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Seven thousand years of wine
Excerpt & images from Najmieh Batmanglij's "From Persia to Napa: Wine at the Persian Table"


August 28, 2006

Wine is seen as the natural partner of many great cuisines, but few people associate it with Persian food, one of the world's most sophisticated culinary traditions. The ties, in fact, are age-old. Iran was one of the nurseries of the wine grape, and, as empires rose and fell there, princes, priests, poets and people in ordinary walks of life all embraced wine in various ways. After Islam came to Iran, wine drinking sometimes slipped from public view, but it never disappeared.

"From Persia to Napa: Wine at the Persian Table" (Mage; $50; 264 pages, with 160 color photos) weaves together history, poetry, a look at modern viniculture, and a wealth of recipes and wine pairings.

In this lavishly illustrated book, Najmieh Batmanglij explores the long and eventful history of wine in Iran, then shifts her story to California's famed Napa Valley, half a world away. There, in a kind of up-to-the-minute homage to the past, an Iranian-American named Darioush Khaledi uses the latest vinicultural techniques to make superb wines at a winery reminiscent of Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the ancient Persian empire.

This book offers 80 recipes, a guide to Persian hospitality, both old and new, and seasonal menus for various occasions. Grapes play a role in most of the recipes, whether in the form of the fruit, the branches, the leaf, the juice, the syrup, unripe grapes or their juice (verjuice), vinegar, and, of course, wine. Although these recipes are presented for the modern table, they are traditional--based on sources as various as a tenth-century Persian cookbook or the culinary archives of a sixteenth-century Persian court.

The book has two special sections. One, written by Dick Davis, a leading authority on Persian literature, discusses the unique links between poetry and wine-drinking in Persian culture. The other, by wine-and-food expert Burke Owens, associate curator of wine at COPIA (Center for Wine, Food and The Arts in Napa, California) offers guidelines for pairing wine with the distinctive ingredients used in Persian cooking. He has also provided wine suggestions for each recipe.

"Whoever seeks the origins of wine must be crazy," a Persian poet once wrote, implying that such a quest is not only hopeless but also irrelevant: Enjoyment is what matters.

Certainly winemaking has always been tinged with mystery. Just how the juice of grapes can become wine wasn't understood until the mid-nineteenth century,

As for the beginnings of viniculture--a term that embraces both the growing of grapes and making of wine-uncertainties abound, although it is clear that the first steps were taken very long ago, at a time when humans began to give up the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle that had sustained them for several million years. This first happened around 8000 B.C.E. along the northern fringe of the Fertile Crescent in the Near East. In the cool uplands there--the plateau country of eastern Turkey, the area known as Transcaucasia between the Black and Caspian Seas, and the Zagros foothills of northwestern Iran--humans pioneered a radically new mode of existence.

In seeking to pinpoint where the vine was tamed, scholars have examined several sorts of evidence. Grape seeds, or pips, are often found at archeological sites, and their shape can indicate whether they came from a wild or domesticated vine. Statistical analysis of DNA in vines today can help trace descent. And even the linguistic roots of such words as wine or grape offer some tantalizing clues. At present, leading candidates for first domestication include the Taurus Mountains of eastern and central Turkey, Transcaucasia (embracing modern-day Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) and, just to the south, the foothills of the Zagros Mountains in Iran.

A broken piece of pottery found in the Zagros Mountains of Iran and dated to about 5400 B.C.E. is one of the oldest archeological proofs of winemaking. The fragment, excavated from the earthen floor of a small mud-brick dwelling at a site called Hajji Firuz Tepe, belonged to a long-necked, undecorated jar with a capacity of about nine liters. On it was a yellowish deposit left by some vanished liquid. Recently, in a laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, this stain was subjected to sophisticated chemical analysis by Dr. Patrick McGovern, a leading authority on wine in the ancient world and a pioneer of the field known as molecular archeology. One of the compounds detected by the analysis was tartaric acid. Since grapes are the only significant source of that particular acid in the Near East, finding it in the deposit strongly suggested that the jar had once held wine.

