April 30 2011 issue
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INTERVIEW Patrick McGovern, University of Pennsylvania Museum Laura Taxel
This biomolecular archeologist is searching for the ancient origins of wine.
Patrick McGovern, Ph.D., is obsessed with the dregs of human civilization. It’s not the least-valued members of society who interest him, but the residue of fermented and intoxicating concoctions left in old—very, very old—storage vessels and drinking cups. Using cutting-edge scientific techniques such as liquid chromatography, carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis, and infrared spectrometry, McGovern “reads” the records captured in dust, flakes, and trace deposits to identify the plant-based substances our ancestors used to make beer, wine, and other mood-elevating, behavior-changing, psycho-active tipples thousands, even millions, of years ago. Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages (University of California Press, 2009), the title of his most recent book, encapsulates the essence of his passionate, purposeful pursuit.
McGovern is an adjunct professor of anthropology and the scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The weight of his credentials tells one story about the man and his scholarly pursuits.
But McGovern is not merely an academic. The 67-year-old archeologist has swirled and sniffed 3,000-year-old millet wine, stood knee deep in a Portuguese lagar filled with skins and juice, and poked around skeleton-filled tombs in remote parts of the world. It’s no wonder Don Russell, aka “Joe Sixpack,” who writes a weekly beer column for Philadelphia Daily, dubbed him the “Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages.” Since then, the movie moniker has appeared in just about every article written about McGovern—and there have been many. Last year, in a piece for the Chicago Tribune, Chuck McNamara referred to him as the “Lazarus of Libations.” That’s because another aspect of McGovern’s research involves teaming up with master brewers to turn DNA evidence into appealing pours for 21st-century imbibers.
Throughout history, fermented beverages have fueled shamans, poets, and lots of bad behavior. It seems that as long as men and women have gathered in groups, alcohol has been there, too; in fact, its production may have influenced our predecessors to turn from wandering nomads into village builders and soil tillers. We know all this thanks to McGovern’s pioneering, interdisciplinary field of inquiry, which connects the physical sciences, archeology, and the humanities.
This highly sought-after speaker, teacher, author, and DNA detective found time in his globe-trotting schedule to talk with me about his spirited studies.
You are a biomolecular archeologist. What does that mean in lay terms?
Biomolecular archeology is the scientific analysis of organic materials from the past. It enables us to reconstruct what people who came before us ate, drank, wore—even their bodies and cultures generally—since most of what we are as humans is organics. This sheds light on how the past has led to the present, on how we’ve become who we are now.
Why did you decide to focus on fermented beverages in your research?
You could say I came in by a side door. I’d done a lot of work with pottery and glass, determining where and how objects were made. About 20 years ago, I got curious about what might have been inside. More advanced and sensitive scientific instruments had been developed since I started excavating in the 1970s that made it possible to find out.
Did something specific trigger that curiosity?
At a site in Lebanon, we found amphorae that dated back to 1300 B.C. Using various analytic techniques, I was able to say with nearly absolute certainty that they had contained Royal Purple, a valuable dye. It was very exciting. Then a pottery sample from Iran came my way from archeologist Virginia Badler. It had a reddish deposit on it, and she thought it might be wine residue. At the time, I was working with an analytical chemist, Rudolph Michel, whose family had been winemakers in Germany. We identified the chemical fingerprint for tartaric acid, which is a “signature” of grapes and wine from the Middle East. We also found resin from pine and terebinth trees, a preservative that kept wine from oxidizing. Pliny writes about this. I became fascinated.
Were others studying ancient wines?
Very few—several in France. When I started my research, the field was wide open. In 1991, I organized a conference at the Robert Mondavi Winery. We brought together enologists, viticulturists, archeobotanists, and historians. We spent a week sharing our thoughts, ideas, and questions, along with a great deal of good food and fine wine, of course. What came out of that gathering set the research agenda for the next 20 years. It’s a captivating subject, and interest in it shows no signs of letting up. There are now many people working in this field of inquiry.
Your research makes it clear that the enthusiasm for beer, wine, and alcoholic beverages of every description is a basic part of the human experience. Can you explain why?
