Apr 20, 2011

Fabulous Facts: Wine in Ancient Times

As we know, wine is popular. What most of us don't realize is just how popular wine has always been. Did you know that wine jars buried with Tutankhamen were labeled with such detail that they could meet today's wine labeling laws? There's much more, so read on.

I am indebted to the website Random History for these fascinating facts about wine.

  • The standard wine container of the ancient world was the amphora (something which can be carried by two), a clay vase with two handles. It was invented by the Canaanites, who introduced it into Egypt before the fifteenth century B.C. Their forebears, the Phoenicians, spread its use throughout the Mediterranean.
  • Wine facilitated contacts between ancient cultures, providing the motive and means of trade. For example, the Greeks traded wine for precious metals, and the Romans traded wine for slaves.
  • Archaeologists found grape pips (seeds), usually considered evidence of winemaking, dating from 8000 B.C. in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. The oldest pips of cultivated vines were found in (then Soviet) Georgia from 7000-5000 B.C.
  • In the whole of the Biblical Old Testament, only the Book of Jonah has no reference to the vine or wine.

  • In ancient Egypt, the ability to store wine until maturity was considered alchemy and was the privilege of only the pharaohs.
  • When Tutankhamen’s tomb was opened in 1922, the wine jars buried with him were labeled with the year, the name of the winemaker, and comments such as “very good wine.” The labels were so specific that they could actually meet modern wine label laws of several countries

  • Winemaking is a significant theme in one of the oldest literary works known, the Epic of Gilgamesh. The divinity in charge of the wine was the goddess Siduri, whose depiction suggests a symbolic association between wine and fertility.
  • One of the most quoted legends about the discovery of wine is the story of Jamsheed, a semi-mythical Persian king (who may have been Noah). A woman of his harem tried to take her life with fermented grapes, which were thought to be poisonous. Wine was discovered when she found herself rejuvenated and lively.
  • The first known illustration of wine drinking is found on a 5,000-year-old Sumerian panel known as the Standard of Ur.

The Standard of Ur
  • Romans discovered that mixing lead with wine not only helped preserve wine, but also gave it a sweet taste and succulent texture. Chronic lead poisoning has often been cited as one of the causes of the decline of Rome.
  •  The world’s oldest bottle of wine dates back to A.D. 325 and was found near the town of Speyer, Germany, inside one of two Roman sarcophaguses. It is on display at the town's Historisches Museum der Pfalz. 
  • Early Roman women were forbidden to drink wine, and a husband who found his wife drinking was at liberty to kill her. Divorce on the same grounds was last recorded in Rome in 194 B.C.
  • Ancient Romans thought seasoning was more important than the primary flavor of wine and often added fermented fish sauce, garlic, asafetida (onion root), lead, and absinthe.
  • “Toasting” started in ancient Rome when the Romans continued the Greek tradition but started dropping a piece of toasted bread into each wine glass to temper undesirable tastes or excessive acidity. 

  • At the center of Greek social and intellectual life was the symposium, which literally means, “drinking together.” Indeed, the symposium reflects Greek fondness for mixing wine and intellectual discussion
  • In ancient Greece, a dinner host would take the first sip of wine to assure guests the wine was not poisoned, hence the phrase “drinking to one’s health.”
  • Thucydides wrote that the people of the Mediterranean began to “emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the oil and the vine.”
  • Plato argued that the minimum drinking age should be 18, and then wine in moderation may be tasted until 31. When a man reaches 40, he may drink as much as he wants to cure the “crabbedness of old age.”
  • Hippocrates, widely considered the father of medicine, includes wine in almost every one of his recorded remedies. He used it for cooling fevers, as a diuretic, as a general antiseptic, and to help convalescence.

Apr 11, 2011

An expert’s tomato-growing tips

This past Saturday I attended a talk, “Important Tips for Growing Tomatoes,” at my local nursery. I hoped to learn what I’d been doing wrong tomato-wise, and I did. To sum it up, I had been doing everything wrong.

