Grapevine: Following in the Footsteps of the Ancients

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Last week’s column focused on one theme with two seemingly disparate viewpoints: Ancient civilizations freely diluted their wines with water, but modern civilizations disdain its use.

However, it seems to me that ancient traditions are always lurking in the background, ready to lurch to the forefront of modern sensibilities and remind us of the wisdom – or folly – of our forefathers. The old adage of “everything old is new again” applies equally to wine consumption as it does to modern diets (the locavore movement) and health prescriptions (homeopathy, natural supplements). These ancient practices have come full circle in modern times and are gaining increasing popularity – and credibility.

Ancient civilizations diluted their wines with water to ameliorate the negative taste of many wines and to reduce the effect of high alcohol wines on their citizenry. Modern wine consumers have moved beyond this practice.

Or have we? In spite of the increased quality of modern wines, there are a number of consumers who continue the ancient practice of diluting their wine with water. This practice is employed by those who find the flavors in wine to be off-putting as well as those who are not able to tolerate, or do not condone, the negative effects of alcohol in their bloodstreams.

If you think that as a society we appreciate the positive effects of consuming wine (antioxidants, enhanced appreciation of food, social lubricant) and therefore have generally abandoned the practice of adding water to wine, consider the following examples. Dig deep into your past, or current, wine drinking habits; have you engaged in any of these activities that have diluted your wine?

1) Remember the 1990s, when “wine spritzers” were the rage? Adding soda water to a glass of white wine seemed perfectly natural and logical to (some) consumers. The logic? I don’t like wine but I want to be socially accepted; I can’t tolerate alcohol, so diluting it helps me be socially responsible; I’m thirsty – holding a wine glass in my hand at a party/bar/club instead of a water glass is more socially chic.

2) On a hot summer day, when “room temperature” red wine just won’t slake their thirst, a few enterprising consumers just drop a few ice cubes into a glass of their favorite wine. Yuck. A bad solution to a real problem. An alternative remedy: just place the warm bottle in the fridge for twenty minutes. Voila. Cool wine instead of a wine cooler.

3) Oh yeah, wine coolers, the rage of the eighties. Remember Bartles & Jaymes? The attraction of wine without the higher alcohol levels catapulted this category into fleeting prominence. The website description is foreboding: a “Flavored Apple Wine Cooler and Malt Beverage with Natural Flavors.” I’m not sure B&J ever had any grape-based wine in the bottle.

4) Mix a bottle of cheap red wine with sparkling water, copious amounts of sugar, a touch of brandy and handfuls of your favorite fruit wedges. I’m not sure Sangria qualifies as wine; it’s more like an adult juice box. This is the ultimate dilution: you can’t taste the wine above the sugar and bubbles.

5) Not to be outdone by Americans’ fascination with finding new ways to dilute the aromas and flavors found naturally in wine, Europeans and Chinese have gone one step further. To a glass of red wine add a well-known sugary, water-based caramelly liquid. Yes, red wine and Coke is gaining popularity in a number of countries. One enterprising marketing company has capitalized on this new fad: a bottle of red wine and a can of Coke sold in a shrink-wrapped package. Yuck.

In a perverse way, purists and conformists alike have succumbed to the spell of our ancestors. At some point in our lives most of us have partaken in the wine-drinking rituals of ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Middle Easterners by paying homage to water – the most basic of all human sustenance.  My, my, it’s true: what goes around comes around.

Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

Nick Antonaccio is a 35 year Pleasantville resident. For over 15 years he has conducted numerous wine tastings and lectures. He is co-host of Glass Up, Glass Down, a local cable television series on wine and food; he also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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