“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





19 December 2013


The Wedding Feast at Cana, painted by Paolo Veronese in 1563 as commissioned by the Benedictine Monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice.  Not one of the people in this painting has their mouth open. At 660 × 990 cm., It is the biggest painting in the Louvre.

A rehash from the archive:
Winemakers return to Jesus
Big lesson from Cana wedding

With the solemn approach of his birthday, it is appropriate to ponder the technique used by the most famous winemaker in history.  Apart from, perhaps, Maynard James Keenan.  At many shows, Maynard probably plays to more people than Jesus ever saw in his life.

But it is indeed belated attention gotten upon this aspect of Jesus.

Humans have been thorough at mimicking, marketing and channeling carefully-selected or totally perverted aspects of the life of the Son of God since they thought he was here.  But for some dumb reason, everybody forgets his winemaking.

It turns out that only one of the gospel writers, John, managed to squeeze the first miracle into his book.  Matthew, Mark and Luke make no mention of it.  Maybe they didn’t get to the wedding.  Maybe they had so much to drink that they forgot the details, or lost their tasting notes.  Unless, of course, some savage proho dry editor simply removed the good bits of their accounts to prevent too much in the way of fun going down at every wedding since.

As its stands, John’s account leaves a fair bit to be desired.  He seems more interested in the way Christ rebukes his Mum.  The lads have been partying on the beach at Galilee.  Clambake, skinsful of fresh Damascus rosé, Mary of Magdalene dancing in the sand in the moonlight.  The Lord must have itched in those moments to make his first miracle the invention of the ghetto blaster. But he held off.  In the morning, he must have dryly thought of inventing the blue electrolytic hangover drink and the portable fridge, but again his reluctance to show off slowed everything down.

Imagine them.  Wake, sandy and groaning in the bright sunshine, reaching for fresh water which isn’t there.  Christ reminds them they’re two days late for the wedding his Mum insisted they attend ... you get the picture.  A ratty hungover procession up the dusty mountain track all the friggin way to Cana and there she is, akimbo in the road, hissing about them being so late that the wine had run out.  According to the Jewish tradition, there were still four full days of partying to go.

“Mother,” he spits.  “What am I to do with thee?”

Regular readers will recall my theory that as a famous winebibber, and friend of publicans and sinners, Christ would have been fluent in the latest winemaking techniques introduced by the occupying forces; the thirsty Italian boys with the hairoil and the flat-tops.  The boundaries of the Roman empire were always determined by the edge of viable viniculture, as any self-respecting Italian soldier would refuse to march without his wineskin. And as the Son of God had refused to invent the fridge, the matter of keeping wine fresh was a bother.

As it was, they drank it wild and young and fizzy.  With their raw onions.  Thus the line about not putting new wine in old bottles.  The bottles were wine skins, bags without boxes, which would burst if the wine in them underwent a secondary ferment.

Generally, overall, fart city on the march.

Back at headquarters, in Rome, the whitecoats of the day were still using red lead to stabilize and preserve their best table wine, resulting in the sorts of behaviour typical of the rulers: Nero, Caligula, Claudius and Co..  While away out on the frontier, not only was such luxury out of the question, but the troops would never operate efficiently with lead poisoning.

Enter the grange.  The middle east may have been the Holy Land, but in such a dusty, godforsaken wilderness the only way of keeping fruit was to dry it.  Every village and major household had a grange where they’d store their currants, raisins, figs and dates, maybe some pots of honey.  The clay water amphorae and pots would be in there, too, in the cool.

Put simply, the amarone technique used to this day in Italy involves the fermentation of dried grapes.  So when Christ called for the water pots to be brought into the sun, and his Mum was baying for booze, it would been just plain dumb not to throw in some dried fruit from the grange, maybe even dates and honey.  And he wasn’t mucking about: the six water pots were of two or three firkins apiece.

 An ale firkin, or barrel, is about 40 litres; a wine firkin about 300 litres. So he made somewhere between 600 and 4500 litres of the best, which should have got the nuptials rockin. No wonder three of the four scribes forgot to record it, and the one who did, on reflection, think it was a miracle.

What does seem miraculous to me is that somehow the water jug - pot; amphora - is making a comeback in winemaking.  At Castagna wines two years back I was surprised to see Julian’s fermenters: two metres high, thick concrete, and egg-shaped, like amphorae jugs.  He explained that the concrete breathes, like oak; and that this organic natural shape ensures the wine circulates constantly and gradually within, ensuring maximum lees circulation to protect and enrich the wine; that there are no corners which are difficult to clean, and that the solidity of them keeps their temperature naturally constant and cool.  The tapered shape also affects the thickness and form of the cap of skins during ferment.

This new international move to the past began in some Roman ruins near Nimes in 1991, when the keepers of La Mas de Tourelles, a museum of ancient winemaking stuff there began using the old tools to make new wine. The classic amphora shape seemed to impart a half mystical atmosphere to the wines: they seemed more smug and composed, and retained better freshness.  In the twenty years since, many experiments were conducted, making egg-shaped fermenters from terracotta, concrete, plastics and polymers, steel, and now oak.

Some south-of-France winemakers are combining these technologies with the ancient techniques of Caucasian Georgia, and partially burying their amphorae. 

But the biggest, newest egg-shaped buzz came from Italy, and SIMEI 2011, the Milan technical show.  Through coopers Foudrerie Francois, Bordeaux artisan Joseph François launched his big oak eggs.  Strange that it took 2000 years for somebody to combine Christ’s water-into-wine pots with his first employment, carpentry.

So what came first?  Jesus or the egg? 


india flint said...

i agree with your notion that Immanuel simply slipped a few dried fruits into the water jars...and have a further theory to proffer. think back to the garden of Eden, when Eve was supposed to have tempted Adam with an apple. just how seductive would a fresh-picked Granny Smith be? exactly. so my theory is that it wasn't an apple, but a peach. someone hands me a fuzzy, pink and gold sun-warmed peach, perfectly ripened on the tree? they'll have my heart. the snake can keep that apple.

Philip White said...

I have a good Aboriginal friend who I love to drink with. One night in The Ex, we were discussing Adam and Eve. "Fuck the apple," she said. "We woulda eaten the snake!"