Hi, I’m Penny Lively, owner of Joyeux Winery, located along the central California Coast. I grew up here, and, although I left years ago to become a photojournalist, I’ve been back on the winery for little over a year. This winery is where I belong. I love the setting and the scenery. I’m fascinated with how, given time, a bunch of grapes will yield a drink that carries with it the essence of where those grapes were grown. The process fascinates me, although, if the truth be told, the reality is that I’m fascinated with alcohol in general. The making of it, the history of it, the astounding and varied ways it’s influenced our history and our story as humans.
For example, it seems the long-held belief that man discovered alcohol about 8,000 years ago isn’t exactly correct. This was roughly when humans started planting crops, and it was assumed we didn’t have access to fermented produce until that time. It now appears we had access much earlier, nearly ten million years earlier. Yes, that’s right, ten million.
This ten million year milestone is an important date for humans, because it was about then that humans first climbed out of the trees and started walking upright. This gave our ancestors the ability to wander, looking for food over a broader area. This was without a doubt a good thing, and clearly broadened our food sources. More food and a wider variety of food was a step in the right direction, so to speak.
There is a twist to the story, though, and it leads to the discovery of alcohol. This first source of alcohol was literally right under them, that is, rotting fruit. Basic fermentation was occurring on the ground around the very trees early man was stepping out of. The irony cannot be ignored: Man learned how to walk upright just in time to learn all about falling down drunk.
Now, this bad fruit wasn’t a first choice for primates, man or otherwise, because, well, it was rotting. In lean years, though, every little bit helped, and thanks to some mutant gene, humans were the only primates able to digest alcohol. Our ability to digest this additional food source helped us survive. And you thought it was our opposing thumbs.
Although I haven’t seen any studies, I would think the successful scavengers of this new food source were smart enough to climb back into the trees before eating dinner. Sure, falling out was a possibility, but it was a better option than staying on the ground. Might as well just stick the whole apple in your mouth and curl up on a plate. Scavenging food wasn’t easy, but it was better than being eaten by a tiger.
The intentional consumption of alcohol would have to wait until two things occurred: The cultivation mentioned above, and living in groups. Living in groups made planting and harvesting possible. It was easier than scavenging, and had an additional benefit: those needed surplus crops. For the first time people weren’t immediately eating everything they had on hand. They had extra, but without anyway to preserve this surplus, it often rotted. Turned into something that made you forget about the tiger.
Alcohol can be made with just about any crop, but grapes are easy to ferment because of their high sugar content. Naturally occurring yeast, found everywhere, feeds off the sugar and ethanol is a by-product. A cinch to make and it had the added bonus of making it easier to put up with your new neighbors. Some things never change.
You can read more about Penny in One Foot in the Grape, the first book in the NEW “Cypress Cove” mystery series, published by Berkley Prime Crime.
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Meet the author
Carlene O’Neil grew up in the heart of Northern California Wine Country and is accredited by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. A former television writer, she currently makes her home outside Los Angeles, where she can be found sailing in the Santa Monica Bay or doing research for her next novel. Clearly, any novel set in wine country requires extensive research. One Foot in the Grape is her debut novel, coming out in spring 2015 from Berkley Prime Crime. Visit her online at carleneoneil.com, Facebook and Twitter.