May 25 is National Wine Day and in honour of that, I think it’s worth exploring how wine, as a beverage, has influenced our culture. Wine has been an integral part of human history from ancient civilizations right through to the modern day. It has become deeply associated with culture, power and prestige in a way that no other beverage has.
Most of what I’m going to share with you today is based on a magazine piece about wine and civility that I wrote two months after 9/11. However, the search for civility in everyday life has more resonance than ever, with the seemingly daily mass shootings in various places around the world, the ongoing threat of ISIS, and the aggression that many women and others face daily on social media.
I’m going to break this topic up into two episodes, with today’s show being part one, and part two will be published on May 29. I welcome your thoughts on this audio essay!
- Why does the conversation about wine and civility continue to be so relevant?
- How is wine connected with human history and ancient civilizations?
- What are the social associations we’ve formed around wine and the table?
- When did food and wine pairing become popular?
- Why do I say that wine is one of the last true things we consume?
- How are our food and wine rituals connected to civility and the past?
- How is drinking wine a full-brain exercise?
- Why does wine inspire us to dive so much deeper than with other beverages?
- How was my perspective on food and wine affected by the events of September 11?
- What was the first known civilizing influence of wine?
- What is the perceived connection between wine and power?
- Unreserved Wine Talk 21 | Is Wine the Source of Civilization? John Mahoney Thinks So and Here’s Why
- My Article | What is Wine’s Role in Modern Madness? Finding Our Humanity Drop by Drop
- My online wine class
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Transcript & Takeaways
Welcome to episode 24!
May 25 is National Wine Day … as one of my online course students recently noted: “As if we needed an official day to celebrate the drink most of us love year-round.”
That said, I think it’s worth exploring how wine, as a beverage, has influenced our culture.
You’ll find a related interview with John Mahoney on his book, Wine: The Source of Civilization on episode 21.
Most of what I’m going to share with you today is based on a magazine piece about wine and civility that I wrote two months after 9/11.
However, the search for civility in everyday life has more resonance than ever, with the seemingly daily mass shootings in various places around the world, the ongoing threat of ISIS, and the aggression that many women and others face daily on social media.
I’m going to break this up into two episodes. This is part one, and part two will be published on May 29. I welcome your thoughts on this audio essay.
The trouble with moderation is that it’s hard to get excited about it. Until now. After September 11, finding the moderate and the civilized in everyday life has become all the rage.
Few things embody these values more than wine, and the food we eat with it. A river of wine flows through most of human history — from the ancient clay jugs found buried beside the Nile to the glass of cabernet accidentally tipped over while visiting websites about ancient Egypt.
In the countries that make it, wine is part of the national customs, culture, literature, arts, religion, science, geography and trade.
As Californian vintner Robert Mondavi once noted: “Wine has been with us since the beginning of civilization. It’s the temperate, civilized, sacred and romantic mealtime beverage recommended in the Bible. Wine in moderation is an integral part of our heritage, and of a gracious way of life.”
And it’s also one of the last true things we consume. Despite all the genetic engineering of our food these days, wine remains deeply connected with the land.
The dinner table itself is a symbol of modern unity and tolerance. Throughout history, a person’s position at the dinner table reflected the social hierarchy: the best seats — and best food and wine – went to those with the most power. (In contrast, King Arthur’s court stood – or sat – for equality, since the knights gathered at a round table.)
Today, some of the best conversations happen at the table, and some of the most brilliant ideas are conceived there. Just as importantly, eating and drinking together helps us to understand people from other cultures through their wine and cuisine.
Wine has long been a closer companion to food than has hard liquor or beer. The high alcohol content of hard liquor overwhelms food – the reason it’s often consumed on its own. (To paraphrase, “Wine is fine, but liquor is quicker.”) Beer, though moderate in alcohol, has a narrower range of complementary aromas and flavours than wine.
Food and wine matching came into vogue in the late 1800s, when French dinner hosts started serving with multiple courses and tried matching each with a different wine to heighten the gastronomic experience.
Classic matches such as Stilton blue cheese and port soon emerged. Today, the fashion is to break the rules, but wine remains the best complement to food.
Matching food and wine calls into play all of the senses, one of the few activities that connects our minds to our stomachs – and livers. And in an age of passive entertainment, it’s the only pleasure we truly consume.
Eating and drinking is something we need to do, unlike attending the theatre, ballet or opera — but when we infuse an animal need with camaraderie and creativity, we move from sustenance to cuisine.
It becomes part of us, and we turn it into blood, bone and gesture, as the poet Rilke would say. It reminds us of how fleeting life is — no record of the food, wine or conversation is left, only memory.
Even the rituals of food and wine, such as the etiquette of which fork and knife to use or the passing of a decanter of port clockwise around the dinner table, require civility and a nod to those present, those who sat before us and those who will sit when we are gone.
