although probably only the oldest in Europe, as there is an older one in Armenia https://prehistoricarch.blogspot.com/2011/01/at-6000-years-old-wine-press-is-oldest.html).  This prompted our guide to talk about another Minoan press at Archanes, nearby, which is situated by a cemetery.  Wine was probably used in the funeral rites of the Minoans – hence the need to have it on tap at a burial ground – so to speak.  There is a logic to this.  Wine and the vine were the ancient symbols of the cycle of life and death around the Mediterranean.  Its annual life cycle mirrored that of people, it reflected ideas of fertility and was – after all – a magical drink capable of transforming the way drinkers felt. 

The Minoans believed in an afterlife and were often buried with grave goods.  Some, it seems, have been found with miniature wine presses in their grave.  The representation that the deceased was a wine maker perhaps?  Or a connoisseur?  Or maybe that when moving on to the afterlife they wanted to have the opportunity to go on making their favourite drink as compensation a for having left the world of the living?

Even today, it seems, wine remains key in some Cretan wine rituals.  Often, when people die they are buried but then dug up some years later for a final reburial.  Before this happens, however, their bones are washed in red wine – the most symbolic local liquid which could represent their passing.