The Ancient Connection Between Women and Wine

Originally published in Wayward Tendrils Quarterly (Vol 18, No. 2, April 2008), Liz Thach, Ph.D.  Posted here by request. 

Most historians now agree that wine was most likely discovered by a woman. However what is often left out of the history books are the ancient stories of the goddesses of wine – most who came into being centuries before Bacchus and Dionysus.

Modern technology and carbon-dating has helped us prove that wine from cultivated grapes was being made in what is now modern-day Georgia, in the Caucasus Mountains around 6,000 B.C. There are also reports of wine remains in Armenia, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and China which claim to be older than those found in Georgia – though there is some confusion over whether it is grape, rice, date, or honey wine. Regardless of the birthplace of wine, it is commonly agreed that because women were involved in the gathering of berries, grapes, and other crops that it was most likely a woman who picked some grapes and placed them in a pottery container in a cool dark corner. When she remembered to check the container a few weeks later, she found a fermented beverage that had a delightful flavor and a pleasant inebriating effect. Thus wine was born.

From Persia, there is an ancient legend documented in the Epic of Gilgamish that supports a woman discovering wine. She was a member of the harem in the palace of King Jamshid, and she suffered from severe migraine headaches. One day the king found that a jar containing his favorite grapes had a strange smell and was foaming. Alarmed he ordered that it be set aside as unsafe to eat. When the woman heard of this, she decided to drink from the container in an effort to end her life with the poison inside. Instead she found the taste of the beverage very delightful. Furthermore, it cured her headache and put her in a joyful mood. When she told King Jamshid, he tasted the “wine” as well and then ordered that more should be made and shared with the whole court.

It was from this same part of the world, in the Sumerian Empire in what is modern-day Iraq, that the most ancient goddess of wine is first mentioned. Her name was Gestin and she was being worshiped as early as 3000 BC. Gestin, which translates as wine, vine, and/or grape, is also mentioned in the ancient Indus manuscript, the Rig Veda. Experts believe that it is quite reasonable that the first gods of wine were women, because the oldest deities were female agriculture goddesses of the earth and fertility. Gestin was most likely born from this agriculture base and over the centuries came to represent wine.

Later, in 1500 BC, we find mention of another wine goddess, Paget, in the same part of the world. The clay tablets refer to her as working in the vineyard and helping to make wine.

Then around 300 to 400 BC as wine became more prominent in Sumeria, a new wine goddess, Siduri, is described as living near the city of Ur. She is reported as welcoming the hero in the Epic of Gilgamish to a garden with the tree of life which is hung with ruby red fruit with tendrils. Siduri is referred to as the Maker of Wine.

Across the deserts in Egypt the wine goddess Renen-utet is mentioned on hieroglyphic tablets as blessing the wine as early as 1300 BC. Interestingly she is known as both a wine and snake goddess. She usually had a small shrine near the wine press and often her figure would appear on the spout where the grape juice flowed into the receiving tank. She is sometimes joined by Ernutet, the Egyptian goddess of plenty, in blessing the grape harvest.

What is intriguing about these wine goddesses is how little is known about them, whereas Dionysus and Bacchus have much more coverage in the literature. It is possible that this is because they are more recent. The earliest records of Dionysus, the Greek wine god, show he appeared around 500BC in the Greek Islands, whereas Gestin dates from 3000 BC. However, the concept of Dionysus, as a child god who was born of a mortal woman and a god, is very ancient and can be traced back 9000 years. These depictions however — which are amazingly similar to the images of Mother Mary with the Baby Jesus – do not include wine. Dionysus as a wine god came later. Indeed, another legend says that Dionysus came from the lands near Sumeria to the islands of Greece. Is Dionysus somehow connected with Gestin, Paget and Siduri?  Bacchus, the Roman name for Dionysus, became known in the literature around 200 BC as the Greek Empire was fading. Other wine gods included Osiris from Egypt and I-Ti from China.

So what are the implications of these ancient connections between women and wine? Why have the ancient wine goddesses been lost in the history of time? Is it because the culture changed towards a more masculine image, which gave rise to the male wine gods? Is this why in the period of the Roman Empire, women were banned from drinking wine? Indeed, a husband who caught his wife drinking wine could legally kill her on the spot. And the depiction of the raging Bacchanalia rites, in which women chased after Bacchus in drunken ecstasy while they tore animals to shreds is hardly flattering to women.

So perhaps it is time to resurrect the image of the ancient wine goddesses, and the blessings of a plentiful harvest and the joy that wine can bring in moderation. After all, the cultural tides of the world have changed again, and today in wine-drinking countries, women are the primary purchasers of wine. The connection between women and wine has always been there. Today it is growing stronger, with a focus on friendship, romance, health and balance.

REFERENCES

ü  Barnet, R.D. (1980). “A Winged Goddess of Wine on an Electrum Plaque,”Anatolian Studies, Vol. 30, Special Number in Honour of the Seventieth Birthday of Professor O. R. Gurney, pp. 169-178

ü  Hackin, J. (1932). Asiatic Mythology. London: George G. Harrap & Co.

ü  Johnson, H. (1989). The Story of Wine. UK: Octopus Publishing Group.

ü  McGovern, P.E. (2003). Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viticulture. NJ: Princeton University Press.

ü  Ushanas, E.R. (1997) The Indus Script and the Rg-Veda. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass

ü  Y ounger, W. (1966) Gods, Men and Wine. Ohio: The Wine and Food Society Limited.

