Wine / Michael Jackson, bottles and bull

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Wine columnist RICHARD CALVER wonders what’s the meaning or rationale for the Old Testament Biblical names for varying bottle sizes, so he set off in search of the who, what, why, how and where.

RECENT holiday reading was a large volume of wine writing, “Wine Reads” edited by Jay McInerney, the award-winning US novelist. 

Richard Calver.

I lugged this book all the way to China and back. But it was worthwhile because the collection is entertaining and informative, albeit presenting more questions than answers, as I will explain.

An extract from “The Secret Society” about the author Bianca Bosker’s immersion in the ways of sommeliers training to become Master Sommeliers had me laughing out loud. She described a mnemonic for remembering bottle size: “Michael Jackson Really Makes Small Boys Nervous”.

The first letters represent the various sizes of wine bottles above the standard 750 ml bottle that is the norm. The piece didn’t tell me the number of standard bottles that each description represents or the meaning of or rationale for the Old Testament Biblical names, so I followed up on my return home. Every story needs a who, what, why, how and where.

First, the various sizes as expressed in the mnemonic are as follows:

Magnum – 2 standard bottles;

Jeroboam – one size for sparkling, 4 bottles and for still wine 4.5;

Rehoboam – sparkling only, 6 bottles;

Methuselah – 8 bottles or 6 litres;

Salmanazar – 12 bottles;

Balthazar – 16 bottles;

Nebuchadnezzar – 20 bottles.

One source said that in addition there are three other larger sizes, all also named after Biblical figures: Melchior (18 litres), Solomon (21 litres), and Melchizedek (30 litres). 

I verified that the production of a Melchizedek bottle was not a fantasy: a story in “Pilcrow” magazine, an American publication, spoke of Portland Wine Cellars, Oregon, displaying a Melchizedek of champagne for a number of years. But one day when the owner of the store was absent “for seemingly no reason, the bottle suddenly exploded”. The explosion was caught on CCTV footage, stills of which the magazine published. 

The derivation of the exotic names is challenging and is more conjecture than fact. In essence, the “how” and the “why” (of the differently sized bottles’ naming) is unclear and nothing at all is known about the “who”. 

A columnist in the Jewish magazine “Mosaic” looked into this issue deeply. He concludes that “Jeroboam was the original biblical king to lend his name to a wine bottle” and that “the other biblical names were imitations of this, probably humorously intended”. Yes, but no as we say in Australia – not funny, really. 

And this supposition also begs the question of why Jeroboam, an Israelite monarch mentioned in the “Book of Kings”, was originally associated with wine and bottle size. 

The “Mosaic” columnist puts it down to word confusion in the English language that then sparked a trailing Biblical theme. He speculates that there was an English word “jorum”, older than “jeroboam”, that denoted a large drinking bowl. This word was then taken to come from the name of the biblical character of Joram. Sometime in the 18th century, a biblically knowledgeable wit took the name of Jeroboam, which bore a resemblance to Joram, and applied it to a drinking bowl, too, or perhaps to an even larger one. In time, “jeroboam” began to represent not only a very large bowl but also a very large bottle and, eventually, a bottle one up in size from a magnum. While the article is intensely scholarly, the explanation seems extraordinarily speculative. 

But other sources are equally vague and almost patronising. For example, the winespectator website believes that each name denotes an extended metaphor but without in any way substantiating this proposition. 

For example, in explaining why Balthazar was given its name the following is said: “Balthazar was a Babylonian king who drank some wine out of holy chalices from a temple and incurred God’s wrath. 

“While Balthazar was partying, the Persians invaded and the Babylonians lost power. This might be a reminder of what can unravel as you’re getting to the bottom of a bottle that big.”

And it might not. What piffle. The answer is no one knows and we should be honest enough to say so.

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Richard Calver
Richard Calver walks, talks, thinks, drinks and writes passionately about wine, especially the wines of the Canberra region.

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