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FROM READERS: Missouri wineries grounded in cultural tradition

Wednesday, August 29, 2012 | 10:44 a.m. CDT; updated 8:48 p.m. CDT, Saturday, September 1, 2012
In Greek culture, Dionysus signified vining fertility, agriculture and wine.

W. Arthur Mehrhoff is the academic coordinator for the MU Museum of Art & Archaeology. This article was posted in an earlier form on the blog Musings from the Museum of Art and Archaeology.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my role as academic coordinator for the Museum of Art and Archaeology involves interacting with museum visitors from all over the world, discussing virtually any piece of the human mosaic. One such tessera that turns up regularly in my interactions with museum visitors is that of wine, especially since the museum features a small but excellent exhibition of artifacts associated with the Greek symposium (more on that topic a bit later) in the Saul and Gladys Weinberg Gallery on the second floor.

As a native Missourian, I’ve observed and promoted the development of Missouri’s wine industry to skeptics for decades; now that industry seems to have taken on even more importance as a source of living wage jobs for small Missouri communities and an essential indicator of sustainable development. So as we approach harvest time, it made sense for the academic coordinator to conduct due diligence on this fascinating topic of widespread visitor and personal interest in order to get my own hands around the subject. …

“The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine,” wrote Greek historian Thucydides in the fifth century B.C. Wandering Greeks probably acquired the art of wine-making during their sojourns in Egypt and Phoenicea, then brought viticulture back with them which they then developed and diffused throughout Europe.

Missouri communities now emphasizing wine-growing  are therefore grounding themselves in a long cultural tradition that stretches back almost to the beginnings of recorded human history. The metaphor seems appropriate, since wine was quite literally rooted deeply in Greek geography and culture. For the ancient Greeks, wine was not just a drink but an agricultural mainstay.

As Missouri wine-makers refining their art are increasingly learning, the Greeks quickly realized how the local ecosystems of their hilly, sun-drenched islands affected the unique characteristics of their wine. Like the French terroir of Bourdeaux and Champagne, German wineries of medieval monastic origins along the Rhine and Mosel rivers, the Napa and Sonoma valleys in California, and now Missouri wine regions, the ancient Greeks created Appellations of Origin which they regarded quite seriously. They imposed strong penalties on violators to ensure the authenticity of these wines and to keep the brand name valuable.

Such careful attention to the authenticity of Greek wine in turn gave it great exchange value. Some scholars even suggest that its wine and olive oil trade created the surplus underlying Greece’s Golden Age as Greek society evolved from Pasture to Polis. Tall, cylindrical amphorae such as those found in the museum’s Saul and Gladys Weinberg Gallery collection made it easy to stack and ship the precious cargo for exchange throughout the Mediterranean region. Textual accounts and archaeological evidence from numerous shipwrecks as well as the museum’s own collections reveal that Greek wine circulated throughout the known ancient world. Homer noted that wine was used to barter commercially for precious metals, leather, even slaves. The islands of the Aegean became so famous throughout the ancient world for the quality of their wine that Homer referred to the Aegean as the “Wine-dark Sea.” Like our own Hollywood movie industry, the highly organized and lucrative wine trade attracted wealth while it spread Greek culture throughout the ancient world.

Wine not surprisingly also became associated for the Greeks with high social status. The symposium represented the major institution of social life for significant Athenian males. Like a Mizzou fraternity or private American country club, the symposium forged friendships and alliances through its highly stylized rituals. For example, the person selected as symposiarch (master of the symposium) supervised the mixing of the wine with water, ensuring that the mix would encourage good conversation and truth-seeking but ideally not lead to drunkenness and debauchery. He would decide how many kraters of wine to mix, how big the cups would be, and how frequently to pour rounds, thereby helping determine the overall tone of the party. Perhaps students and Greek life here could borrow from original Greek life and raise their standards as well as their glasses. …

Wine even saturated the highest planes of Greek life and thought. As the character Tiresias declares in Euripedes’ play The Bacchae:

                                     Young man, among human beings two things

                                            stand out preeminent, of highest rank.


                                          Goddess Demeter is one—she’s the earth


                                      (though you can call her any name you wish),


                                        and she feeds mortal people cereal grains.


                                       The other one came later, born of Semele—


                                       he brought with him liquor from the grape


                                     something to match the bread from Demeter.


                                            He introduced it among mortal men.


                                 When they can drink up what streams off the vine,


                                          unhappy mortals are released from pain.


                                        It grants them sleep, allows them to forget


                                             their daily troubles. Apart from wine,


                                            there is no cure for human hardship.

Scholars have long suspected that Dionysus fused a local Greek nature god with a more potent force absorbed later in Greek history (after the original Olympian gods) from Phrygia (central Turkey) or Thrace, who then quickly rose to prominence in Greek culture and religion. At the most basic level, Dionysus signified vining fertility, agriculture and wine. More importantly, he may have participated in the mystery religions, such as those practiced at Eleusis, featuring ecstasy, liberation from quotidian life by means of physical and spiritual intoxication, and initiation into esoteric rites.

Psychologist James Hillman suggested that in modern Western culture “the fields of psychiatry and mythology . . . have been for the most part in collusion against the Dionysian, resulting in a repression, and thus a distortion, of all Dionysian phenomena so that they have come to be regarded as inferior, hysterical, effeminate, unbridled and dangerous.” The domain of Dionysus is our dark, secret, shadow self, which can tear us to bits if either too repressed or too unrestrained. From "The Bacchae" to Thirsty Thursdays, our relationship to the god of wine walks an existential razor’s edge over a dizzying precipice that demands great balance.

In "Vineyard Tales", wine expert Gerald Asher writes (278) that “sacrament or not, breaking bread and drinking wine, one with another, is the most basic act of community.” Sharing a glass of Missouri wine with friends overlooking a beautiful Missouri wine-growing region offers a very satisfying cure indeed for human hardship, helping me understand why the infant Dionysus and the ancient Greeks felt so compelled to grasp the meaning of wine…

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how.

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