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In Vino Veritas (I think)

Bill Meredith

Looking back on life, one of the things I regret is that I did not take a course in Latin in high school. It sounded hard, it wasnít required, and I didnít know at the time that I was going become a biologist, so I passed it up. In the years since then I have picked up several individual Latin words when learning scientific names and anatomical structures, but I know no Latin grammar. I have a friend who took a course in Latin at the age of 75; he enjoyed it, but after a few months he couldnít remember any of it. The window of opportunity for learning languages closed decades ago.

In an idle moment the other day I was looking up something about winemaking on the Internet and discovered that there must be several dozens of companies that use the expression, "In Vino Veritas," in their corporate titles and advertising. I think a fairly literal translation of the phrase is "in the wine is truth;" a looser translation may be "wine brings out the truth," or, getting to really practical usage, "if you can get your friend to drink enough wine, you can find out what he really thinks of you." Maybe thatís stretching the vernacular a bit, but there is no doubt that wine has often been used to loosen tongues, with results that changed the course of history, at least in spy novels.

All of this came to mind because of a visit by my son and his family last Easter. The grandchildren are growing upÖ the oldest is in collegeÖ but they still like to do the things they did years ago, perhaps in the wistful hope of clinging to childhood as long as possible. So it came to pass that, after stuffing ourselves beyond capacity at dinner, we went out in the yard and played croquet. The lawn was covered with dandelions, and when the match was over and enough toes had been battered, I made an offhand remark to the effect that it was a shame to see all the dandelions go to waste, and that we should make some dandelion wine.

My granddaughter, who seems to have inherited a quirky kind of curiosity from somewhere, instantly seized on this as a great idea. My wife immediately rejected it as a waste of time and ingredients, but in a rare instance of democracy she was outvoted; so we went to her cookbook library and found several books on winemaking. The most complicated of the recipes directed that the flowers should be boiled, soaked for 10 days, and then be inoculated by sprinkling yeast on a piece of toast and floating it on the brew. This seemed to fit the spirit of wacky enthusiasm that had developed by that time, so we proceeded to the yard, gathered the requisite quart of flowers, found a pot large enough to hold them and a gallon of water, added an orange and a lemon, and distributed high-fives all around.

Such enthusiasm is rarely sustained very long. After the crew departed for Baltimore I covered the wine pot and set it in the laundry room, where it was promptly forgotten. A couple of weeks later I remembered it. Removing the cover, I was greeted by a most unwinelike bouquet from the healthiest mold culture I had seen in years. It definitely was not indicative of a good year, so I threw it out and resolved to start a new batch with a recipe I had used before. But alas, the dandelions were done blooming. They had been at their peak on that one golden day, and the opportunity was gone for this year.

As a young man I was surprised to learn from an aunt that my teetotaling Methodist grandmother had made wine for medicinal purposes, and of course my wifeís Polish grandparents made it regularly. So when an elderly friend gave us a wine keg sometime in the 1960s, we decided to try. My wife never does anything halfway; we picked our own fruit, berries and grapes, and made wine from everything from apricots to zucchinis. Amateur winemakers who are purists use the same cultured yeasts as commercial vintners to get consistent quality, but we were in it for fun, so we followed the methods used when winemaking was invented 7,500 years ago. We let the fruit ferment by natural yeasts. These wild yeasts are found on all naturally grown fruits; they are most noticeable as the glossy, bluish-colored coat that covers grapes and raspberry vines. Sometimes the results were good, and sometimes bad; tasting a batch for the first time was part of the fun of it.

Eventually we got tired of the mess and stopped making wine, but there are still several bottles of it on a shelf behind the clutter in our basement. Recently I opened a bottle of peach wine from 1971. It tasted vaguely like sherry, which I donít particularly care for, but I drank it anyway; I figured that in the spirit of veritas it was an obligation. Tomorrow I will open some more, and if it is palatable we may have it to celebrate the 4th of July. Which reminds me Ö the grandchildren may come again for the holiday, and it looks like there will be a good crop of elderberries this year. They should be ready to pick about then; and if my wife objects, we can respond as the gladiators did in Roman times, Ave Caesar, nos moriaturi salutemus. Iím not sure what that means, but it sounds impressive. And if that doesnít persuade her, we can always fall back on in vino veritas. She canít argue with that.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith