In Vino Veritas
In the season of the crush, a literary celebration of wine.
Thursday, October 5, 2006
Oh how the fermented grape doth bestow its magic spell upon all who dare gently trickle it across their lips. Wine history is speculated to have begun in the Neolithic Period, around 8500 to 4000 BC, in the ancient Near East and Egypt. So naturally, especially when considering the effects of wine consumption on self-expression, people have been incorporating wine references into literature and art of all forms for a long time. It is hard to imagine great thinkers in past eras living without wine. For that matter, it is hard to imagine any culture across the world existing without some form of fermented liquid to lubricate life’s creaky joints.
As Johann Heinrich Voss wrote in 1777: “He who loves not wine, women and song remains a fool his whole life long.” He had a point, although today’s individuated modern woman might amend that statement to include men (or not).
The ancients knew the benefits of drinking wine. Aristophanes, the Greek playwright who lived around 400 BC, succinctly stated: “Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever.” Who are we to dispute his wisdom?
“It is well to remember that there are five reasons for drinking: the arrival of a friend; one’s present or future thirst; the excellence of the wine; or any other reason.”
–Old Latin saying
Life has always been fraught with stressful situations. In olden days, survival was not guaranteed and life expectancy was considerably less expectant. Today’s world offers different challenges, yet stress and life’s travails confront us still. You have to appreciate Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetic slant on it: “Give me wine to wash me clean from the weather-stains of care.”
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Wine has not been without its detractors. Throughout history, wine and other alcoholic beverages have been blamed for all human dysfunction, for instance: “Some of the most dreadful mischiefs that afflict mankind proceed from wine; it is the cause of disease, quarrels, sedition, idleness, aversion to labor, and every species of domestic disorder.” That was the way François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon saw things in 1699. Or how about: “There is a devil in every berry of the grape,” from the Koran. Or: “Wine is the first weapon that devils use in attacking the young,” from Saint Jerome. Extreme, perhaps, but as valid as any other opinion.
The point is that wine elicits strong feelings from humans. Thankfully, they are mostly very positive and oftentimes downright comical, as evidenced by this old Latin saying: “It is well to remember that there are five reasons for drinking: the arrival of a friend; one’s present or future thirst; the excellence of the wine; or any other reason.”
Of course, there is our own great early 20th century philosopher and avid imbiber WC Fields, quoted here as the character Cuthbert J. Twillie in My Little Chickadee: “During one of my treks through Afghanistan, we lost our corkscrew. We were compelled to live on food and water for several days.” Here’s another one of his: “I was in love with a beautiful blonde once. She drove me to drink; that’s the one thing I’m indebted to her for.” Then there’s Groucho: “I drink to your charm, your beauty and your brains—which gives you a rough idea of how hard up I am for a drink.” You gotta love it.
Of course, as is often the case where intellectual acumen supercedes intuitive and sensorial sensibility, some folks can get carried away with their analysis about wine. A caption from a New Yorker cartoon by the great James Thurber read: “It’s a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.” We all have at least one friend like that.
To many people, wine is deeply gratifying, as Ernest Hemingway so eloquently put it in Death in the Afternoon: “Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.” Wine engenders a range of emotions unlike almost any other thing humankind has created, from the sensible to the sublime to the silly: “Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages” (Louis Pasteur). “Wine is bottled poetry” (Robert Louis Stevenson). “Drink wine, and you will sleep well. Sleep, and you will not sin. Avoid sin, and you will be saved. Ergo, drink wine and be saved” (Medieval German saying). They go on and on.
So in honor of the countless folks around the world presently engaged in harvest, crush and fermentation, we salute you with these two quotes from the wine list at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, from WEP French and H. Warner Allen, respectively: “Here’s to the corkscrew—a useful key to unlock the storehouse of wit, the treasury of laughter, the front door of fellowship, and the gate of pleasant folly.” And “The wines that one best remembers are not necessarily the finest that one has ever tasted, and the highest quality may fail to delight so much as some far more humble beverage drunk in more favorable surroundings.” So cheers.