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Bring back the Greek Symposium!

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My friend Ryan Flinn, who is Bloomberg News’ San Francsco correspondent, alerted me to this article describing research done by a professor on “wine drinking cups over a 500-year period in ancient Athens” and how “[c]hanges in cup form and design point to political, social and economic shifts.” It’s a fascinating bit of original research, part of what seems to be new interest on the part of scholars in the culture of wine (think of that exhibit at San Francisco MOMA on How Wine Became Modern).

In the study of wine drinking cups (they weren’t called wine “glasses” because most of them were made of clay or metal), the professor, Kathleen Lynch, focused especially on the Symposium. Lovers of the classics will recognize the Symposium as the name of one of Plato’s philosophical books, but the word “Symposium” referred to a specific Greek practice that lasted “nearly a millennia”: an all-male drinking party.

In Plato’s Symposium, the men, who included Socrates, were required to drink (no teetotalers, please), and each in turn had to deliver a speech, in this case, in praise of love. The format seems not to have changed much over the centuries, but the kinds of wine cups the men employed did; and from an examination of them, Lynch is able to make inferences about shifts in the culture of “the ancient world’s ultimate cocktail parties, with established rituals and rules.”

The Symposium changed over time. At first, “The drinking gatherings (symposia) were reserved for the elite,” but over time, “the democratization of the political and social arenas” led to “the democratization of the symposium.” Didn’t the same thing happen in more modern times? In the 18th, 19th and for most of the 20th century, fine wine was reserved for a thin upper crust that ruled society. By the end of the 20th century, the love of wine had permeated the middle classes, with the result that the America of 2011 can be described as a wine-drinking nation. But by the time of Alexander the Great, in the period that represented the end of classical Greek culture, “the [Symposium] practice was again the prerogative of the elites as a luxury and display of ostentatious consumption.” Interesting…

(Another feature of Greek drinking habits was that, as time went forward, “The overall number of wine-drinking vessels increased dramatically.” Think Riedel.)

Lynch, in her study, didn’t deal with one of my favorite parts of the ancient Greek Symposium: the game called Kottabos. Hugh Johnson describes it in Vintage: The Story of Wine. Symposium participants–suitably inebriated, one assumes–would throw the dregs from their wine cups, from some distance away, at “a special stand…with a tiny statuette on top with its arm held aloft. On the hand, precariously balanced, went a faintly concave bronze disc. Halfway up the stand [was] fixed a much larger bronze disc. The idea…was to dislodge the top disc [with the dregs], so that it fell and hit the lower one…which when hit rang like a bell…Kottabos became the rage,” Mr. Johnson writes, “for no less than 300 years…”.

I’m trying to find our modern day equivalent of the Symposium and having some problems. It’s not at all like the big wine and food dinners a lot of us get invited to, like at the World of Pinot Noir, or the Wine Bloggers or Wine Writers conventions, or meet the winemaker dinners at great restaurants, or the big, fancy auctions that end in a fabulous meal. Those are formal affairs; guests typically don’t know each other, and much energy is spent just breaking the ice. At these things, because people aren’t really friends, but simply find themselves at the same place together, there’s a tendency to keep the subject matter light and, one might say, irrelevant. That’s completely in contrast to the spirit of the Symposium, which was deep personal conversation.

We also gather to drink wine at family occasions, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, and while we all do know each other–oftentimes too well–these are hardly occasions for philosophical deliberation and relaxation. (The stress of these big family get-togethers is a staple of TV and radio psychology talk shows during the holiday season.)

In a way, the Symposium reminds me of the classical literary salon, defined here, at Wikipedia, as “a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase their [sic] knowledge of the participants through conversation.” I always wanted to have a salon. In my fantasy, I live in a big house with a garden and terrace overlooking San Francisco Bay (I was in Gordon Getty’s mansion a couple times and that’s what I have in mind). My salon guests are stimulating, outgoing, thoughtful, intelligent, successful at their careers and amusing; among them would be a few chosen for their beauty. (Needless to say, the “men only” rule would be dispensed with!) I’d have the heat on if it was cold, so nobody had to overdress. We would relax on couches, and I–as host–would define the topic. “Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, we are going to discourse on–” it could be anything. I’d have dainty little plates of tapas to munch, and only the greatest wines would be served (not by slaves, as was often the case in Greece). Around midnight, things would start getting interesting. We might even play Kottabos!


kottabos player about to toss his dregs


A trip down memory lane

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With Fess Parker’s death, which was announced by the family yesterday, I started thinking about all the wonderful people who helped shape the modern California wine industry — not way-old-timey people like Harazsthy or Georges de Latour, but the ones who, from the 1960s onward, pushed, pulled, promoted and did whatever they had to do to boost quality, and then let the world know what California could do.

