Long before Noah supposedly planted his vineyard after th flood or the first toast was drunk to Dionysus on the shores of Homer's wine-dark sea, the taste of the grape was one of life's pleasures.
Indeed, archaeologists have now found chemical evidence that people were making and drinking wine at least as long ago as the fourth millennium B.C., the earliest established occurrence of wine anywhere in the world.
And a robust vintage it must have been, to have left a trace at all. The bouquet was long gone, of course. But there inside an earthen jar from Sumerian ruins excavated at Godin Tepe in western Iran were red-colored deposits, a residue that chemists determined was rich in tartaric acid and so almost certainly was the lees of an ancient wine. Tartaric acid is found in nature almost exclusively in grapes.
"We're 95 percent sure," said Patrick E. McGovern, an archaeological chemist who directed the analysis at the University Museum of Archeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.
The results, determined by a technique known as infrared spectroscopy, are reported in the current issue of a museum publication, Research Papers in Science and Archeology.
Anthropologists said the findings carried a further significance, yielding insights into the economy and stability of a society able to indulge in the production of a luxury item like wine.
This should help fill out the cultural picture of the fourth millennium B.C. in the Middle East, a time of social innovation with the invention of writing, the introduction of copper metallurgy and irrigated agriculture and the rise of urban centers.
In fact, Solomon H. Katz, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania and specialist on the early history of beverages, postulates that the dramatic cultural changes of the period encouraged not only production of wine but its consumption.
People probably imbibed to relieve the stresses of living in an increasingly complex and urbanized society.
If the chemical analysis is correct, it confirms the existence of wine in the mid-fourth millennium, about 3500 B.C. "We've broken the Bronze Age barrier," Dr. Katz said, suggesting that the origins of wine-making probably extend back several thousand more years.
In "Vintage: The Story of Wine," Hugh Johnson, a wine expert, wrote, "We cannot point precisely to the place and time when wine was first made any more than we can give credit to the inventor of the wheel."
Grape pips from the seventh millennium B.C. have been found in the Caucasus, near the Caspian Sea in what is now the Soviet Union, but it is not certain that these were from domesticated plants.
The earliest firm evidence for wine had been in Egyptian texts re
ferring to wine at the beginning of the third millennium, the dawn of the Bronze Age.
The Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh from the same millennium celebrated the enchanted vineyard whose wine was the source of immortality. Wine must have been common by the time of jTC Hammurabi, the Babylonian king in the 1700s B.C., because his laws are explicit on the subject of when and how people could drink.
The new findings will be evaluated by anthropologists and historians at a symposium this week on wine's role in the cultural and economic development of earliest human societies.
The participants, invited by the University Museum, will get into the spirit of their scholarship by meeting at the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, Calif.
The telltale residues were discovered by Virginia R. Badler, a graduate student in archaeology at the University of Toronto.
In research on the Uruk period of Mesopotamia, she pieced together shards from pottery excavated at Godin Tepe in the Zagros Mountains of western Iran between the modern towns of Hamadan and Kermanshah.
This was the site of a trading outpost or fortress on a trade route that later became known as the Silk Road. The outpost had economic links to the Sumerians who lived to the south in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
Uruk, on the Euphrates, was one of the earliest urban centers of the Sumerians. They had a thriving agriculture in the river valleys of what is now southern Iraq, but had to look elsewhere for such raw materials as minerals, metals and timber, as well as wine.
The Godin Tepe site was presumably one of their outposts in their trading for copper, semi-precious stones and other products in the eastern regions of present-day Iran and in Afghanistan.
Steven W. Cole, an assistant professor of Assyriology at Harvard University, said, "It's amazing how far-flung the Sumerian trade was in the Uruk period of the fourth millenium. They had to reach out to fill their needs."
When Ms. Badler reconstructed one large jar from Godin Tepe, she noticed the red stain on the interior at the base and on one side, evidence that the vessel had contained a liquid and been stored on its side, presumably to keep the seal moist and tight and thus prevent wine from turning to vinegar.
Other suggestive evidence included the shape of the jar, with its narrow mouth and tall neck that seemed suited for pouring out liquids, and the presence of earthenware stoppers and funnels.
Similar jars were found in one room that appeared to have been where the wine was made or at least stored.
Across a courtyard, opened jars were excavated in what seemed to be the residence of people of some affluence, judging from the luxury items like a stone-bead necklace and a marble bowl fragment found there.
"Almost from the start, wine is a high-end item, a status symbol," Dr. Katz said.
In previous studies, Dr. Katz traced the origin of beer, brewed from barley, to the time soon after the introduction of agriculture in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago.
Since grain could be grown more widely and be stored for long periods, beer became more readily available than the seasonal, more perishable grapes.
These apparently grew only in northern regions like the Zagros and Caucasus Mountains and had to be traded for and shipped great distances.
Dr. Katz said in an interview that he was developing a hypothesis on the early history of wine. Even before modern agriculture, people could have discovered ripe wild grapes that had fallen to the ground and fermented.
The yeast for fermentation comes naturally to grapes, as the waxy white stuff on the skin. People who tasted these grapes got a glow on, and figured out how to get more, first from wild grapes crushed in a bag and then by domesticating the vines for higher production.
With the introduction of agriculture, people became more settled and could produce more than they needed for subsistence.
For the first time, Dr. Katz said, people "had enough security and stability and foresight to be willing to invest in the future."
He noted that the olive tree is the classic example. "It is said, you grow olive trees for your grandchildren," he observed, "and it's much the same with vineyards."
In their report, Dr. McGovern, Ms. Badler and Rudolph H. Michel, also of the University Museum, concluded, "Godin Tepe during the Uruk period would appear to fit the model of a society that has evolved to a sufficient level of complexity to engage in horticulture, specifically that of the grapevine."
Lawrence Stager, an archaeologist at Harvard, contends, however, that large-scale wine-making did not begin until the outset of the Bronze Age after 3000 B.C.
A similar chemical test on an amphora from the fourth century A.D., found at a tomb at Gebel Adda in southern Egypt, identified tartaric acid in a vessel known to have once contained wine. This encouraged the scientists in their interpretation of the sediments from the Godin Tepe vessel.
Archeologists said many questions remained about the early history of wine. Were these local wines? Had viticulture advanced far enough to support an export trade with the urban centers to the south?
"For the time being," Dr. McGovern's group wrote, "the earliest wine ever found must remain a delicious foretaste of future archaeological and chemical discoveries to be made."