From archaeological excavations that suggest northwest Iran was one of the earliest places where wine was produced — more than 6,000 years ago — to the tale of medieval French knights bringing grapes from the city of Shiraz, where the great Persian poet Hafez lived and wrote about his love of drink, there are many historical associations between wine and the land of Iran. In more recent times, Chateau Sardasht is still remembered by those who lived in Iran before the 1979 Revolution. Nowadays, visitors to Napa Valley can view the Persopolitan-looking Darioush Winery, one of California’s leading vintners.
But there are other, more fanciful observations that inform the Western notion that Iranian culture was veritably drowning itself in wine in antiquity. Athenaeus, a Greek author who wrote about all things related to food, mentions that the Achaemenid king Darius the Great had the following inscription on his tomb: “I was able to drink a great deal of wine and to bear it well.” Such an inscription is nowhere to be found. A similar picture is painted of Xerxes the Great in the biblical Book of Esther (1:10), where we read that the “heart of the king was merry with wine.” Some commentators have suggested that the Achaemenid ruler was drunk when he ordered the beautiful young girls brought before him, so he could choose a new queen.
The fifth century BCE historian Herodotus claimed not only that the Persians were very fond of wine, but that they routinely made important decisions while drunk on it. According to Herodotus, the day after such a drunken deliberation, the Persians would reconsider their decision and if they still approved, adopt it. This is, to put it mildly, a highly unlikely image of a group of people who were able to carve out one of the largest empires in antiquity and sustain it for two centuries. Are we to think that they just got lucky over and over again when they were drunk out of their minds? This is certainly the view that the Greeks promoted and Iranian irrationality remains a topos in Western culture. A striking recent example comes in the 2009 movie by Bill Maher, Religulous, in which as soon as Iranians are mentioned, there is a scene of a party and people drinking alcohol out of the bottle in a frenzy.