What virtually clinched the case was the presence of a second telltale compound, this one indicating that the liquid in the jar had been mixed with a tree resin. Resins are natural bactericidal agents, serving to protect trees from attack by microorganisms when their bark is torn. In the ancient world, they were commonly added to wine to fend off acetic acid bacteria, the microorganism responsible for turning wine into vinegar if it is exposed to air. (Retsina, the Greek wine flavored with pine resin, carries on that tradition.) For further protection against the souring bacteria, the narrow neck of the Hajji Firuz Tepe jar would have been sealed with a stopper. All in all, the pottery fragment provided clear testimony that winemaking was well underway by the sixth millennium B.C.E.

In the story of Noah in the Old Testament after the biblical Flood, the ark "came to rest upon the mountains of Ararat," says the Book of Genesis. "Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard, and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, . What intrigues investigators of the origins of viniculture is the mention of Ararat. That is the name of the highest mountain in the Caucasian ranges that stretch between Turkey and Iran to Armenia and Georgia.

Hafez and other poets often alluded to a legend crediting the discovery of winemaking to a Persian king named Jamshid. In a particularly vivid version of the tale, King Jamshid one day saw a bird (symbol of good) being strangled by a snake (symbol of evil). After the king had the snake killed, the bird brought him some bright green seeds in return for his kindness. Jamshid ordered them planted in the royal gardens, and there they grew into vines that produced many blue berries. When the king drank some of the juice of the berries, he found it bitter and declared that it was poison.

Later, a beautiful slave girl-one of his favorites-decided to kill herself with the liquid because she was suffering terrible headaches. She drank several glasses, fell asleep and awoke cured. She told the king what had happened, and he decided to try the drink again. This time, he enjoyed it so much that he recommended it to his people as a medicine-a usage that, in actuality, it has always had in Persian culture: Some Persian synonyms for wine are shah daru (king's medicine), nush daru (wine medicine), daru-ye gham (medicine for grief) and bihush daru (medicine that makes you unconscious).

Some of the tablets found at Persepolis, built by Darius in the highlands of southwestern Iran around 500 B.C.E. dealt with the distribution of wine. By royal authority, it went to a substantial proportion of the population, with amounts carefully calibrated according to rank. Members of the king's own family were issued about five quarts per day, although much more would be forthcoming on the occasion of a banquet; one entry in the archives tells of a princess getting a shipment of five hundred gallons. Officials, members of the royal guard and various functionaries took some of their salary in wine.

Ordinary workers received a monthly allowance of ten to twenty quarts. And women of the working class were rewarded with wine if they added to the labor force: When a male child was born, the mother received ten quarts; a girl baby warranted only half as much.

For the inhabitants of Persepolis, the wine rations and rewards came mostly from highland vineyards a short journey to the northeast. That locale, where the city of Shiraz later rose, was renowned for its wines, a reputation that would only grow with time. In the fourteenth century C.E., Shiraz would be the home of the great poets Hafez and Jahan Khatun, whose verses celebrate the drinking of wine.

In 128 B.C.E., a Chinese general named Zhang Qian passed through the area on a diplomatic mission and was similarly impressed, noting, “They have wine made from grapes, and the wealthy store wine in large quantities up to ten thousand gallons, which keeps for several decades. The Persians are as fond of wine as their horses relish alfalfa.” He carried domesticated Vitis vinifera seeds—as well as those of alfalfa—back to China, where both were unknown. The Chinese emperor received the imports enthusiastically, and extensive vineyards were soon planted near the imperial palace. Language preserves the link: In Chinese (and, later, Japanese), the word for grape wine is budaw; it derives from wine’s Iranian name, badeh.

Shiraz when spring is here - what pleasure equals this?
With streams to sit by, wine to drink and lips to kiss,
With mingled sounds of drums and lutes and harps and flutes;
Then, with a nice young lover near, Shiraz is bliss

-- Jahan Khatun (a fourteenth-century poetess), translated by Dick Davis

In truth, various Iranian peoples had been making wine on a large scale long before the Persians arrived. Seeds of domesticated vines dating to the late fourth millennium B.C.E. have been found several hundred miles northwest of Persepolis, at the site where the Elamites established their mountain capital, and much evidence traces the spread of viniculture to other parts of Iran over the next two millennia. But in Persian culture, wine had a particularly central role, the pleasures of which, when paired with Persian cuisine is the subject of the rest of this book >>> Images & recipe

Excerpt copyright (c) 2006 Mage Publishers

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