A few millennia ago, back when humans first started drinking wine, it didn’t take too long to ascribe supernatural abilities to most everything associated with the grapevine, from its annual cycle of fruitful bounty to near death to its reliable knack for getting folks drunk.
“The inebriating effect of wine was thought to be divine,” explains Arthur George, a retired attorney and Solvang resident who explains these beliefs in his new book The Mythology of Wine. “In those days, they didn’t know how fermentation worked, they didn’t know what yeast was, they didn’t know what alcohol was. When this happened, they figured that the gods were involved. Once the gods were involved, they had myths and started to make offerings to the gods.”
George’s book wades through these old oenological tales, from Noah’s Ark and Mesopotamia to Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Christianity. With numerous images and excerpts of ancient texts, the book reveals a number of thematic through lines for wine, particularly its symbolism of new life, civilization, and creation itself.
George’s own life reads a bit like a book. After being raised and schooled in the Northeast and Colorado, he became an attorney focused on commercial investments in the former Soviet Union, opening the Moscow and St. Petersburg offices for powerhouse firm Baker McKenzie in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “It was really fun stuff in those early days,” said George, who eventually settled down in Chicago with his Russian wife nearly a decade later.
He continued working on the firm’s Russian and Ukrainian efforts until retiring to the Santa Ynez Valley about five years ago “to follow my true bliss.” That included both wine and mythology, leading to a backyard syrah vineyard and garage winery as well as scholarly books, articles, and lectures on the roots of everything from Eden to American holidays.
The Mythology of Wine blends George’s two passions into a cohesive quaff enjoyable for laypeople. “I put the same good research into it, but I decided just to make it really easy and not a long read,” said George, comparing it to his past works. “I just felt that there is a need for wine enthusiasts to know a little bit more about the history and the background of wine, without getting technical or formal about it, and all that ties into how wine was thought of in the ancient world.”
He recognized that there was a desire for this information while giving lectures on the topic at Carr Winery in Santa Ynez, Casa Dumetz in Los Alamos, and to various rotary clubs. “People really liked it, and they asked good questions,” said George. “I finally figured that I know enough about it — I should turn it into a book.” It only took him about six months to put that knowledge into writing, plus some extra research into Dionysus, easily the most complex mythological figure when it comes to wine.
While wine seems popular today, it’s nowhere near the daily experience of those days. “Wine was really embedded into those cultures,” explained George, speaking particularly of the ancient Greek world. “You had wine every day. You grew it. You looked out of your window and saw vineyards. It was just about everywhere.” American wine consumption, by comparison, “is still pretty modest,” said George, who thinks the ancients would be surprised at how much wine is disconnected from the divine today.
But mythology is alive and well. “Myth is all around us today, and we’re not always conscious of it,” said George, pointing to both sides of the aisle when it comes to political beliefs, as one example. “People create their own personal myths about what they’re about. How you view yourself about what you’re doing in the world and what your purpose is, that may or may not be actually tied to reality.”
With The Mythology of Wine, George shows himself as one of the more self-aware among us, able to pair his love for each topic into a detailed, engaging survey.
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