Most of my mistakes boiled down to a lack of respect for the soil. I hadn't realized that soil is almost everything to a tomato. But I now see that, if you're a tomato, soil is where you live and hang out. Just like me, a tomato wants to be surrounded by comfy furnishings, needs a well-stocked cupboard for noshing, and enjoys the occasional drink.

I use a raised box that’s about 10x4, and in early spring I’ve been throwing in a few bags of manure, additional soil, and some compost. Then, considering myself a generous patron of S. lycopersicum, I thought I was done.

But I wasn't. Apparently there’s a lot more to do to prepare the soil bed for planting tomatoes. The good news is that I have a few weeks to get it done. According to the expert, tomatoes shouldn’t be planted until the soil temperature reaches a steady 55°. Here in Northern California that won’t happen until around the beginning of May.

Here’s a brief look at what I learned on Saturday:
  •  You can buy tomatoes right now, placing them in full sunlight during the day and storing them in the garage or other protected place at night. When they grow big enough, transplant to 1-gallon containers and continue to place in the sun during the daytime (put about half the plant under the soil; the furry bristles will become roots). That way they’ll be getting bigger, with bigger root systems, for when you place them in the ground.
  • Dig out the top 8-12” of soil in your garden or raised bed and put it aside (I’m going to use a large plastic sheet to collect removed soil).
  • Where the soil has been removed, put down a layer of compost, soil booster, chicken manure, worm casings, and planting mix. Blend with the soil beneath and then with the soil you’d removed at the beginning. When you’re through, add soil booster as a topping mulch.
  • When the time comes to put the plants into the ground, add a teaspoon of worm casings at the bottom of each hole. This is a very rich fertilizer that will help your tomatoes thrive.
  • Consider adding Red Wiggler Worms to your garden or box. They are experts at vermicomposting—creating nutrient-rich organic fertilizer/soil conditioner. If you're a coffee drinker, blend your coffee grounds into the soil every day; worms apparently love coffee (grounds)!
  • Magnesium Sulfate occurs naturally in the soil but can be depleted easily. Its purpose vis-a-vis tomatoes? It results in lusher vegetation, and it improves the plant’s absorption of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. So--here's a nifty trick--add Epsom Salts, made of magnesium and sulfate, to your soil.
  • When it comes to watering, NEVER water overhead and do not allow the soil to be continually moist—tomatoes don’t like it, for one thing, and it leads to bug infestation. When first put in the ground, tomatoes should be watered a little bit every day, but after 2-3 weeks watering should be about every 3 days. Near the end of their productive season, increase watering to every 4 days.
  • Here in Sonoma our summers are very warm with occasional really hot days, always cooling off at night due to our proximity to the Pacific Ocean’s fog and cool breezes. These conditions are fabulous for vineyards and have a lot do do with why grapes grown in Napa and Sonoma are so superb. But the last two summers in a row were very cool, and complaints about tomatoes (and grapes!) were a common topic of conversation. Our expert told us that her tomatoes came out fine because she knew that, in cool weather, she should reduce her watering schedule to every 5, 6 or even 7 days.
There was more, but I’ve given you the important tips. Anyway, I’m running out of time. I’ve got to head over to the nursery and buy myself some worm casings!

 Effectively growing is a challenge, and without the right knowledge it can be downright frustrating. Growing tomatoes is a task anyone can accomplish and enjoy, and The Complete Guide to Growing Tomatoes provides every possible resource and tip needed for you to become one of a growing legion of tomato growers.

You will learn the fundamental basic aspects of all tomato plants that have helped growers around the world master their craft and create the largest tomatoes around. You will learn the basics of composting and fertilization and what each tomato plant benefits best from. You will also learn how to select your garden location and the seemingly complex but ideal task of starting from seed with your new tomato plants. You will learn what kinds of support systems are best for each kind of tomato plant, including the kinds of watering, cages, and nets that your plants might benefit most from.

