Drinking Wine Like the Kings of Ancient Persia

For me, the most beautiful setting in all of Los Angeles is the Getty Villa in Malibu. It’s just about my favorite place in the world, and I was pleased to see that the Villa was selected for the 9th Summit of the Americas dinner on June 9th, where President Joe and Dr. Jill Biden hosted 20 heads of state.

I have been to the Villa often, for the art, for the theater (both indoor and outdoor), and now, for the wine, and have enjoyed the ocean view as well as the night skies there. I recently attended a lecture called “Drinking Like a Persian King: The History of Wine in Iran,” which is part of the Getty’s “Bacchus Uncorked” series of lectures and wine tastings. This one featured Dr. Touraj Daryaee, Maseeh Chair in Persian Studies and Culture and Director of the Dr. Samuel M. Jordan Center for Persian Studies & Culture at the University of California, Irvine. Also featured was sommelier and Master Taster Christian Barion, who presented and discussed the four wines selected to taste after the lecture.
collage of antiquities at Getty Villa
The Getty Villa has artifacts that show how much the ancients loved all things wine-related. Top left, clockwise: Bacchus carved into a sarcophagus relief, statue of Baby Bacchus, detail of fresco depicting Bacchus and Ariadne, statue of a small boy protecting his grapes, and detail of a sarcophagus carving, showing children among the grapes.
Dr. Daryaee’s lively presentation focused on the earliest known wine discoveries as depicted in antiquities, many of which are on display in the Getty Villa. He discussed the fact that everything points back to the invention of pottery, which allowed the ancients to cook and ferment both beer and wine. As a result, much of the research that attempts to date wine’s inception deals with sediment analysis on full or partial pieces of ancient pottery vessels. Another technique Daryaee mentioned is the “sniffing out” of these vessels, where researchers actually sniff the pots, much as one would sniff a wine glass before drinking.

And the Oldest Wine Is …

Research has been pushing back the date of the earliest known wines as new evidence gets unearthed. Where it was once thought that the date was about 5400-5000 BCE, it’s now believed that wine-related discoveries in Armenia in the Areni1 Cave date back to 6000 BCE. But the oldest, per Daryaee, is in Georgia, which shows evidence of Stone Age wine production even earlier than that in Armenia.

Persians “Are Very Fond of Wine”

Herodatus, an ancient Greek historian, wrote extensively of the Persians, and observed that they really liked their wine, and used it to help them make important decisions. He is quoted as saying:
“The Persians are very fond of wine … It is also their general practice to deliberate upon affairs of weight when they are drunk; and then in the morning, when they are sober, the decision to which they came the night before is put before them by the master of the house in which it was made; and if it is then approved they act on it; if not, they set it aside. Sometimes, however, they are sober at their first deliberations, but in this case they always reconsider the matter under the influence of wine.”
In the 200-year span between about 550 and 330 BCE, Professor Daryaee noted that the Persians refer to wine-related processes, close to what we have today, by naming producers of wine, referring to both women and men winemakers, and created terminology for such things as wine press (called a hankra). Most significantly, during this period they had a designated person who brought the wine to the king, aka the cup-bearer (tagar in Persian), who checked that there was no poison in the wine, and knew how to pour the wine correctly and to also hand the vessel over to the drinker properly. Ancient drawings and writings show that such a person carried the wine with just three fingers, the etiquette of the day. The most famous cup bearer, or ancient sommelier, was Nehemiah, who served King Artaxerxes in the fifth century BCE.
In addition to ancient vessels for making and storing wine, drinking vessels are depicted in ancient art, and many, in metal and earthenware, survive to this day. The Getty has a large collection of such vessels, including beautiful drinking horns, or rhytons, with elaborate animal carvings.
During the Sasanian period, the last of three Persian kingdoms during this period, there was terminology for red, white, clarified, and clear wine, says Daryaee.
Daryaee says that when the Muslim era began, it’s a myth that drinks were prohibited, and there’s evidence that wine culture and trade continued. However, fast forward to the revolution of 1979, and all wine production became illegal. Hence the selection of wines tasted  after this lecture are not from modern Iran.
collage of Getty Villa outdoor wine tasting event

Wines to Tickle the Palate

“The Persian king had vintners scouring every land to find some drinks that will tickle his palate.”
— Xenophone in Agesilaus 9.3
“I could drink much wine and yet carry it well.”
— Darius the Great in Athenaus The Dinner Philosophers X.434d
Professor Daryaee quoted the above during his lecture to emphasize the perception of the Persians as luxury-seeking aristocrats who wanted only the best in food and wine, no matter how far they, i.e., their minions, had to go to get it.
Those of us at the Bacchus Uncorked event had only to rely on the sommeliers present to tickle our palates with four wines that represented ancient Persia … loosely.
The closest representation was the Papara Valley “Qvevri 11” Kakheti-Saperavi 2020. This inky dark purple wine was truly a mouthful, with intense tannins and acid along with layers of intense purple fruit, camphor, peppercorns, and cured meat. Wow, this pummeled my palate with its boldness. This wine is produced in Georgia, in qvevri, or large clay earthenware vessels, an 8000-year-old tradition. The wines are fermented and stored in these large vessels, undergoing four weeks of maceration. In other words, the wine is born, matures, and resides in the qvervi. The wine is naturally fermented with indigenous yeast, and the producer has 20+ qvevri on three terraces and the wine, over 10 months, makes its way down via gravity to the lower qvevri, and in this cases ends up in #11. The Saperavi red grape is one of 500+ indigenous grapes in Georgia, and is grown on cinnamonic soil, a combination of iron and clay with cinnamon-like consistency. Kakheti is one of the important wine regions of Georgia.
The St. Joseph “Offerus” from J.L. Chave 2019 was  chosen to represent the importance of the Syrah grape in ancient Persia. Shirāz is the modern Persian interpretation of a city first referenced, per Dr. Daryaee and other scholars, in the Elamite clay tablets which date back to 2000 BCE. So you get the connection, right? This classic northern Rhone is 100% syrah, with mixed wild berries on the nose and palate plus spices and game meat, a lovely wine.
There were two other wines, a chardonnay and a Bordeaux blend from Darioush of Napa. This is not exactly near Persia, but Darioush Khaledi is a transplant from modern-era Iran, who escaped the country during the 1979 revolution, came to Los Angeles, started a successful grocery chain, and then pursued his dream of starting a winery in Napa. It’s a true success story, and Mr. Khaledi is now director of the Napa Valley Festival, and can boast of one of the most spectacular, palace-like wineries in toney Napa Valley.
The Darioush 2018 Chardonnay is estate grown, full of acid and freshness, which sommelier Barion likened to a Chassagne Montrachet or a Meursault. I tasted quite a bit of oak, but enjoyed the wine. The 2018 Caravan Napa Valley Red Blend is a classic Napa Meritage, well made and totally pleasing as well.
The Getty pulled out all the stops for those of us who purchased the $90 tickets to this lovely evening. A generous spread of small bites, including Persian meatballs, was included.  And we were allowed to linger well into the evening and wander around the grounds as the sun set and the lighted balls in the wading pool changed from one pastel color to another. The air was clean and fresh, and I felt transported back to ancient times in this spectacular setting. 

Tâ ba’d (until next time),


Useful links:
The next Bacchus Uncorked event, Drinking (and Eating) with Greeks and Persians, is July 9th and 10, 2022. You can purchase tickets now.
Darioush Winery: https://www.darioush.com/