Why did the ancient Greeks and Romans drink their wine mixed with water?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

You may wish to brace yourself in case you faint when reading this question. It is my understanding that ancient Greeks and Romans usually drank their wine mixed with water. I was wondering when, if ever, consuming it that way would be appropriate? Will the practice ever take hold again?

—Tom, New York

Dear Tom,

I'll brace myself, but you have to hold on to your hat for the answer. It's true that ancient Greeks and Romans mixed water and wine—but technically they were putting wine into their water more than they were putting water into their wine. Back then, wine was seen as a way to purify and improve the taste of the (often stagnant) water source.

How dilute was the water/wine combo? In Homer's Odyssey, a ratio of 20 parts water to one part wine is mentioned, but other accounts put it closer to three or four parts water to one part wine. There are also reports of adding lemon, spices, resin or even seawater to dilute wine. You may also have heard of muslum, a mixture of honey and wine that sounds yucky to me, but was apparently very popular back then.

Since we have better water sources these days (not to mention better wine), I don't see the water/wine cocktail coming back into fashion anytime soon. That said, European parents sometimes serve their children wine diluted with water. Some of my favorite people put ice cubes in their wine, and I do know a chef whose favorite beverage in the summer is ice-cold water mixed with red wine until it looks like Kool-Aid.

—Dr. Vinny

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