The miracle of wine. And bread. And cashmere.

Posted on May 22, 2010


How was wine invented? In my college anthropology class, the professor claimed that wine was discovered after a bunch of grain fell into a hole and then it rained. (Or maybe it was beer. It’s been thirty-seven years and I can’t find my notes.) In any case, fermentation occurred naturally when yeast that happened to be in the hole reacted with the sugar. The result was an alcoholic beverage of some kind. But how did the people who stumbled upon the scene know what had happened? When the sugar gets used up, the yeast dies. And how would they recognize yeast anyway? I can’t identify yeast unless it’s in a little yellow packet. How did they know it wasn’t the dirt in the hole that created the alcohol? This whole story seems questionable.

My wife and I have been making red wine from kits for the past four years, and the process is pretty precise. The first step is to sterilize everything. Wine has been around at least five thousand years (longer than writing, by the way). Did they know about sterilization five thousand years ago? They would have had to know about microbes, wouldn’t they? The next step is to add yeast to something sweet, such as ripe fruit. When fermentation stops (no more sugar), you separate the liquid from the sediment at the bottom, then let it sit for at least several weeks to clear. But it’s drinkable before that, and is probably what passed for wine in ancient China, India, and around the Mediterranean. People who make wine have been tinkering with all aspects of the process ever since and, presumably, perfecting the results.

Still, in order for gradual refinement to happen, some form of the finished product must have existed at the beginning. Otherwise, how did they know what they were trying to make? It would be like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box. Now that I think about it, this is really the classic chicken-and-egg riddle, just in liquid form.

What about bread? A variety of this basic food seems to exist all over the world. But different cultures have different kinds of bread, which suggests that they each invented it independently. This is amazing. I would never have come up with bread, even if you gave me all of the ingredients and a top-of-the-line Cuisinart professional bread machine with 680 watts of power and sixteen preprogrammed menu options. If you sat me down in a field of wheat next to a lake and you came back a thousand years later, you’d find me eating a bowl of wheat and washing it down with the water. In a flash of brilliance, I might have thought to combine the two; in that case, you’d find me eating a bowl of wet wheat. And if you’d slipped me some packets of yeast, there’s a slight chance I would have invented yeast-flavored wet wheat.

Again, unless you knew it was possible to create bread, what would cause you to combine the ingredients and cook them? And first you had to mill the wheat to separate out the chaff. How would you know to do that, or how? (And what is chaff, anyway?) Same with pasta, cheese, and many other foods.

Then there’s fabric. How did people figure out how to turn plants and animal fur into clothing? Cashmere is the wool of a goat. Silk comes from worms! I’m pretty sure that if you left me in a field of wheat next to a lake with cotton growing in the next field and a flock of goats grazing nearby and a truckload of silkworms and came back a thousand years later, you’d find me eating a bowl of wet wheat. Naked.