EMILE ZOLA’S 1873 novel Le ventre de Paris (‘The Belly of Paris’) opens with a pre-dawn parade of horse-drawn carts laden with produce making their way to Les Halles, the city’s great public food market. Although the story unfolds during the Second Empire (1851-1870), the scene would have been familiar to a Parisian of the eighteenth or even twelfth century. In fact, the daily train of foodstuffs wending its way into the city from the farms outside its walls is as old as the very first city – as old even as the idea of the city.
And what is that idea? That a critical mass or persons might concentrate themselves in a single high-density community with a view to to pursuing occupations not directly linked to agriculture. At first, these professions comprehended little more than kings, courtiers, administrators, warriors, stargazers, priests, artisans, and merchants.
Yet even this modest level of specialization becomes possible only when individuals are freed from the necessity of cultivating crops and tending animals. These tedious tasks are outsourced to a peasantry who, in return for the use of land to support themselves, agree to share the bounty of their fields — and vineyards — with the city.
It was in cities that wine competed for the attentions and purses of consumers, and in cities that a critical consuming public for wine gradually took shape.
The story of centrally-organized, cereal agriculture in the ancient Near East is well-known; less so its lengthy romance with wine imported from the remote vineyards of present-day Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey. Moving wine from its source in the mountains into the urban centers of Mesopotamia with their paved streets and ziggurats was arduous – something no one undertook without the prospect of profit.
The Greek historian Herodotus describes how it worked. A boat just big enough for two men, a few skins of wine and a donkey was assembled and floated down the network of rivers that eventually reached the great cities of the plain. Once arrived at the metropolis the wine was sold at whatever price could be had, the boat disassembled and packed on the back of the donkey, and the much less leisurely trek back to the mountains begun.