Anthony Blackburn reports from Napa Valley College: Scrambling

Scramble, scramble, scramble.

No, this is not an air raid. It’s my rush to write a short essay on my first book read for my Cultural Appreciation of Wine class at Napa Valley College.

I don’t know why I procrastinate on this type of stuff. I think it’s because if I am compelled to do something, like an assignment from class, I am naturally disinclined to do it. I will look for anything else to do of my own choosing, before I do something I HAVE to do. My wife hates this. It really cramps her style in terms of getting me to do what she wants me to do.

My book was “A Year in Provence”, by Peter Mayle. This is the story of an English couple that moves to Provence, France to live their dream of having a centuries old, countryside home and the lifestyle, friends, wine and food adventures that go with it. It’s a charming, witty book and i enjoyed reading it. Next book for my for this class is “A Small Place in Italy”, by Eric Newby. I better get cracking on the essay to get it in by it’s due date in 4 weeks.

Class started in an interesting way for me. I walked in about 10 minutes before class was scheduled to start. A few students were milling about, chatting or making last minute preparations for our Roman feast that the class would be centered around. As I set my contribution to the epicurean spread we would share, Paul Wagner, our instructor called out, “Hey Tony! Great job on TV today!”

I was on TV?

Ah, right. I had forgotten. Bryan Avila, Winemaker and instructor for several classes at Napa Valley College, and I had been interviewed by NVC President, Dr. Chris McCarthy. We were interviewed for a school broadcast called “NVC Forum” This is a show featured on local Napa cable that highlights happenings and interesting things going on at Napa Valley College. It wasn’t exactly Chris Mathews and Hardball, but it was fun to be interviewed about the Napa Valley College Viticulture and Winery Technology program. Bryan and I talked about the program and the wines and how we would be selling them in the near future.

I don’t think Arnold Schwarzenegger needs to be concerned that I will take a starring roll in the Terminator franchise, but I did keep my eyes open for Hollywood talent scouts. None were to be found.

My Cultural Appreciation of Wine class officially started and Paul Wagner started the lecture portion of class. Tonight’s class was about Roman culture and the role that wine played.

The Romans built the Las Vegas of their time, with the height of the empire being about 250 BC to 100 AD. The Romans were all about largess. Bigger was better in much of their culture. Ever seen the Colosseum in Rome? How about the Temple of Bacchus in Lebanon? Roman aqueducts? When the Romans did something, they did it right and they did it big. This applied to their culinary exploits as well. In Roman society, rarity and quality was prized. When a bull was slain for a feast, it was not the sirloin that was coveted. There was plenty of that to go around. What was desired were the rare parts of the bull. The sweetbreads. The physical portions of the animal that there was little of. We know about rich Romans eating whole plates of peacock tongues, for instance. One complicated meal involved stuffing a chicken inside a duck, then the duck inside a goose, then the goose inside a sheep, then a sheep inside and bull and cooking the whole thing.

Wines were just as prized as food was. Wines were varied in the roman empire. From common, low quality wines given to soldiers to high quality wines reserved for statesmen. Women were not allowed to drink wine in Roman society. Sorry ladies. In fact, a woman could be punished for drunkeness by death.

Roman soldiers were given a ration of 1.5 liters of wine per day per legion. This low quality wine was often referred to by soldiers as vinegar. In fact, the bible has it that a soldier offered a rag, soaked in vinegar, on the tip of his spear, to Jesus Christ, as he suffered on the cross. Was this soldier taunting Christ, or was he trying to show mercy with his own ration of wine?

To support the expansion of their empire, the Romans sent legions and established garrisons in far away lands. With them, the Romans brought grape vines to plant.Why was wine so important to a soldier? The expression “Don’t Drink the Water” says it all. Today’s water, which we take for granted every time we turn on the tap, is not the water of old. Water, in many areas, was unclean and held diseases. Wine, on the other hand, with it’s alcohol, pH levels and acidity, was pure and clean. It was far more healthy to drink wine than water, and the Romans needed their soldiers healthy. We even see a parallel in Asia, where they drink tea and have done so for centuries. Why didn’t Asian cultures have wine as a part of every day life? They have many regions that support the growing of grapes for wine. In fact, China is one of the up and coming power houses of wine production. So why was wine not consumed like it was in the Roman empire and elsewhere? Because tea is boiled. We think that same issues that plagued the Romans with respect to disease and pestilence in water was mitigated by making tea, which includes boiling it. Boiling water kills much of the bacteria potentially harmful to humans. An interesting point.

