Travels with Penelope

Travel, Food, Wine, Spirituality and Everything Else

May 6, 2015 Jiu

When I was introduced to orange wine I was drawn to its unusual gold color and out-on-the-farm nose. Earthiness describes my first taste. A lingering complex finish left an impression of a drink that had come from antiquity. Smitten in that first encounter, I imbibed a bit too much. The following morning in conversation with my son I revealed that the orange had loosened my tongue and as a result I waxed eloquent on expository profound truths or, to put it mildly, the gospel according to P.

My wise son had only one comment. “Mom, wine is the truth serum.”  My mind had a history of playing push-pull with to imbibe or not to imbibe. The idea of a truth serum deepened my quandary.

I appreciated the enjoyment a glass of vino provides especially when properly paired with food. Its health benefits are easily available through Google. Humankind has been enjoying the pleasures and benefits of the grape for at least 7000 if not a million years. The drunken monkey hypothesis has added to our knowledge of why. None-the-less and not infrequently, a nagging voice would chastise me with such thoughts as, “an enlightened being would not imbibe alcohol even if it were a low nine per cent Riesling.”

At times I wondered if my feelings were a hangover from a past life as a Hindu. On my first trip to India in 1985 it was nearly impossible to get an alcoholic drink outside a major hotel. Of course all of that has changed since and India has developed a thriving wine region. Or, perhaps I had been a Muslim. But then some of the first wines were produced in northern Iran. In hyper-looping around Azerbaijan an Islamic culture, I was surprised to learn that it has been producing wine for centuries. So much for past life theory.

On return from Eurasia, I decided to attend a conference on Understanding Jui: The History and Culture of Alcoholic Beverages in China. As wine production began in China, I anticipated getting a great deal of useful information that would help me in countering the inner nag. The Confucius Institute at UCDavis hosted the event in the Mondavi Food and Wine Center.

Before going further I need to report that UCDavis has just been recognized for the third year in a row as having the number one agricultural school in the world, and it’s the only UC campus to be number one in anything worldwide.

The daylong included talks and a panel by prestigious experts, mainly from China. Just what I wanted. Patrick McGovern drew me to the meeting. The Scientific Director of the Bimolecular Archaeology, Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and adjunct Professor of Anthropology at University of Pennsylvania, he has been most helpful to my partner and me on a book we are writing on the vessels mainly glass, used in making and imbibing wine.

McGovern’s research has been key to our knowledge of the use of alcoholic beverage in the ancient world. With a dual hat, he has pursued archaeological and chemical clues from ancient China and other parts of Asia to make his discoveries.

Fondly known as the “Indiana of Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, cuisines and beverages,” his book In The Search for the Origins of Viniculture and Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverages reveals the story of humankind’s intoxicating quest for the perfect drink in ancient China is a must for anyone working in the wine industry. He describes how the analysis of early pottery from Hiahu in the Yellow River valley of China reconstructed a mixed fermented beverage of rice, hawthorn fruit, grape and honey. Analysis of bronze vessels from the Shang/Western Zhou Dynasty discovered that residue in the vessels still held liquids with millet, rice wine and beer from 3000 years back.

My nag listened intently to McGovern along with the several others who discussed how the story of alcohol has been foundational in every aspect of culture, not only in China, but others as well. Michele Yeh, the Department Chair of East Asian Languages and Culture at UCDavis for example, related that, in China by the third century, jiu became associated with poets so much so that, if someone claimed to be a poet but did not drink jiu, others questioned whether they could truly call themselves poets.

In China we find a history of formalized consumption as exemplified in state rituals, in ancestry worship, and in the rise of cult drinking in the third century when the meaning of drinking evolved. Social, political and intellectual factors contributed to the development of the rituals. Appropriate imbibing based on Confucian ideals also holds true. Drinking is not just about fallen down drunken stupidity.

Not only is the history of alcohol use in America short-lived in contrast to China, it has been frowned upon. One need only consider Prohibition as an example. Nor does it have the kind of formalized ritual around the use of jiu that is found in China. Wedding and New Years Eve toasts are two exceptions; the use of wine at Mass in the Catholic Church another.

If McGovern was the perfect keynote, Cecilia Chiang former owner of The Mandarin in San Francisco was the perfect close. Cecilia opened her talk on a personal note: “I am ninety five years old.” She described her life in China as the daughter of a wealthy, French champagne drinking family who fled during the Communist revolutions and moved to San Francisco in 1960. Opening a restaurant she offered many Northern Chinese dishes for the first time. Among other chefs she taught Alice Waters how to prepare excellent Chinese food. She spoke of introducing Mondavi fume blanc at her restaurant. She spoke of how Robert Mondavi with a bevy of wine knowledgeable guests often frequented her restaurant. With her inspiring talk,  my inner nag begin to wither on the vine.

On an entirely separate venture from the above, I had gone to Colorado to attend a retreat to be given by an esteemed Tibetan monk. The day before the retreat a friend and I were crawling down a dirt road exploring the local environs. When we passed a monk walking along my intuition stopped the car and inquired, “Are you giving a retreat?” After his affirmative answered we spent a several moments engaging in a delightful conversation. WhenI ran into him again that evening while registering for the retreat we resumed our conversation. I felt the beginnings of a budding friendship.

Following our karmic meeting, I drove to the only restaurant in the small town where I ordered a glass of cabernet to pair with a mushroom entre. While sipping and waiting for mushrooms the monk showed up. He passed my table and smiled. Chagrined, I felt like I had been caught engaging in crime, minor of course. Had I seen him enter, I would have hidden my glass. So much for budding friendship!

Moments later the he gave me a teaching. A server glided across the restaurant with a glass of wine and presented it to the monk. He turned and raised his glass in my direction.

Further chagrined, but, I breathed a sigh of relief to know that even some enlightened beings imbibe.

I’ve had enough of the nag. I’m giving him up. In his ignorance, he simply does not know what he’s talking about!




  1. Veronica Mcclure, LVN in Davis California

    May 8, 2015 at 8:33 am

    Loved your insights on the purpose and pleasure of imbibing 😉

  2. My Buddhist thoughts: “The Middle Way,” and “Do not sell the wine of delusion.” That Precept is about delusion, and “selling” means to engage with others in a way that causes them to think, speak, or act in harmful ways. Nothing to do with wine. Anything can be a truth serum if truth is your intention. Anything that dim the truth if that is your intention. Cheers!


  3. Word associations are fascinating. Truth serum seems to have caused you to reflect on delusion. How wonderful!

Leave a Reply