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California Vintner Discovers Ancient Roman Wine Exporter

When not making Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot at Wrath, archaeologist Michael Thomas leads a team that discovered a wine "négociant" outside Pompeii

Ben O'Donnell
Posted: May 6, 2013

Harvest season may have been their busiest time of year, but wine was the last thing on the minds of the 54 people huddled in a room of Oplontis Villa B in A.D. 79 as they looked out to sea in vain for a ship. In happier times, boats likely docked there frequently to pick up wine for export or drop off imports; on that day, none arrived before the deadly gas and fumes of Mount Vesuvius' terrible eruption.

"They were waiting to be saved," said Dr. Michael Thomas, codirector of the Oplontis Project near Pompeii and director of the Center for the Study of Ancient Italy in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas at Austin.

To California wine lovers, Thomas is known for the outstanding Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir and Syrah made under his Wrath label. But planting Falanghina—"one of the most ancient Italian varieties"—in California is just one way Thomas is exploring the Romans' wine legacy. In his day job as an archaeologist, he and his team have been freshly appraising two Oplontis villas, mostly excavated in the 1970s and '80s but never fully studied.

When the team turned to Oplontis B last summer, they realized that the large edifice was no villa at all, but most likely an ancient distribution center for wine. "It's almost like a co-op where everyone brings their wine, dumps it off, they make a huge bulk wine out of everybody's grapes and then they redistribute it," said Thomas, explaining their working theory, presented at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in January.

The Oplontis team will be analyzing the site for three more years, but a picture is already emerging of an operation not unlike the co-op and négociant models of today. The most obvious clue was a cache of 400 amphorae, terracotta vessels used by the Romans to transport liquid. The residue inside is awaiting analysis, but these jars are a design almost always used for wine in the region.

"A lot of these big villas had working vineyards," Thomas told Wine Spectator, and probably sold off some of their wine. "You probably had these vineyards scattered all over and even up fairly high on Vesuvius."

There are smaller tells as well. Fire pits in evidence would liquefy pitch, which the Romans used to seal amphorae. Digging below the A.D. 79 street level, to older construction, the team found paving in the courtyard, suggesting it was well-trafficked by carts making or picking up deliveries. The place is littered with pomegranates, which were used by the Romans to treat leather; wine was carried over land by cart, in a big leather sack called a culleus. "They filled up the cowhide with wine because amphorae were too heavy to transport by cart," explained Thomas.

Once local wines came into Oplontis B, were they blended? The team has discovered some evidence of waterproof concrete, but a more conclusive answer will call for some Indiana Jones maneuvering. "There's one area that we're going to try to excavate, but there's also some danger, some stuff collapsing, so we're going to have to be careful. But if we can excavate it, one of the possibilities is there's some sort of vat over there."

Finished wines went into amphorae and out to sea. The full picture never came together during the first excavation largely because no one realized that Oplontis B was right on the water, but Thomas' team did tests with coring and radar to determine its situation. (The ancient shoreline can be difficult to map because the sands of time have literally silted it over.)

An Ancient Roman Wine Distribution Center?

Oplontis Project Oplontis Project Oplontis Project Oplontis Project

A stash of Cretan amphorae suggests the owner of Oplontis B may have been in the import business as well. "The Cretan wine for their own consumption makes sense because nearby are these luxury villas, and Cretan wine certainly had a reputation as a luxury item," said Thomas.

What about drinking local? "Campanian wines did not have the reputation of some of the other wines from not too far away, like Falernum," Thomas considered. Pliny the Elder, writing in his Natural History just a few years before Vesuvius' blast, noted that some of the wines were finding their groove. "In Campania, more recently, new growths under new names have gained considerable credit, either owing to careful cultivation, or else to some other fortuitous circumstances," he wrote, but cautioned: "As to the wines of Pompeii … they are found to be productive of headache, which often lasts so long as the sixth hour of the next day." (The terroir famously proved Pliny's final headache: He was killed in a daring attempt to rescue friends from the eruption.)

By all appearances, Oplontis B had been doing brisk business. "The owner had a strongbox that had all sorts of coins and jewelry in it. He had a big crew that was working there," as the body count indicates, according to Thomas. So who was buying the wine? Rome topped 1 million people at around this time, and "tons of wealth poured into the city, so it was a big-time consumer city at that point. My guess would be that taking any wine up the coast would be a no-brainer," said Thomas. Culty Falernian wine may have been the fashion of the day, but "these could've been less expensive drinking wines that you could find in a tavern."

We are awash in evidence that the Romans had a hearty wine culture. (At one Pompeii site, Bacchus is depicted as a grape cluster "sort of like the Fruit of the Loom commercials where the guy is dressed as a grape" with Vesuvius in the background.) But if Oplontis B functions as the team thinks it does, it would be the first distribution center of its kind discovered. And perhaps proof that even humble bulk wine has pedigree after all.

James Laube
Napa —  May 6, 2013 6:40pm ET
Excellent story, Ben.
Ben Odonnell
New York —  May 7, 2013 1:56pm ET
Thanks, Jim. Yet more evidence that so many of these ideas and attitudes about wine were around way before we were. Not even Vesuvius could keep the three-tier system down!
Marc De Grazia-selections
Florence Italy —  May 9, 2013 4:56am ET
Well write Ben. It's really interesting as in the area the varietals growth now to produce the main Campania wines are the same of the Roman age: Aglianico, Fiano, Falanghina, Piedirosso and Greco. Of course, due to the modern technologies, the wines we drink today are better and better than the Romans. I hope!!!

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