The Weird and Wild Wine-Drinking Games of History

Thursday, 25 April, 2013
Ben O'Donnell, Wine Spectator
From maddeningly hard to outright deadly, some games show our wine-swilling forebears had odd ideas about fun
One of Italy's most popular and enduring historic drinking games is simple enough: Participants essentially drank as much wine as possible, stopping at intervals to insult each other. To keep things lively, each player had a knife on him. A grand time was had by all who survived a match.

So it went for many wine-drinking games in history, from Greek to Chinese: frenetic, messy, enthralling affairs with bizarre rules and tools, which could fire up an evening—or put a quick end to it.

"It is a forbidden game," wrote French chronicler Edmond About of the Italian passatella, in his rumination Rome of To-Day, published in 1861, "but in Rome, nothing is allowed, and everything is done." In his account, he sits in on a few rounds in a Trastevere tavern. Variants of the game exist going back to antiquity, but here's a basic outline of the proceedings: By the time Italian had paved over Latin as the lingua franca in Italy, the game had two essential positions, the padrone and the sotto-padrone ("boss" and "underboss"). After all players pitched in to buy wine, the padrone would be determined by cards, dice, bocce or, most commonly it seems, morro, a rock-paper-scissors-math hand game. The padrone, "master of wine," took one carafe (about a quart, according to another 1860 telling), gave one to his sidekick and then determined how much wine each of the other players should be allotted, usually while delivering a little ditty—or taunt.

In About's game, the master, a "handsome blacksmith," acts a bit of a jerk about the whole thing. One companion repeatedly requests wine only to be told, "He shall not drink!" As About notes, while everyone else at the table finds this hilarious, the teetotaler fumes. After all, "he had paid; his throat was itching; the wine passed under his nose, and his friends made sport of him." Once the wine is gone, the loser calls a second game, gets shafted again, and then a third time. By now, he's "drunk with thirst and spite."

"May you die of a cold accident!" he fulminates at the blacksmith. (About helpfully notes that a "cold accident" means one with knives.)

"And you, you'll die of a dry accident!" Again, the table erupts in fits of laughter. About leaves, and later that night at the opera, he strikes up a conversation with an aggrieved theatergoer. As it happens, there was a stabbing at the tavern earlier: Some guy who kept losing at passatella killed the padrone. "What vexes me," complains the opera watcher, "is the other fellow took my knife to give his stab."

About is taken aback. "So you pass your life in assassinating your friends?" His new acquaintance reassures him that, really, everyone has knifed at least one pal to death, so it's not that big of a deal. Another description, An Artist's Life in Italy in 1860, alleges that a man who leaves the passatella sober night after night gets the message—no one likes him—and turns the knife on himself.

While the Romans busily attacked their cups and friends, enterprising wine drinkers in the Far East were dreaming up their own diversions, no less bewitching for lack of knives. Some bore resemblance to Western games of the time, others uncannily match schoolyard and fairground games of our own times, and still others get a little lost in translation.

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