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"Nunc est bibendum," says Horace — "Now is the time for drinking." Horace's devotion to wine is clear from his poetry, where he presents the drinking of wine as part of a good life of moderate indulgence in the pleasures the world affords. Particularly so, if you are a poet; for according to Horace (Epistles I.19) there has never been a good poet who was not also a wine-drinker.

The 21st ode of the third book is Horace's most extensive poetic tribute to wine. His friend, Corvinus, is visiting him, and he has asked Horace for "languidiora vina" — a more mellow wine. No matter that Corvinus is a follower of the Socratic school rather than being an Epicurean like his host, and so is likely (Horace thinks) to be not much of a connoisseur of wine. No matter, either, that Horace has no wine of his own making to give. He tells us in Ep. I.14 that the Sabine farm given to him by Maecenas does not grow vines. If his farmhouse indeed occupied the site of the building in Tivoli, just opposite where the Anio bursts from the rock, and where a small monastery and papal retreat was constructed in the eighth century on manifestly pre-Christian foundations, there are no vines grown on that land today, either — blessed spot though it is in almost every other respect.

Undeterred by expense, Horace obliges his guest with a jar of Massic, which he says comes from his birth year, when Manlius was consul ("nata mecum consule Manlio") — that is to say, 65 BC. Massic was one of the most prized wines of ancient Rome. It was grown on the slopes of Monte Massico, in the region some 20 miles to the north-west of Naples which also produced the most celebrated of all Roman wines, Falernian. The wines had the most distinguished pedigree, at least according to legend. The god Bacchus disguised himself as a tramp, and called on Falernus, the peasant who farmed the land of Monte Massico. Falernus was not put off by the sordid appearance of his unexpected guest, and offered him the plentiful and simple produce of his farm — milk, honey and fruit. In appreciation of this genuine hospitality, Bacchus turned the milk to wine, which sent Falernus to sleep. When he awoke, he found the slopes of his farm turned into vineyards. The legend records not only that wine was a gift of the gods, but that it was given to men in recognition of our better qualities of generosity and a willingness to welcome the stranger.

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