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Writers singing wine’s praises for millennia
2014-11-13
By John H. Isacs

WINE has become a big global business, commercialized by big brands and hyped by critics who give it subjective numerical values, all of which can overshadow something that has the potential to be much more spiritual and artistic.

Proof of this is the profound love and admiration of wine by many of the world’s greatest writers, philosophers and thinkers throughout history. The most august literati of all time have sung the praise of this intellectually liberating elixir of the vine. This week, kindly allow me to delve deeper into this most poetic of drinks.

Short history

Wine has inspirationally accompanied great writers since ancient times. Since the earliest scripts written on stone and clay tablets, wine has been one of the most beloved topics of writers. Mesopotamian tablets over 5,000 years old indicated the important role wine played in everyday life. The classical period of ancient Greece and Rome was replete with wine-related literature. Iliad and Odyssey author Homer, Aristotle’s prize student Theopharatus and king of Carthage Mago all prolifically wrote of the cultural aspects and refined pleasures of wines. Centuries later just before the birth of Christ, the renowned Roman poets and writers Virgil, Horace and Martial lovingly detailed the art of wine appreciation.

Arguably the greatest champion of wine in the ancient world was the writer, naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder, who wrote extensively on the cultivation of the vine and winemaking as well as the role wine played in literature and society. Pliny the Elder was a giant of Roman intellectuals, and anyone who researches compositions of the ancient world becomes very familiar with the sagacity of this early wine lover.

Wine has also been prominently featured in ancient Chinese literature, most notably in the writings of Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) poet Li Bai. His writings were odes to the pleasures of nature, friendship, merriment and of course wine. Li Bai was one of a group of Tang Dynasty scholars and poets referred to as the eight immortals of the wine cup. This period is often referred to as the golden age of China, and it’s no surprise that wine and literature played such a prominent and synergistic role.

The Middle Ages are not considered a very prolific time for Western literature, but wine writings from scholars of the classics like Pietro de Crescenzi kept the discipline of wine writing alive just as the monks nurtured the art of winemaking.

The early to late Renaissance period saw a rebirth of wine in art and literature. From the writings and works of da Vinci, Donatello, Machiavelli and Shakespeare we gain insight into the essential role wine played in the lives of artists, the elite and also commoners. Cervantes’ tragic hero Don Quixote and his faithful servant Sancho Panza delighted in excessive wine consumption and the resulting alternative perceptions. They were among the earliest party boys.

Much more contemporary men of the pen like Mark Twain and Earnest Hemmingway expounded on the virtues of fine wine and its essential role in a beautiful artistic life. Statesman and prolific writer Winston Churchill not only wrote of the virtues of wine but traveled with his own wine cellar. One of the best ways to understand how dear wines have been to great literary figures to is look at a few of their most famous quotes.

Great wine quotes

“In wine, there’s truth.” — Pliny the Elder

“The discovery of a good wine is exponentially better for mankind than the discovery of a new star.”— Leonardo Da Vinci

“Age appears best in four things: old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust and old authors to read.” — Francis Bacon

“Wine is constant proof that God loves to see us happy.” — Benjamin Franklin

“Wine is bottled poetry.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

“A bottle of wine contains more philosophy than all the books in the world.” — Louis Pasteur

“Be very careful when trusting a person who does not like wine.” — Karl Marx

“Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!” — Winston Churchill

“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.” — Ernest Hemingway

Recommended modern reading

While wine is prominently mentioned in many of the world’s greatest books, wine-specific works written by wine experts are seldom if ever viewed as great literature.

Despite this, some quite readable, witty and well-written books have been composed recently by American, English and even Japanese writers.

“The Road to Burgundy: The Unlikely Story of an American Making Wine and a new Life in France” chronicles the trials and tribulations of a Yankee trying to make one of France’s most esteemed wines, a Grand Cru Le Chambertin, in the heartland of Burgundy. His easy-reading story unveils some of the beautiful mysteries of one of France’s most treasured wine regions.

“Reading between the Wines” by Joe Campanale is another insightful look into how wine is interrelated with the lands and cultures of peoples.

Even the technically flawed but exceedingly creative and clever Japanese comic series “Drops of God” deserves mention, as it has exposed a new generation of Asian drinkers to some of the esoteric and spiritual beauty of wine.

Finally, “Wine and War” and “Inventing Wine” are two publications that offer erudite observations and perspectives into the role of wine throughout history.

I recommend all these books, especially with a glass or two of wine in hand.

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