Back to the Roman empire.

Vineyards were generally planted by the Romans on hillsides near rivers. This served several purposes. The proximity of a river made transportation of grapes and finished wine more economical. Rivers mitigated the extremes of weather, making grown conditions favorable. And hillsides protect grape vines from frost and expose them to greater sunlight. Even today, the famous vineyards of Europe are on hillsides along rivers such as the Loire, the Rhone and the Rhine. Marcus Porcius Cato, 234 BC-149 BC, also known as “Cato the Elder” wrote/translated “Di agri Cultura”, the first survey of Roman agriculture. In it, he discusses the production of wine on large slave based villa estates. Clearly, wine had moved from something to entertain, to sustenance.

Roman physician, Galen, discussed the quality of the wines of the time. The best, he reports, were wines some 125 years old. These wines were likely similar to Madiera. Highly oxidized and sweet. In fact, Galen reported them to be “ethereal”.

The food of the time revolved around grains and fruits. Meat was a commodity for the wealthy. Salt was extremely valuable. More valuable than gold, in fact. Various spices were used and traded for.

Wine was consumed, mixed with other things. The drinking of wine straight was considered a barbaric practice. Some of the condiments mixed in wine were honey, cheese, sea water or spices. The Romans were very adept a blending wines with other ingredient to improve the final product. An oxidized wine, which most wine was at the time, could be improved with the addition of cheese. Overly tannic wines could be softened with an addition of 2-5% sea water. Honey and spices added richness and complexity.

With all of this as a backdrop, we started our feast. Students brought in all manner of foods, interpreted from ancient recipes. There was couscous, lamb, fava beans, lentil soup, dishes with fruits and breads. I made Isicia omentata, which is sort of a Roman Burger. The recipe is below.
500g minced meat
1 french roll, soaked in white wine
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
50ml Liquamen (can be replaced by 1/2 tsp salt + a little white wine)
some stone-pine kernels and green peppercorns
a little Caroenum (I substituted a dark fruit spread)
Baking foil
Mix minced meat with the soaked french roll. Ground spices and mix into
the meat. Form small burgers and put pine kernels and peppercorns into
them. Put them into baking foil and grill them together with Caroenum.

I got some good feedback on my dish and I enjoyed the dishes of others, especially a bread salad with basil, garlic and vinegar.

The second part to the dinner was the wine. We split into four groups and Paul gave each group 4 wines. Each group was to produce a blend that would be judged by Paul.

Each group was given a home made 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon, highly oxidized and starting to turn to vinegar. Two Italian wines. The Italian wines were a 2001 Cantinino from Castello Sonnino and a 2006 Argiolas, a red wine made from Monica grapes. There was also a 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon from Freemark Abbey.

Our job was to taste these wines, then blend them with ingredients provided by Paul. these included sea water, honey and grated cheese.

We tasted, we discussed, we blended and we tasted more. it was really a great exercise. Our group was very enthusiastic. We wanted to win the judging! Our final blend was 50% of the old wine and 50% of the Cantoninno. The consensus was that these were the worst wines. We thought a little outside of the box and added some lemon juice and squeezed some fresh zinfandel juice into the blend from some grapes that had been brought in by a student. Our blend won the judging for the most improved wine from the base ingredients we had to use. It was really not such a bad wine after we were done with it.

At the end of the class, with bellies full, Paul emphasized to us that wine takes all forms and qualities and the Romans used techniques and recipes to make bad wines good and that these are strategies that we can use in our oenilogical adventures. Think outside the box and be adventurous.

One never knows what surprising delight might roll across one’s palate.

Anthony Blackburn is a student at Napa Valley College in the Viticulture and Winery Technology Department. He is also the Student Sales and Marketing Intern responsible for selling the wines made by the students in the student winery.