Wine can also teach us about migration. One late night my Italian friend took me to a small tavern by a canal. He told me that such a typical drinking bar where people can enjoy glasses of wine accompanied by Venetian snacks, or ‘cichetti’, is called a ‘bàcaro’. This particular bàcaro serves wines from around the Adriatic Sea. I got a chance to talk with the owner, who suggested I try the red wine from Greece. Pointing at an illustration hanging on the wall, the Venetian man began telling the story behind his bàcaro and why it is named after the Adriatic. This old-looking illustration, of a boat transporting wine barrels across the sea by night, depicts how wines were smuggled from the seaside town of Pirano. Learning about this town on the Adriatic with a history dating back to the Roman Empire, I came to know that Pirano was once part of the Republic of Venice. Back then, it was governed in a semi-autonomous way by a council of local noblemen assisting the Venetian delegates.
After you passed away in 1324, there were continual battles in the Italian Peninsula. I’m sad to say that your hometown was once conquered by a Frenchman named Napoleon Bonaparte, who established French hegemony over much of continental Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. There were ongoing fights until the collapse of Napoleon's regime, when Pirano became part of the Austrian Kingdom. At the beginning of the 20th century there was another large war among European territories, the Balkan War, which then led to a worldwide battlefield that later became known as World War I. After it ended, Pirano was ceded to the Italy Kingdom together with Venice and all Istria. Some years after that, the Second World War took place and the Italians lost, leading to the creation of the Republic of Italy we know today.
To help me better understand this part of world history, the bàcaro owner also showed me an illustrated book he wrote. The book’s title is Malvasia, which is a type of wine historically grown in the Mediterranean region. It is believed that the Malvasia family of grapes are of ancient origin, most likely from the island of Crete in Greece. Thanks to Venetian merchants successful at trading, Malvasia wine gained a reputation among wine lovers throughout the continent. Many bàcaros in Venice, where wines from this part of the world were served, were even known as ‘malvasie’. But when Venice fell under Italian rule, such places disappeared following rising taxes on imported wines, even though there were still smugglers who brought wines across the border. That’s why he wanted to open a bàcaro where people can drink wines from the Adriatic Sea region. For him, he explained, the Adriatic is a bridge that connects different cultures and people in the Italian Peninsula.
My wine discovery and history class continued on Venice’s cemetery island, where I met with the two retired teachers again. They are members of an association called ‘Lagoon in a Glass’, which is a name that obviously has something to do with Venetian life and wine culture. I was introduced to some of their friends who are key members of the group, which was formed about 15 years ago by a late Venetian teacher who discovered an historic winery in an abandoned church on this island. They explained the history to me and mentioned that during your time this place was a small monastery called San Cristoforo. Under French occupation it was decreed that burial on the main Venetian islands was unsanitary, so this fishermen’s island was selected to be a cemetery and later became known as San Michele.
The association’s director gave me a tour around the abandoned church and explained how wine was made in the old days. He also showed me different types of vessels and pointed to a terracotta jar that is a type of earthenware called ‘qvevri’. These are used in what is believed to be the oldest method for fermenting wine, which originated in Georgia, a country at the interarticle of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Around the same time, wine making was already happening in what is now China, where jars from Jiahu dating to around 7000 BC were discovered. But as you know, wine in the eastern world was not made from grapes. By indicating specific places and describing their customs, you gave us a lot of precious information about drinks in the Orient. On your long journeys you discovered everything from liquors made from fermenting wheat and rice to ‘goblets full of wine or milk’ on the table of the Great Khan, as well as wine made from dates, spices, fruits and other foodstuffs. Over the thousands of years of human history, cultures all over the world have fermented their own alcoholic drinks. While some people enjoy travelling to see the wonders of the world, for me discovering tasty wines from around the globe is always an enjoyable bonus. By the way, coming from a land where drinking alcohol is considered a sin, I was amazed to learn that liquor was made by monks in your time, and still is today!