“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.
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.
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?