Drinking Wine Like the Romans Do

The notion that wine should be consumed out of thin-walled crystal, preferably on a stem, is practically scripture. But one of the hottest new ceramics studios, Mazama Wares, is seeking to change that. Katherine Cole on the unexpected pleasures of drinking wine from terra cotta.

Marianne Fabre-Lanvin is one of those people who can remember her first drink very clearly.

It was, oh, 2,000 years ago.

Fabre-Lanvin, the New York-based executive director of the U.S. branch of Sud de France Développement (an organization promoting the South of France), grew up just south of Narbonne, a coastal city in France’s Languedoc-Roussillon that was an important outpost of the ancient Roman Empire. Her family home, in the village of Sigean, happened to be next to a prominent archaeological site. And her parents both happened to be related to archaeologists who had excavated that very site.

When the children were nine and seven, Fabre-Lanvin and her brother devised a game they called “Roman feast,” setting out large bowls piled high with fresh fruit and reclining on couches, dangling grape bunches over their lips like decadent Roman aristocrats. Their father, who was also in on the game, hunted quail and grilled birds for his children so that they could eat them with their fingers à la antiquity.

What sticks in Fabre-Lanvin’s mind most about that feast is not the fact that, on this occasion, she was allowed to drink—not just sip—Muscat de Frontignan (a wine enjoyed by the ancient Romans, as well). It’s what she drank it from: two-millennia-old terra cotta wine cups, on loan from the archaeologists.

“We felt that we were dealing with something precious, fragile and unique,” says Fabre-Lanvin, recalling the texture and feeling of the smooth, cool clay against her lips. “The cups were very simple, yet they were precious; we felt like we were partaking in a ceremony tasting that wine.”

In short, it wasn’t about the wine. It was about the ritual. And the centerpiece of the ritual: the cup. In their game, the children had stumbled upon an age-old gnosis that pays homage to the power of the chalice, the mystery of the Holy Grail and, hey, as long as we’re at it, the glory of the sports trophy. This sacramental aspect to the wine drinking experience is often lost on the modern world.

While it might sound ridiculously anachronistic to drink out of ancient terra cotta cups—like the wine world’s equivalent of running errands by chariot or reading a papyrus scroll on the subway—we might all have a Roman-style cup collection on our kitchen shelves in the near future. Because today, some are questioning whether the wine world’s preferred material, glass, deserves more varied company.

It shouldn’t be subversive to cite the tactile pleasure of holding a cup. Nor should it be radical to ask the drinker to consider the ceremony of sipping over the value of the wine itself. But in the case of wine, it is.

Enter the pottery craze. Heath Ceramics, an artisan studio founded in 1948, has seen sales rocket twenty-fold over the past decade, up to nearly $20 million last year. And in fashionable independent boutiques, like Concrete + Water, Spartan, Canoe, Old Faithful Shop or Beam & Anchor, you’ll invariably see minimalistic pottery with a soft, muted sheen—what the Romans called terra sigillata. These deceptively simple pieces are not your parents’ drip-glaze coffee mugs.

The latest darling in this space is Mazama Wares, a Portland, OR, ceramics studio cofounded by Meghan Wright and her husband Sam Huff, of the rugged, home-sewn fashion house Tanner Goods. Since launching last year, the brand has lit up the design blogs and has been picked up by stockists internationally. Wright says that she is receiving more wholesale requests than she can even begin to fulfill.

She and her business partners were inspired to launch Mazama Wares by the coffee-roaster-and-copper-still-on-every-block milieu in Portland. “We didn’t feel like anyone was making a vessel that lived up to all the great things to drink around here,” she recalls. So, hit “Shop” on the company’s website and you’ll be guided through a panoply of beverage-specific clay cups designed for wine, beer, cocktails, sake and, of course, coffee and tea.

But wine? Really?

For more than five decades, enthusiasts have believed that wine should be served from thin-walled, square-lipped crystal, preferably on a stem. This is scripture.

Our indoctrination began in the mid-1950s, when Claus Riedel revived his family’s historic Austrian glassmaking business and began developing glasses that underscored the unique aromas and flavors of particular grape varieties and regional winemaking styles.

