Is wine the most social of all foods and drinks? Humankind’s long and happy experience with the fermented juice of the grape suggests that it is.
“Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart,” says the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes. And don’t forget that one of the first things Noah did after the flood, was to plant a vineyard.
The 11th century Persian poet, Omar Khayyam, added a more romantic touch: “A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse, and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness–And Wilderness is Paradise enow.” How many love songs and poems has a flask of wine inspired?
What is it about wine that humans, throughout our long history of struggle, triumph and tragedy, have always celebrated as the most soulful, the most endearing and loving of all beverages — perhaps even of all foods?
We know that people praised wine’s healthful effects almost from the dawn of recorded time. Even before the Hebrew Bible came into being, the Greeks were celebrating, on stone tablets dating to at least 1,500 B.C., their god of wine, Dionysos, for bringing an end to care and worry with wine’s “divine perfume” that combined “ambrosia and nectar into one.” Homer, in The Iliad, describes two Greek heroes, old friends who after a fierce, hard battle relaxed and shared good wine. “When the two had drunk and banished parching thirst, they took delight in tales, telling them one to the other.”
And more than 1,000 years before that, the ancient Egyptians had established a thriving wine industry; the care with which their artists painted colorful images of men picking grapes from vines, crushing grapes with their feet, and pouring wine into goblets, shows how central wine was to their daily lives. To be a master of the vineyard was noble work 4,500 years ago. (It still is.)
That wine loosens tongues and “gladdens human hearts” (Psalm 104) is one of its noblest features. Who hasn’t relaxed, after a long, difficult day, with friends and loved ones, sipping wine as the day’s woes melt away into the night? Scientists can tell us about wine’s physiological effects on blood circulation, and it’s important for each of us to understand our own body’s reactions to wine. But what science can’t explain is the simple fact of why a little wine makes us happy.
And maybe a little mystery is a good thing. As Helen Keller said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.”
Steve Heimoff is one of America’s most respected and well-known wine writers. The former West Coast Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine and a contributor to Wine Spectator, he has also authored two books on the subject of California wine, including “New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff,” published in the fall of 2007.