ABOUT THE ARTIST: Vivian Olsen is wildlife, landscape, and portrait artist living in Redmond Oregon. Her media include watercolors, oils, pastels, and pen & ink. Her work is currently exhibited in art galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Bend, Oregon, and Meredith, NH. She has received numerous recognition awards for her work, and has traveled widely throughout Europe and Asia to attend art workshops. Vivian holds a B.A. in Fine Art and an M.A. in Education which allowed her to teach art in secondary school for over 18 years. Originally from California but currently living in Oregon, she is an active member in the National Oil & Acrylic Painter’s Society, the Central Oregon Art Association and is a Signature Member of the New Mexico Watercolor Society.  http://www.vivianolsen.com/

The Mystery of the Missing Pinot Noir Grapes

Professor Musings:  I have a small hobby vineyard in Sonoma County with 90 pinot noir vines and 30
sauvignon blanc.  The vineyard is located  in the Petaluma Gap region of the Sonoma Coast AVA which is a cooler climate  ideal for pinot noir.  Every year it produces a nice crop with the pinot always ripening before the sauvignon  blanc.  This autumn, however, when I walked down to check on the sugar level of the grapes, I was astounded to see that something had eaten 90% of the pinot noir crop.  The sauvignon blanc, which was still rather tart tasting, was untouched.

I called my neighbors with hobby vineyards to help me solve the problem.  “But you put up bird netting on the vines,” said Leslie, “so it can’t be birds.”  “You’ve placed yellow jacket traps all around the vineyards, so it can’t be yellow jackets,” mused Peter.  The whole vineyard is surrounded by deer fencing, so it couldn’t have been deer.  So what ate my pinot noir?

After a couple of weeks of looking for clues, I finally gave up and contacted the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission and requested their help in finding a viticulture consultant.  They suggested Laura who arrived a couple days later.  “Why didn’t you call me sooner?” she asked. “Then we might have been able to see some fresh tracks.”  Then she ticked off possible suspects on her fingers:  birds, yellow jackets, deer, wild turkeys, raccoons, possum, skunks, or some type of insect.

I followed Laura around the vineyard while she searched for clues.  When the crime had occurred two weeks ago the weather had been hot and the vineyard soil was dry and dusty.  However, two days ago it rained quite hard in Sonoma County – right in the middle of harvest — so the soil was wet.

“So whatever it was didn’t eat your sauvignon blanc because it wasn’t ripe enough,” said Laura.  “Do you have any other grape varietals?”

Suddenly I remembered the two cordons of cabernet franc that didn’t successfully graft
over when I had t-budded part of the vineyard last year.  For several years, I tried to grow cabernet franc but I could never get it ripe enough in the cooler Sonoma Coast climate.  So I grafted those vines to pinot noir, but a couple of them didn’t take. Therefore, mixed in the pinot were still two cordons with long purple clusters – definitely different from the small tight pinot bunches of 777 clone.

Laura and I walked over to where the cabernet franc bunches had hung and I was  astounded to see that something had eaten them in the past two days.  Laura bent down close to the vines and said “ah ha!”  She pointed at the black drip irrigation hose below the vines and there were tiny muddy footprints all along the hose where the culprits had placed their paws while eating my grapes.  Mystery solved – a very hungry family of
raccoons had feasted on my vineyard.

Laura investigated the deer fencing and found two possible openings where the raccoons could have entered.  “They also could have just climbed over the fence,” said Laura, making me feel very helpless.  So the good news is the mystery of the missing pinot noir grapes has been solved, but the issue of how to protect my crop next year from raccoons is still a looming problem.  Any suggestions would be most welcome!

White Burgundy and Non-ML Chardonnay Top Scoring Wines at Millennial Tasting

Distinctive chardonnays came out on top at the first SSU Wine Sense Club tasting of the semester.  Imagery Winery’s “2009 White Burgundy ($29)” received the most votes as the favorite wine.  A full-bodied chardonnay with a small amount of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Meunier in the blend everyone enjoyed the tropical fruit flavors and bright crispness.  Other Imagery wines tasted included a Malbec, Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc.  Imagery Winery, located in Sonoma Valley, is renown for its artistic blends and beautiful labels featuring a different California artist each year.  For more information see http://www.imagerywinery.com/

The SSU WineSense Board had to scramble when the second winery of the night called at the last minute to cancel.  (We will not reveal any names.).  But crisis often results in innovative solutions, so the Board did a blind tasting of three chardonnays made in different styles.  They informed the crowd they were tasting “3 white wines,” – not mentioning that all three were chardonnay.  After everyone voted on their favorite, the results were: 

  • Chardonnay with non ML (Malolactic fermentation) = 19 votes
  • Unoaked Chardonnay = 16 votes
  • Oaked Chardonnay with Full ML = 13 votes 

These results reflect a growing trend preference in the US for chardonnays that are crisper in style, rather than the traditional highly oaked buttery styles. 

Food and Wine Pairings 

The cooking team allowed the chardonnays to be tasted on their own, and then prepared the following delightful pairings for the other wines: 

  • Imagery Sauvignon Blanc paired with Cheese Tortellini Pasta Salad with Roasted Tomatoes, Grilled Zucchini and Shaved Pecorino Cheese
  • Imagery Malbec and Sangiovese paired with BBQ Italian Sausage with Chimmi Churri Sauce.