For consumers who had become accustomed to drinking wine from chunky cut crystal, the delicate Riedel glass was a revelation. Cut crystal looked expensive, but Riedel crystal tasted expensive. Sure, these glasses are beautiful to behold, balletic in their expressive arcs, and balancing precariously on long, lean stems. But what matters most about them is the fluency with which their parabolic shapes deliver flavors and aromas.

Wright and her partners realized they were throwing egg in the face of the fine-wine industry by boldly declaring their humble clay tumblers to be wine-specific. But they drew inspiration from the Iberian Peninsula, where, in certain rustic countryside eateries, paella, water and wine were—and in a few places, still are—served from cool, smooth clay. The idea was to recapture that feeling, in keeping with the Maker movement’s call for us to slow down, savor the moment and turn back the clock.

Wright wasn’t working entirely in a vacuum. The nostalgia for a far-bygone era is also evident within the wine industry, where there’s currently a fascination with the techniques and equipment of antiquity. In today’s most avant-garde wineries, the massive terra cotta amphora—a fermentation and aging vessel whose use dates back millennia—is the cellar accessory of the moment.

But still, drinking out of it? Diehard wine drinkers might recoil at the thought. And yet, in rural old-world grape-producing regions, where wine is essential to timeless social rituals, no value is placed in one’s ability to parse the subtleties of a wine’s aroma, acid-tannin balance or finish. High scores and luxury price tags, too, are immaterial. Here’s what does matter: pouring with the proper hand, always making sure your neighbor’s cup is full or never placing an empty cup on the table. Notice that the word here is “cup.”

It shouldn’t be subversive to cite the tactile pleasure of holding a cup. Nor should it be radical to ask the drinker to consider the ceremony of sipping over the value of the wine itself. In the case of wine, it is.

But consider the Japanese tea ceremony. The preparation of the tea, the tasting of the tea, and the interactions of the participants are all scripted performance. The beverage is matcha powder, whisked with hot water to make green tea. But the star of the show is the cup, which in fact is a ceramic bowl.

At its apex, the rite is performed with Raku, a deceptively simple type of pottery that is considered to be the highest art form of all Japanese ceramic traditions. There is only one Raku Master in every generation; and according to Robert Singer, Department Head and Curator of Japanese Art at LACMA, a bowl made by a contemporary Raku Master typically sells for somewhere between $50,000 and $75,000.

At first glance, these bowls underwhelm. Their colors are muted; their shapes lack symmetry. But the beauty of Raku, explains Singer, is tactile. It’s “how the bowl feels to the hand (both hands are used to hold the bowl), and to the lips. When you are holding a Raku tea bowl, you know it; it is indescribable, but it is still, nevertheless, real in its quality and sheer rightness.”

At first a skeptic, I stand converted. The subtly styled Mazama clay cup acts like an ultra-efficient decanter: It mutes the static that surrounds a big wine, toning down ripeness, excessive alcohol and oak. Its thick walls keep temperatures stable and cool. But more than anything, the sensual pleasure of this drinking experience isn’t attributable to the wine. Rather, it’s coming from the vessel: the heaviness of the cup in your hand; the soothing, rounded smoothness of the glazed surface on your lips; the feeling of your fingers wrapped around something solid and elemental. (This month, Mazama will try and achieve some of the same tactility with a new line of hand-blown wine glasses, which are squat, solid, stemless, gently bulbous and tinted blue, smoke or honey.)

Like all beverages, wine has its own alcoholic taxonomy. It goes on the table at dinnertime. It’s sold in a serving size that assumes a party of two or more will partake. It slows us down, forcing us to wrestle with the cork, then inviting us to consider it. Its labels speak of faraway places and foreign languages. For thousands of years, it has been a ceremonial beverage, and it brings an element of ceremony into our everyday lives. Somehow that fact is easier to ascertain when sipping wine from a hand-thrown clay cup, as if stealing a second from a Roman feast.

The longtime wine columnist of The Oregonian newspaper, Katherine Cole has contributed to many national and international food and wine publications, and was featured in the acclaimed documentary American Wine Story. Her third book, How to Fake Your Way Through a Wine List, will be published in fall 2015 by Sterling.