Fermented beverages are at the center of human culture through the ages. It’s not just about one plant or one civilization. People have always turned to them for rituals, worship, medicinal purposes, and, of course, their mind-altering effects. Alcohol breaks down inhibitions and barriers, unleashes pleasure compounds, and enhances social interactions. It seemed to be an otherworldly force, like dreams. When no one understood what was actually going on, there was a profound mystery to the process of fermentation and what happened when these liquids were drunk. Alcohol acts as a stimulant, at least in the early stages of drinking, allowing for certain truths to be revealed. Ancient Persian and Celtic peoples made decisions under the influence. The next day, they’d gather again to reconsider. If they came to the same conclusion when sober, they believed it had to be the right choice.
You propose that the desire to make fermented beverages was the motivation for human beings to shift from being hunter-gatherers to farmers. Is that a joke?
This is a serious theory, though I usually get a laugh when I say it in my lectures. As I wrote in my book, humans have always been fascinated with the effects of fermented beverages, and making alcohol appears to be a fundamental part of almost all cultures in all times. The evidence is strong that the original impetus for settling down in one place and domesticating grains (whether barley, wheat, rice, millet, corn, or sorghum) was to make more beer.
It appears that beer was more of an everyday drink than wine in Neolithic cultures. Why was wine more associated with social status and significance?
Grains grew more easily in lowland areas, such as the great river plains of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China, and once harvested, they can be dried or parched and stored. Beer can be brewed as needed. That makes it readily accessible; you could say it’s a democratic beverage. Grapes, on the other hand, might have to be transported from someplace else and can quickly spoil. Wine is generally limited to upland areas where the grape thrives. Of course, there it was shared and appreciated by all. So wine had to be made when the fruit was readily available. Limited production meant it was more highly valued. This is still true: it’s why a bottle from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy can cost thousands of dollars. We know that, like us, the Romans elevated certain wines over others, and they definitely appreciated the concept of exclusivity.
At Gordion, an excavation site near Ankara in Turkey, a royal tomb called the Midas Tumulus was found to contain a cache of bronze Iron Age jugs, vats, and drinking bowls. Your analysis of the residues identified markers for some specific ingredients that led to an unusual collaboration.
Michael Jackson—the beer expert, not the singer—did a tasting at the University of Pennsylvania. I got up and talked about this fermented beverage we’d found and invited all the brewers present to my lab to learn more. The next morning, 20 microbrewers showed up. I issued a challenge, suggesting they try to recreate the drink based on the organic record we had. We knew the vessels contained a combination of barley beer, wine, and honey. That gave us a basic recipe. Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewing in Delaware had already done something quite similar with his Beewolf Braggot—it’s a medieval beverage made from beer, honey, and plums. In fact, it was one of the things Jackson served the night I spoke.
A number of brewers did their own interpretations of what we’d called “Phrygian grog.” Over the next few months, they sent samples for me to critique. Some were quite good, but Sam’s Midas Touch was the clear winner. He made a batch for a “recreation dinner” we hosted in 2000. At my suggestion, he used thyme-flower honey and Muscat grapes. The chef, Pam Horowitz, prepared a spicy barbecued-lamb-and-lentil stew, also based on our chemical data, and the two were very good together. Apparently, our ancient ancestors knew something about pairing food and drink.
I’ve had an opportunity to taste Midas Touch—it’s fantastic and unlike anything else. Are you surprised at its commercial success?
So you know for yourself that it’s a truly amazing beverage. I didn’t expect that, because you wouldn’t think that wine, beer, and mead would be a good combination. It turns out they are, and mixing them together was quite common in the past. I often provide samples of Midas Touch at my talks. It’s very popular, and as a result, so am I. It’s won many gold medals in major tasting competitions.
You teamed up with Calagione again to make a drink based on a 9,000-year-old formulation you pieced together from jars uncovered at a Neolithic burial site in northern China. How did that experiment work out?
