Channeling the Ancient

“Call me Dionysus,” my friend Matt proclaimed, adjusting his aviator sunglasses lower on his face.  Our friend Gus filled Matt’s coffee mug from one of many milk jugs of wine he had brought after his one-day stint bottling at a Walla Walla winery.  Matt’s statement forecasted a unique night of revelry that ensued, leaving me with what I consider an authentic association with the ancient Greek god.  Nietzsche described Dionysian intoxication as “nature overpowering man,” whereby a night of consuming naturally-fermented fruit juice resulted in unrestrained behavior akin to the acts of Dionysus’ followers, the kind of acts that got me kicked out of a bar for the first time.

It was the summer after taking a course in Ancient Theatre, a course where I studied the meaning of tragedy with a special focus on Dionysus, the supposed creator of wine in one of its most ancient forms.  To this day he evokes confusion within me, a figure at once wild and worshipped, capable of inspiring both happiness and madness.  It was through this lens that I began wondering about what wine meant to ancient cultures such as Egypt and Greece, a beverage that inspired both intellectual discourse and debauchery, sometimes simultaneously amongst its users.

In ancient Egypt, wine seems to have an association with the dead, the elite, and most notably gods.  Depicted in a red dress with cow horns, Hathor was the goddess of love, motherhood, and music among other things.  When she received word of the potential assassination of Upper Egypt Pharaoh Ra, she transformed into the hostile and vengeful war goddess Sekhmet.  It was through consuming wine and becoming drunk on the blood-colored liquid that her former, more kindly identity as Hathor reasserted its presence.  In the Festival of Drunkenness, communities came together and paid tribute to this tale of Hathor by becoming thoroughly intoxicated.

The goddess Hathor

I remain struck by this ceremonial homage to inebriation, something also common in Ancient Greece, where another festival called Anthesteria celebrated the beginning of a new vintage by dedicating the newly opened wine to Dionysus.  What intrigued me most, however, was the concept of a symposium, which literally means “drinking together.”  These most important of social gatherings between the Athenian elite began with a small feast before transitioning into heavy drinking of wine mixed with water and spices.  A symposiarchos would moderate the amount of wine consumed, determining the level of drunkenness on these all-night affairs, while flute-girls, or auletrides, provided musical and sexual entertainment.  The mixing of wine with water was a sign of class, while consuming undiluted wine was a habit associated with barbarians, believed by some Spartans to have caused the insanity and death of King Cleomenes.

“There it is,” says Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire, “right in the middle of the word intoxication, hidden in plain sight: toxic.  The bright line between food and poison might hold, but not the one between poison and desire.”  But what does this perennial desire for personal adulteration tell us about the way we treat wine versus the way our Greek and Egyptian brothers treated it?  The same desires and debates present themselves in different ways, whether it is how we drink in moderation or the use of bottles instead of two-handled clay amphorae vessels for storing the wine.

A scene depicting Dionysus with two satyrs on a Greek amphora used for storing and pouring wine

Over the years I found myself curious about how wine was consumed before the French redefined and codified our understanding of its use, and knew the topic would manifest itself amongst the earliest posts of this blog.  When I told my colleague Bianca about this post and how much time it was taking me, she responded “you could spend the rest of your life researching that.”  I chose an image of Dionysus as the icon for this blog to show my interest in digging deeply into unknown, intangible and at once fascinating concepts tied to wine.  His figure represents the quintessence of what we seek to understand, yet are eluded for the very reasons we desire it, the eternal mystery.


“To Life” with Charles Smith

It was the first time I had seen my friend Kevin since April, when we were at a house party hosted by Pioneer Wine Company and Charles Smith Wines.  This time we found each other at the same house for a an after-party for Pioneer’s portfolio tasting.  I reminded him about the night before I flew to Walla Walla, Washington and saw Charles Smith’s newly opened downtown tasting room.

“Oh yeah,” Kevin said, “how’d that go?”

“Well,” I responded, smiling, “I wasn’t able to coordinate my flight to get a ride with him from the airport.”

“What about that party?”
“It was awesome.  So much fun.”

Charles Smith began producing wine in Walla Walla in 1999, and released his first vintage under the K Vintners label in 2001.  Since then, he has developed other labels and projects, and opened a tasting room in downtown Walla Walla when I visited in April.

The tasting room was a simple and spare lounge, a few couches and tables, boxes lying around, lots of open space, and a bar for pouring with his signature graphic design behind it, alerting people to available products.  It felt like a place to relax and drink wine, rather than stop, taste, and purchase, as is the goal of many tasting rooms.  Having spent four years in Walla Walla as a college student, it gave me a sense of how the town has been changing over the last five years, and how people from my younger demographic were becoming part of the wine scene in Walla Walla.

That evening, the relaxed lounge became a vibrant bar for its opening dance party.  A giant pan of paella with the most refreshing flavor of saffron stood in the back while Danzig’s former bassist pooled through his vinyls and played old school rockabilly and the staff popped and poured, plowing through some of Smith’s finest fermented juice.  Smith’s entire library of wines was available that evening, everything since 2001 by the bottle, with a selection by the glass I had never seen in a tasting room.

Former bassist of Danzig spinning


I first met Charles Smith years ago, when I was walking my dog and dropped by the tasting room where I worked to say hello to my co-workers.  After a few glasses of wine, we went to the K Vintners tasting room to hang out after closing time.  Charles sat on his porch, and my dog was becoming noticeably thirsty.

“Um, is there any chance she can get some water?” I asked.

“Yeah man,” Charles responded, and came out with a pot full of water.

Charles Smith has a reputation for being big in every way.  Big personality; highly concentrated wines; in-your-face labels; long curly hair; a rockstar lifestyle both in his past and now selling wine.  He also possesses a down-to-earth friendliness whenever I have spoken to him, which I venture to say is the actual foundation of his bold traits; he is a promoter of the spirit of life in wine.

When we encountered each other at the party in Dallas, I reminded him of the story when he gave my dog water, knowing he wouldn’t recall it.

“Oh, was I nice about it?” he asked.

“Yeah, man.”

Just as the smell of a wine can influence the flavors on my palate, my memories of someone such as Charles Smith evoke pleasant memories of fun and friendship.  While they remain fresh in my mind ever time I look at one of his labels, it is a challenge to convey these intangible tastes to those unfamiliar with Smith’s charisma.  A common challenge, and perhaps the linchpin for anyone selling, promoting, and serving wine; a fine opportunity to reminisce about these anecdotes.


Second two photos by Adam Sachs