Coincidentally, there came to me yesterday an email press release from Napa Valley College and the Culinary Institute of America announcing a special May 8 dinner in honor of Belle and Barney Rhodes, to “celebrate the[ir] significant contributions and impact…”.

Now, I suspect a lot of you never heard of Belle and Barney Rhodes, who are a married couple. But I want to tell you a little about them, and about some of their friends, who, in the 1960s, were directly responsible for helping make Napa Valley what it is today. (If you’re interested in attending the dinner, you can contact Holly Krassner at 707-252-7281, or holly@hkconnects.com.)

I first heard about Belle and Barney when I read through all of Harry Waugh’s wine diaries, 30 years ago. Harry was a Brit who was long connected with the London wine merchant and auctioneer, Harveys of Bristol, and also was a director of Chateau Latour. Born in 1904, he was already of considerable age when he received an invitation to visit Napa Valley. This had occurred after he ran into Fred and Eleanor McCrea, who had started Stony Hill, one evening in London. They invited him to visit next time Harry was in the States, and Harry dutifully set off his journey, in the Spring of 1969.

Harry already had made the acquaintance of William Dickerson, who ran the “First Growth Group,” a like-minded group of wealthy connoisseurs in San Francisco. Dickerson, learning of Harry’s impending visit, arranged for Harry to meet with Joe Heitz on his Napa trip. Harry’s plane landed on March 28, and who was at SFO to meet him? None other than Belle and Barney Rhodes.

Belle and Barney showed Harry everything there was to know about the wine scene back then. They took him to Esquin’s (later Draper & Esquin’s), the city’s finest wine shop (long since shut). They introduced him to Milt and Barbara Eisele, and served to him “an entirely new name to me [Harry wrote], a Schramsberg, elegant, distinguished and very good indeed.” That was only one of the vinous revelations Harry discovered on that trip. He tasted Louis M. Martini Cabernets from 1955, 1952, 1951 and 1947 (preferring the latter), and three white wines made from another winery Harry never heard of, Hanzell. He tasted the Mendocino wines of John Parducci, and met Dr. Richard Peterson, then Beaulieu’s winemaster (and father of Heidi Peterson Barrett), who served him a Tchelistcheff 1968 Pinot Noir, which he (Harry) called “a huge rich wine…I would like to lay my hands on a case of this.” The Rhodeses also took Harry to meet a rising star vintner, Robert Mondavi…to Buena Vista, in Sonoma Valley…to Mayacamas, where he was hosted by Bob and Noni Travers and declared their 1967 Cabernet “another for my collection.”

I could go on and on, but the important point is that, when Harry went back to Europe, he talked up California wine to “the right people,” at a time when the smart money in London (and, by extension, Paris and Bordeaux) thought California produced nothing but movie stars and plonk.

The Rhodeses were to host Harry several more times on subsequent visits, and in his books Harry always referred to “the Rhodeses splendid kindness to me.” Years later, on yet another visit, they took him to “an extremely popular restaurant called Mustard’s,” and introduced him to yet another generation of boutique winemakers: the Trefethens, Cakebreads, Joe Phelps, Ric Forman from Sterling, Freemark Abbey, Dominus. And once again, Harry wrote about these wines, and connoisseurs the world over learned about Napa Valley, and the excellence of its wines, from an enthusiastic Harry, who probably would not have understood without Belle and Barney Rhodes to guide him.

It was my great privilege to travel for a week with Harry through Washington State, when he was already nearly 90 years old and a little shaky, and the state wine commission asked me to help him (he had come entirely alone). I feel connected to much in the past through reading Harry Waugh’s books and from actually having known him. Nobody should dwell on the past for very long, but it’s worth remembering, from time to time, that we didn’t just get here automatically, like Athena springing from Zeus’s brow. People, like Belle and Barney Rhodes and Harry Waugh, make things happen.


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