Tomato experts who have created a livelihood for themselves in growing and mastering the tomato plant have been interviewed around the country and their responses added to the book, helping you to know how to set the plants, prune them effectively, read a tomato plant at various times during the season and even to combat the various trials and tribulations of tomato growing, from pests and disease to frost and storms. Everything you could possibly need to know about tomatoes, how to grow them and how to effectively start a new hobby and possibly create secondary income, is included in this guide for you. $16.

The Complete Guide to Growing Tomatoes: A Complete Step-by-Step Guide Including Heirloom Tomatoes

Apr 7, 2011

As if Napa wasn't fun enough!

I've gotten used to the way the folks over at Napa Valley Wine Train come up with surprising new ideas, but the latest one still managed to surprise me. It shouldn't have, though, because it makes perfect sense to turn the plush departure room at the Wine Train Depot into a once-monthly sing-along piano bar.

Best thing? Admission is free, all ages are welcome, and there is no drink minimum (although beverages are available). The evenings run from 7-10 p.m.

The next sing-alongs on the schedule:
  • April 28: Classic Hipster songs (Frank, Sammy, Dean, Ella, Billy, and all those cool cats). Music provided by pianist Dan Daniels with Nicky De Paola on vocals.
  • May 26: Piano Bar Sing Along (more information to come).
  • June 22: A Toast to Broadway, with pianist/singer Andrew Moore.
Here's a video from the March 24 sing-along:

    Apr 6, 2011

    Can the Epigenetic Diet prevent cancer?

    Earlier this year, research scientists from the University of Alabama at Birmingham published study results showing that veggies such as broccoli and cabbage can help reverse or prevent cancers. The results were published in Journal of Clinical Epigenetics.

    The medical term "Epigenetic" refers to the study of the changes in human gene expressions with time, changes that can cause cancer and Alzheimer’s (among other diseases).

    In recent years, epigenetics research worldwide has identified specific foods that contain cancer-fighting compounds such as genistein (a phytochemical in soy foods) or resveratrol (an antioxidant in red grapes). Powerful epigenetics foods include:
    • Soy-based foods
    • Cauliflower
    • Broccoli and cabbage
    • Green tea
    • Fava beans
    • Kale
    • Red grapes
    • Turmeric (spice)
    Based on these findings, a new "cancer-fighting" diet has emerged known as the Epigenetic Diet. Such a diet includes foods that can enhance a gene's natural defense mechanisms against cancer.

    You can bet that someone is writing an Epigenetic Cookbook at this moment. But you don't need to wait for such a book. Just add more veggies to your diet, and make an effort to include cauliflower, broccoli, fava beans, and the others foods shown above.

    Here's a short video in which the University of Alabama researchers discuss their findings:

    Epigenetics diet can help prevent cancer from uabnews on Vimeo.

    Apr 5, 2011

    World Best’s Wine Book from…Sweden?!

    Britt Karlsson holding the award for her book, The Creation of a Wine
    The entire world is in love with wine.

    You wouldn’t think that a prize-winning book on wine would come out of Sweden, which has no wine-growing tradition and only the barest beginning of a wine industry.

    But a Swedish wine book, The Creation of a Wine, has been named the “World’s Best Wine Book for Professionals 2010” in the 2011 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. The award ceremony took place at Folies Bergères in Paris in March.

    Written by Britt Karlsson with photography by Per Karlsson, the book covers wine from the vineyard to the cellar. The Karlssons are both Swedish wine journalists based in Paris; they also operate a wine travel business called BKWine Tours, which organizes wine-oriented tours for wine enthusiasts and professionals.

    According to the author, the book was “written for those who want to know more about vine growing and winemaking, without being winemakers themselves: the wine trade, sommeliers, wine educators etc. But it is also a book for the dedicated ‘amateur’ wine enthusiast.”

    The book—which has not yet been translated into English—was previously named the “Best Wine Book in Sweden 2010.”