Culture & Wine: #3 Faiths, Beliefs, Symbols

“From the actual situation of the elbow, we are enabled to drink at our ease, the glass going directly to the mouth. Let us, then, with glass in hand adore this benevolent wisdom; – let us adore and drink!”

Benjamin Franklin, 1779 letter to the Abbé Morellet

This was a somewhat tongue in cheek remark made by Benjamin Franklin, suggesting it as proof that God intended us to drink wine because He had placed the elbow strategically for that purpose! However there are a great many serious examples of the connection between Culture and Wine which are typified from faith, beliefs and symbols in different societies, from thousands of years ago up to present day.

Let’s begin with modern times: Christianity gives wine a special symbolic significance. The first miracle attributed to Jesus was the turning of water into wine at a wedding in Caana, and the performance of holy communion involves the use of wine symbolising the blood of Christ. In the Roman Catholic Church there is also the belief of transubstantiation in which the wine actually becomes the blood of Christ. Judaism also affords wine a special significance, with Jewish people probably having the oldest and most long standing relationship with wine of any religion. Hebrew scripture depicts wine as a sign of God’s blessing, it is drunk on most Jewish holidays and is part of a special blessing at weddings.

In more ancient times wine was a staple not a luxury, especially in Mediterranean cultures. The Egyptians, around 4,000 BC associated wine with a number of gods, especially Hathor their patron god of wine. He was duly honoured and celebrated on a monthly special “binge drinking day” to use modern terminology. The Greeks hailed Dionysus as the giver of all good gifts and identified him as the patron of wine. Dionysus was said to offer ecstasy and spiritual vision to his devotees. The Romans, believed that wine was bestowed upon the human race by Jupiter, the great god of air, light, and heat. Bacchus is more commonly known as the Roman god of wine and was the son of Jupiter/Zeus. Connected, nearly all Roman religious festivals coincided with important phases of the grape-growing and wine-producing agricultural cycle.

Asian cultures, too, associate wine with the spiritual, as seen in the large casks of sake located at Japanese Shinto shrines and the placement of wine on the ceremonial altars honoring the Chinese god of prosperity.


Many of these acts of faith are symbolic of a set of beliefs and faith, but there are also many physical symbols “of” wine, especially around Europe. Not all are connected to faith and beliefs however, most that I have seen are connected to trade or craft guilds as well as the paraphernalia directly involved in the drinking of wine. The shape of a wine glass or a wine bottle are two specific examples. Take a look at some of these images that amongst other things are symbolic of wine culture in Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Alsace regions and towns in France.

Typical Alsace traditional wine glass
Bottle styles that are replicated worldwide especially for sparkling wine and Pinot Noir wines.

I have experienced a wide variety of such symbolism in many parts of the world, but none more prolific than in the Alsace region of Northern France. It seems like every town is a wine town with statues symbolic of viticulture, wall plaques depicting the faces of Greek and Roman gods, decorative signs above wine bars, restaurants, wine merchants mostly depicting bunches of grapes with the name of the owner or restaurant. This is not mere cynical marketing to attract you into their lairs, it harks back to the ancient guilds in medieval times when craftsmen were regulated and approved based on the quality of their product or service such as for bakers, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, silversmiths. These physical signs or symbols were also symbolic of quality and trust. They have endured to this day in the towns and villages of Alsace.

Classic sign over a wine merchant and lodging in Ribeauville, Alsace.

I have mostly described cultures here in the “old world” of wine growing countries, ancient and current, but what about the “new world” of wine ….. Australia, New Zealand, America, Argentina, Chile ….. or even my own country England? Is there evidence of a burgeoning wine related culture where you live?




Categories: Culture & Wine, Masterclass, Wine

Tags: , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. Hello Dr. B. I stumbled upon your blog through a comment you left on Suzanne’s Picture Retirement. I’m glad I did and I’m sure I’ll be back. Loved the Benjamin Franklin quote. I’m using my elbow to drink coffee at the moment…but I see wine in my future. Have a lovely day!

    ~Christie

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  2. I’m interested in wine as a liberator and the tension between Dionysus, ecstasy and extravagance, and Apollo, order and perfection. Given that the Catholic Church took on many pagan rituals and adapted them, I wonder if that’s not symbolic of creating order out of chaos. Anything about that in the books you recommended? In terms of symbolism in the California wine scene, I’m sorry to say that it all seems a bit pastiche to me, like a Disney land version of Italy, but maybe I haven’t been to enough places to really know. Italy on the other hand seems very divided from being rooted in tradition and convention to being cutting-edge and contemporary.

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    • I have no doubt that wine is a liberator both from ancient and modern times. You will find plenty of examples of this in the opening pages of I Drink Therefore I Am. Plato’s symposium is a classic example, and Scruton gives many other examples throughout the book. One of the books I think I recommended is The Mythology of Wine, it’s full of examples of wines symbolism in both Christian and pagan cultures and beliefs though I haven’t spotted any order out of chaos references yet. However across the last two millennia I suppose many “laws and “ rules associated with vine planting and growing have created order, for hundreds of years, Greeks, Romans and medieval monarchs granted permissions to those who most “deserved”.

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      • Great, almost finished with the book I’m currently reading so onto Scruton’s at long last. I think the mythology of wine one was really expensive on Amazon so I’ll have to look for the kindle version.

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  3. Dr. B. Sterling Vineyards with its Disneyesque funicular ride to the Greek-inspired building at the top of the hill comes to mind regarding symbolism. Personally, I prefer a whisper, not a shout when it comes to branding and your photo of the sign in Alsace is more to my liking. Thankfully, Napa isn’t all about attracting tourists and there are lots of elegant wineries to be found. An enjoyable read, thanks.

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    • Thank you. I’ve been to San Francisco a couple of times and really regret not getting off my backside and visiting some wineries. I’ve visited hundreds of vineyards over the years and have always mostly enjoyed the traditional family affairs where it has been handed down over many generations. My favourite is in the Savennieres area of France where Evelyne is a 5th generation FEMALE owner winemaker of the Chateau des Vaults. It may be a chateau but really understated, traditional and welcoming.

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  4. To answer your question: No, there’s no wine industry, burgeoning or otherwise, in Alberta. This is beer and whiskey (rye) country. Did you realize the bit of humour in the photo of the wine merchant’s sign — Mr. Sipp? As in “come in and sip some wine?” Now, I have a question for you (maybe you can pursue it in one of your posts) — do you think that every kind of wine should be served in its own special shape of wine glass (I’m thinking of those expensive Riedel glasses).

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    • Ha ha very funny about the Sipp sign! Now regarding glasses, I do have some Riedel glasses, an expensive set for red burgundy. It does seem to make a difference to me, but it could merely be a psychological effect. I spend a lot of money on burgundy and it feels right to drink it out of a special expensive glass. My daughters eyes light up when she visits and sees the large burgundy reidels set on the dinner table. But generally I don’t believe it, especially since riedel won’t publish their research to back up their claims. There was a recent article in a magazine about a woman who had designed 4 glasses based on research she published, where each shape released and held aromas best from a single particular category of wine. I haven’t explained it very well so I’ll try and find the article again and send you a link.

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  5. No Challenge Your Camera this week?

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