Etching of the death of Pliny the Elder / Gettyny the Elder
Etching of the death of Pliny the Elder / Getty

Pliny the Elder was a devotee of all things fermented, namely wine and beer. This ancient Roman may have been an author, statesman and military commander, but he’s become a household name among craft beer drinkers as inspiration for his namesake Russian River Brewing Company famed double IPA.

However, he may have also been one of the first wine critics. Pliny’s writing, much of it informed by a conviction in terroir, recognition of vintage variation and desire to rank vineyards, continues to influence the wine industry today.

Who was Pliny the Elder?

Born Gaius Plinius Secundus in A.D. 23 to a wealthy Gaul family, Pliny leveraged privileged political connections to study in Rome. He developed an insatiable curiosity and passion for reading and writing, according to historians and nephew, the prolific author Pliny the Younger.

He joined the military at age 23, under the reign of Emperor Tiberius, where he first served in Germany. Near the end of Emperor Nero’s rule, Pliny moved to Spain to study and write. Eventually, he returned to Rome, where he received the fateful assignment to command a fleet near Naples to combat piracy. Unfortunately, while exact details are murky, Pliny the Elder died in Pompeii during the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

This summary belies the extraordinary detail paid to the wine world by Pliny. He lived during a time of access and excess. Consider the breadth of Rome’s expansion. Its borders stretched from England to North Africa, and deep into the Eastern Mediterranean during its height. Through military campaigns, settlements and robust trade, Roman appreciation for wine and its desire to plant vines in new territories provided Pliny opportunities to sip from many lands.

How ancient history is still relevant to wine criticism

Romans grew grapes across Galicia, in what is now Spain, to quench the thirst of gold-mining communities. Their labor-intensive, hand-hewn ledges in Ribeira Sacra remain in use today. In Germany’s Mosel Valley, Romans brought viticultural expertise and sizeable wine estates, the latter from which modern vintners have unearthed ancient Roman presses on prestige vineyards. The most famous example: Piesporter Goldtröpfchen.

Roman wine’s golden age began in the 2nd century B.C. After the defeat of its enemies, the empire experienced a period of relative peace, prosperity and control of the ancient Mediterranean. This allowed for the refinement of viticulture and the concept of grand cru sites. Like contemporary wine lovers’ passion for celebrated appellations (Napa, Burgundy) and producers (Screaming Eagle, Pétrus), the ancient wine community elevated certain regions, vineyards and estates based on their quality and ability to age.

Centuries later, Pliny provided a strong voice in this critical narrative.

Pliny’s extensive writings on “first growths” encompassed Falernian, the legendary wine of ancient Rome. This grape from Campania came from the slopes of Mount Massico, today the Falerno del Massico DOC.

He recorded the best sites of modern-day Lombardy, Venice, Emilia-Romagna, Marche and Tuscany. He detailed the finest vineyards south of Naples, along the Adriatic coast, where he acknowledged the high-quality estate of Mamertine from Messina, Sicily.

Pliny wrote of the healing properties of Prosecco. He recounted the rich, tannic wines of Pompeii, which was recreated recently using two ancient strains (Piedirosso and Olivella) in an experiment to taste wines of his times.

Profile etching of Pliny the Elder
Getty

Pliny’s writings extended beyond Italy’s borders. He noted the high prices that bottles from Vienne (now Côte-Rôtie) achieved in Rome. He also referenced plantings in Bordeaux that include the grape Balisca, now thought an ancestral relative to the Cabernet family.

At its peak, Roman citizens consumed one bottle of wine per day, or 47 million gallons annually. Though Pliny wasn’t solely a critic, he did lament the rise of cheap wines and poor vintages.

His most famous, comprehensive achievement was the 37-volume Roman encyclopedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History), published two years before his death. It was considered authoritative up through the Middle Ages.

Book 14 covered wine, which included a ranking of Rome’s top vineyards. Book 17 discussed techniques in viticulture and expounded upon the notion of terroir, a concept generally credited to colleague Columella. He asserted that the vineyard exerted greater influence over wine quality than vine type, a foundational notion persistent in terroir-driven winemaking circles.

“After climate, the next task is to discuss the influence of the earth (terra), a subject no easier to deal with,” wrote Pliny. “Even the black soil found in Campania is not the best for vines everywhere, nor is the red soil that so many writers praise. People prefer the chalky soil in the territory of Alba Pompeia…”

Though Pliny’s ideas weren’t infallible, he provided an authentic accounting of 1st-century Rome. Many of his astute observations serve as proof of concept. Sites and regions found or revered 2,000 years ago produce exceptional wines today.

The death of Pliny the Elder

At 56, Pliny sailed into the Bay of Naples as Vesuvius erupted, according to letters by Pliny the Younger. It’s believed that he ordered his “warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help” while he attempted to rescue his friend, Rectina.

“What he had begun in a spirit of inquiry, he completed as a hero,” wrote Pliny the Younger. He likely succumbed to his documented respiratory problems amidst suffocating smoke.

Around 2,000 people died in Pompeii, and possibly up to 16,000 in the surrounding area. Coincidentally, the loss of Rome’s great wine writer coincided with the fall of its most important wine hub. Pompeii’s best vineyards were decimated, while warehouses that held the A.D. 78 vintage burned.

This combination triggered high prices and a wine shortage. Grain fields were replaced with vineyards, a move which would eventually create food scarcity. Or to Pliny’s point, “the only certainty is that nothing is certain.”