That’s Château Jiahu, a wine made from rice, honey, and fruit. Sam is always game for these bizarre experiments, so he and I and his brewer, Mike Gerhart, worked on this together. It was difficult, and there were many questions about the exact choice of ingredients and proportions. I write about it in great detail in my book. The first batch was released in 2005; we’ve adjusted and improved the formula since then. It’s made only once a year in small quantities, and recently there have been some problems with the yeast, so it’s hard to get. My partnership with Dogfish Head Brewing has been enjoyable and educational. Our recreations are really liquid time capsules, and it’s been a revelation to me that such delicious things can be produced from ancient findings.
What about wine? Can present-day grape growers and vintners benefit from your research?
Plants, animals, and humans are all part of the matrix of life, part of everything that has come before. From a strictly biological point of view, the more we learn about how and where grapes developed and were domesticated, the better we’ll be able to protect the diversity of their DNA for the future. We now have databases of cultivars over the millennia. This information can help us uncover how a plant’s genome connects to specific characteristics.
Many countries, especially those of the Middle East, have realized that they can make fine wines from their native varieties. The earliest known winemaking facility in the world was found recently in Armenia; it’s about 6,000 years old. The discovery has inspired a revival of interest in wine among Armenians. Over the past 10 years, vintners in Turkey have rediscovered some wonderful grapes literally growing in their own backyard, and the industry has a great future there. I gave a keynote address at a conference in London at the end of February about the possibility that this is the birthplace of wine.
Are any ancient techniques being used by today’s winemakers?
After the grapes were stomped by foot, it was common throughout the Near East and the Mediterranean for the juice to drain directly into large pottery jars made from local clay. These were stored underground, where the temperature was ideal for fermentation and aging. Today, they’re not crushing the fruit with bare feet, but some experimental winemakers in Italy and France are trying to age their wine in clay containers rather than oak or stainless steel. Different characteristics develop, and the clay imparts its own terroir.
I love visiting wineries. There are techniques used that are remarkably similar to those from the distant past, and I can learn a great deal by watching winemakers at work.
Do you enjoy drinking wine yourself?
When I was a grad student in 1971, I picked grapes at a vineyard in the Mosel region to earn some extra money. It turned out to be the vintage of the century for that particular Riesling, and that was my entry into the world of wine. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert or a connoisseur, but I enjoy wine, both whites and reds, and look for lesser-known varieties and styles. I’m attracted to wines—and beers, too—that have a lot going on in terms of aroma and flavor.
I travel a great deal and bring back bottles from wherever I go. Recently, I was in Spain—2004 and 2005 were good ones for Rioja, so I brought some of those back. I visited an area called Extremadura in the western part of the country, near Portugal. This was where the conquistadors came from, and they brought great wealth back to the region. They have some unique native varieties there and a long history of winemaking. But it’s very remote, hard times came, and the industry fell into decline. Some people are trying to restart it.
What are you concentrating on now?
Humans are careful observers—they had to be in order to survive. In the Neolithic period, they saw the value of the plants around them. My analysis of early wines, especially from Egypt and China, revealed the presence of many different herbs and other botanicals such as lotus flowers and capers. I believe the beverages were medicines that could be drunk or applied to the skin. Wine and fermented beverages generally were the vehicle. This line of research began when I first went to China in 1999. We detected the presence of compounds from the wormwood family in our analysis of rice and millet wine, which showed powerful cancer-fighting activity in a study with mice. I’m currently testing a variety of herbs and additives found in ancient wines for their anti-cancer effects. The project, a joint venture of Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center and our Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory, is called “Archaeological Oncology: Digging for Drug Discovery.”
I’m also focusing on how viniculture crossed the Mediterranean and made its way through Europe. We have samples from a site in southern France that suggest the Phoenicians, Greeks, and/or Etruscans brought wine culture to this area. As viniculture spread to the rest of France, the implications for world winemaking and its culture were enormous.
I’ve been asked to help create a Middle East wine museum in Lebanon. They’re thinking of locating it in the Bekaa Valley. Wine is still being made there, just as it has been for thousands of years. Interestingly, this is the area where I did some of my very first excavations in the early ’70s. It’s great to be back again.