Fine food and wine enable us to feel our capacity for joy and make us want to share that feeling with others. (Who can imagine scarfing down a duck confit and a Burgundian pinot noir, alone?)
Wine is as cerebral as it is sensual: it begs for appreciation, reflection and conversation. Most of its character is in the aroma, connecting to the areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotion. Drinking wine is, therefore, a full-brain exercise (until it becomes a foggy-brained exercise).
The complexity of wine is also an exercise in memory. Take all the wine-producing countries from both Old and New Worlds. Layer the sub-regions, appellations and quality designations of thousands of wineries and châteaux, all of which have different winemaking methods that vary according to climate every year.
Throw in hundreds of grape varieties, blends and styles, including red, white, rosé, sparkling, fortified, botrytized, late harvest, ice wine and others: wines to drink before, during and after the meal, wines for celebration (champagne) and for reflection (port). Then there are aspects such as the chemistry of ageing wine, decanting it and matching it with food.
The complexity of wine’s charms are why many of our great literary minds – Plato, Aristophanes, Baudelaire, Byron, Dickens, Joyce, Hardy, Tolstoy – have written more about wine than about any other type of alcohol.
So powerfully can wine sharpen our feeling for life that we’re also driven to quantify those feelings: we rate wine, but not orange juice; and we analyze the differences soil and climate make to wine, but no one cares where the cabbage was grown.
That complexity makes some people disdain those so-called experts, “wine snobs.” True, some wine lovers have an unfortunately low emotional intelligence quotient. But we don’t dislike those who know a lot about fly fishing, for example — we call them enthusiasts, not snobs.
However, pleasure became the shadow of safety, pushed to the back of our minds when we watched the firefighters and volunteers work their way through the rubble of the World Trade Centre Towers.
In fact, September 11 caused many people to re-evaluate what was important in their lives — and what was not. And many in the hospitality industry wondered if their work still had meaning. After all, weren’t wine and food now trivial?
But wine and food remain an important expression of western culture. Making wine is a western industry; drinking wine, a western habit. For instance, not one of the countries that America considers a sponsor of terrorism produces wine.
Iran doesn’t, and nor do Iraq, Syria, Libya, North Korea, and Sudan. Nor do the countries where UN peacekeeping forces are stationed, such as central Africa and the Western Sahara.
So are only countries that make and drink wine civilized? Certainly not. Some don’t produce wine because their climate isn’t suitable, and others don’t because their religious convictions don’t allow it.
And although practising Muslims don’t drink wine because the Koran considers it a “satanic device,” the devout are rewarded with it in the afterlife: in paradise, there are “rivers of wine, a delight to those who drink.”
In fact, it’s believed that Muslim alchemists first developed the technique of distillation, and later taught it to Spanish explorers. The techniques were preserved in monasteries through the Middle Ages, like much of Europe’s literature and culture from that time.
But the first known civilizing influence of wine goes back to the third millennium BCE: the Sumerian epic poem Gilgamesh tells of Enkidu, a wild man, who became civilized when a temple whore gave him wine to drink.
The god of wine — Dionysus for the Greeks and Bacchus for the Romans — was also part of ancient myth. Like Christ, Dionysus was said to be the son of an immortal god (in his case, Zeus) and a human woman (Semele). Both Bacchus and Christ are symbolized by the vine, which dies each winter and is reborn the next spring. In fact, in the Bible, Christ says “I am the true vine.”
Wine’s ability to civilize, as well as its high price, have also made it the drink of power, from the Egyptian pharaohs to European royalty. Traditionally, peasants drank beer and hard liquor – and even today, if politicians want to portray themselves as “of the people,” they share a pint in a pub with working stiffs rather than sipping an aristocratic glass of wine.
In the New World, European explorers used hard liquor to colonize the new land instead of sharing wine to civilize it. (The name Manhattan comes from the Indian word manahactanienk meaning island of general intoxication.) I love that, and having recently returned from New York City, I can attest to the fact that it lives up to its name today.
Founding father Thomas Jefferson — who cultivated French vines at his Virginia home — hoped that wine, the drink of moderation, would replace whiskey as the preferred drink of America. He commented that: “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.”
The advocates of Prohibition ignored that wisdom to their eventual detriment a hundred years later, when they dumped wine into the same category as all demon drink.
I hope you enjoyed this episode! On May 29th, I’ll continue the discussion so I’d love to hear from you in the meantime.
We’ll take a repose next week with a guest interview on pairing wine and yoga with Morgan Perry.
You’ll find links and resources in the show notes at nataliemaclean.com/24.
If you liked this episode, please tell a friend about it, especially one who is interested in these larger issues about wine and culture. My podcast is easy to find, whether you search on its name Unreserved Wine Talk, or my name.
Finally, if you want to take your wine and food pairing to the next level, join me in a free online video class at nataliemaclean.com/class.
I can’t wait to share more personal wine stories with you.
Thank you for taking the time to listen to this one. I hope something great is in your glass this week!