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Ancient winery gave rich Romans a taste of winemaking — without the hard work

<i>E. Dodd/Cambridge University Press</i><br/>The winery has a northeastern staircase
E. Dodd/Cambridge University Press
The winery has a northeastern staircase

By Amy Woodyatt, CNN

A lavish 2,000-year-old winery uncovered in the ruins of a villa just outside Rome may have been used as an entertainment venue, providing a winemaking “experience” for wealthy Romans.

The structure, which dates from the mid third century AD, is the second known example of a winery built as a spectacle for the rich and powerful, and perhaps even a Roman emperor, researchers say.

The Villa of the Quintilii, where the winery was discovered, was sprawled across a basalt ridge descending from the Alban Hills, southeast of Rome.

Excavation of the villa began in 1998, but a 2017 mission focusing on its gates and towers has revealed a “lavishly decorated” complex of rooms and channels that was used to produce and store wine, archaeologists writing in the journal Antiquity revealed.

They discovered an area with all the hallmarks of a winery, with equipment that included a large, marble grape-treading area, and presses, a vat for the collection and settling of grapes, and channels leading to a wine cellar filled with ceramics for storage.

Though these features were typical of third-century wineries, it is the “highly unusual” decoration and architecture at the winery that set it apart, researchers said, adding that it displayed “a degree of luxury rarely seen in ancient production spaces.”

The winery was also surrounded by three dining rooms, allowing curious observers a glimpse of the production process — something researchers say is commented on in ancient letters that “recount the act of banqueting while watching and listening to the workers treading grapes.”

“Agricultural labour was romanticised by the ruling classes of many ancient cultures, especially as it was often the source of both their wealth and status,” lead author Emlyn Dodd, previously of the British School at Rome and now based in the Institute of Classical Studies, University of London, explained in a statement.

“The excavations at the Villa of the Quintilii reveal to us how ancient Roman elites reimagined the annual vintage as a ‘theatrical’ performance, prioritising the experience of those observing over the practical needs of the workers,” he added.

Researchers speculate that an emperor and his courtiers could have visited the villa every year for the experience.

“It would have been a real spectacle for those watching, the combination of fountains of wine and water, luxurious materials — especially the thin white marble channels through which the wine could be seen flowing — and the sounds of the workers and music would have resulted in a theatrical show,” Dodd added.

The earliest evidence of winemaking has been traced back 8,000 years to Georgia, southeastern Europe, by an international team of scientists, after Neolithic pottery shards were found to contain grape wine residue from 6,000-5,800 BC.

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