I would like to again take up the theme that I initiated in my previous essay. That essay was an autobiographical journey of my experience as a drinker. Whilst only a few of you responded directly with comments on my blog, quite a number contacted me privately expressing their enjoyment.
In retrospect, however, there are a few more, perhaps deeper observations I should have made about my long relationship with liquor and wine in particular. I intend to rectify those omissions in this essay.
The appreciation of wine and its particular qualities can hardly be described as an avant garde pursuit. Historians suspect that wine was first produced in the Old World around 6,000BC. Evidence suggests that wine grapes were first cultivated in Asia Minor, just south of the Black Sea. In ancient times there was a vigorous wine trade in the Middle East, plying between Mesopotamia, Assyria and Palestine.
Historical evidence suggests that the planting of vines and the consequent fermenting of wine might almost be a necessary prerequisite for the emergence of civilisation. Ancient philosophy, Christian religion and Western art have all portrayed wine as a mediating influence between Man and god. It gathers the essence of the juice of the grape, the subtleties of the minerals of often relatively infertile soils and the hearty traditions of rural communities to create an elixir which flows into your veins to subdue the body and awaken the soul.
And one might argue that wine is often a mediating influence not only between Man and god, but also between human individuals. As Anaïs Nin famously told us:
We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are. (Emphasis added.)
When we have mellowed under the spell of the grape we surely see our companions in a more benign light. Then the veil is drawn open and our hearts, in accord, open to each other as well and the philosophic thoughts that we are reluctant to share in the light of day all of a sudden become all important. That eminent scientist, Louis Pasteur, remarked:
A bottle of wine contains more philosophy than all the books in the world.
(Alright – I’ll concede that in the light of day sometimes the philosophical wisdom of the night before pales into hubristic twaddle – but no philosophical conjecture is ever wasted. It always serves the purpose of either closing down ill-directed forays to wisdom or opens up new avenues of investigation.)
Most of the commentary on wine relates to its value as an accompaniment to food. And there can be no doubt that a sumptuous meal is immensely improved if its ingestion is accompanied by the imbibing of fine wine. But wine is also a lubricant that eases thought from the often reticent mind and renders it accessible to be applied to the world.
These days I rather enjoy a fresh crisp Reisling. It certainly enhances seafood and chicken when the chicken doesn’t have too rich a sauce. But in my experience the best thing to accompany a fine Reisling is merely another fine Reisling!
Those who are not aware of the more esoteric qualities of wine accuse the serious wine drinker of merely drinking with inebriation as the desired end point. They do not appreciate that out of the bonhomie that wine elicits philosophers (and of course all serious wine drinkers are philosophers) are inspired to elucidate their best thoughts and share them in a non-judgmental way to improve the lot of Mankind.
It is indisputable that learning how to savour wine properly takes some considerable time. But we are sometimes distracted from the basic pleasure of enjoying the taste of our preferred drop by wine snobs who claim to be able to taste an overwhelming multitude of things. Here is one description of a wine by a so-called connoisseur:
A flowery nose, lingers on the palate, with ripe berry flavours with a hint of chocolate and roasted almonds.
Perhaps connoisseurs have developed a new language which we mere mortals have yet to learn, but I find such descriptions a little over the top!
But one thing that does occur to me is that whilst it is almost impossible to describe the taste of a particular wine, its geographic origin often provides clues to the underlying flavour. And this is particularly true in Australia compared with Europe. In Europe distinctive wine growing areas have little geographical separation. In Australia that separation is vastly magnified. No doubt the different tastes of wine are greatly influenced by climate and soil and I suspect that the geographical dispersion of our wine growing areas exaggerates those differences.
The artist, Salvador Dali, said:
He who knows how to taste, does not drink wine, but savours secrets.
In my untutored mind, what we enjoy in the taste of wine is indeed secretive and beyond our power to describe accurately to another which is why we resort to metaphors like those above.
Of course, with a few exceptions (James Halliday, for example who takes the time to comment on the characteristics of some of our cheaper wines,) our preeminent wine critics like to show off their erudite knowledge of wines by extolling the virtues of the most exclusive and hence the most expensive of wines whilst looking down their noses at we bourgeois imbibers who are happy with a $15 bottle from the local bottleshop that suits our particular palate without sentencing us to penury. These snobs must be terribly put out by the growing popularity of “cleanskins” which can be both eminently drinkable and economic.
Now there have been some myths also generated about drinking habits. The notion that drinking was exclusively a social activity was so emphasised that in my younger days anyone caught drinking alone was deemed to be a victim of alcoholism. But whilst the social benefits of drinking have been outlined above, wine, as we have seen, has other benefits that are still available to a discerning drinker even without company.
We should not forget however, that wine has a significant part to play in mythology and religion. As one eminent classicist writes:
To drink wine in the rites of Dionysus is to commune with the god and take his power and physical presence into one’s body.
The Greek tragedian of Athens, Euripides, tells us that Dionysus becomes the wine and is himself “poured out” as an offering.
This was an historical precedent, probably appropriated by the early Christians into the ceremony of the Eucharist, where Christ’s body and blood were purportedly embodied into the wafers and communion wine.
One might then make the argument that contrary to what the wowsers might preach, drinking wine brings us closer to our particular god.
Even in that most austere of religions, Islam, its poets Hafiz, Rumi and Omar Khayyam, extol the virtues of wine. Indeed in the early verses of the Koran (surah xvi, verse 7) wine is unreservedly praised as one of God’s great gifts. But then Muhammad was exiled to Medina and got all bitter and twisted and changed his mind. And drawing on that particularly bizarre Koranic protocol, that mandates that where there are contradictions in the Koran the latter verses take more weight than the earlier one, Islam is stuck with a prohibition on alcohol including wine.
The cynical atheist and brilliant writer, Christopher Hitchens proclaimed that:
The only worthwhile miracle in the New Testament—the transmutation of water into wine during the wedding at Cana—is a tribute to the persistence of Hellenism in an otherwise austere Judaea.
Now wine seems a reasonably thin liquid but it is thick enough to bind us together. As I related in my previous essay, many of my fondest memories are of wonderful discussions with friends over a bottle or two. Indeed many of my most cherished memories of family come in a similar context. Maybe Euripides (who I quoted above) was onto something when he said:
Where there is no wine, there is no love.
And in his little book I Drink Therefore I Am (which inspired me to write my latest two essays), the philosopher Roger Scruton declares:
Wine, drunk at the right time, in the right place and in the right company, is the path to meditation and the harbinger of peace.
So perhaps we should take pause and a glass as well and ponder on the great joys that the fruit of the vine can bring us!