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Western Civ 101

by Jennifer Rosen

Jesus was not a party animal. The Last Supper was hardly the blowout of the season. So why would he waste his quota of miracles on something so frivolous as turning water into wine.

We use wine to celebrate, relax, pontificate and get drunk. It’s hard to imagine that this frill on the apron of life was largely responsible for the rise of Western Civilization.

I’m exaggerating, right? You decide. The first Neolithic spree was probably honey gone bad. It’s a short step from there to grapes. With their high sugar content and crushability, they practically vinify themselves. And you could always follow drunken bears into the woods to find where the grapes were fermenting.

But vines you strip in the course of a bison hunt make a short and awkward vintage. There’s evidence to suggest that the transition from spear to John Deere owed more to the lure of the grape harvest then the thrill of the pigsty.

The move to agriculture brought food surpluses which begat cities and cuneiform and…sewage. So many people, so little water. Given the difficulties of delivering virgin spring water to a megalopolis, and because any running water around doubled as a bathroom, wine, for millennia, was the only safe thing to drink.

What would your life be like if your first cup in the morning were not a double, lowfat latté, but a Cabernet? It would be a drunken fog, that’s what. Virtually every invention of Western society, up until the 1600s, when coffee, tea and hot chocolate got people boiling water, was made by someone half-crocked. Now, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Wine, at that point, had about a quarter the alcohol of your average California Zinfandel. It was also sweet, sour and pretty awful. You can imagine how bad, if they added seawater, lead and tree sap to make it taste better.

But even at minimal alcohol levels, it got some people drunk; especially women who tended to get all lascivious and dangerous. Where there is wine, there have always been spoilsports. Preach as they might, though, prohibitionists had no alternative to offer. Considering the rate of dysentery, cholera and typhoid in countries that still don’t have safe water supplies today, you can only conclude that anti-wine activists throughout the ages must have been carted off by those diseases even as they preached temperance.

But wine was more than a life preserver, it was a life giver; a valuable source of calories, vitamins and minerals. Centuries of literature observing this invigorating property are not just poetic hogwash. If wine does not make us noticeably healthier now, it’s because we’re already too healthy to notice. Wine-drinking societies, more vigorous than abstainers, had a better shot at survival. Chances are you’re descended from one.

Although we classify it now as a depressant because its kick deserts you somewhere in the night, through much of history wine was the only mood lifter available. An oasis, for some, in a desert of drudgery. In the West, where they had not yet discovered the wonders of opium (much less ibuprofen) it was as close to anesthesia as you could get. For these reasons wine has been classified as both food and powerful medicine, from Hypocrates and the Medical School at Alexandria until up to a century ago.

Can you imagine a world where wine was fed to slaves to make them stronger? Or where the prospect of troops with no wine in their bellies made kings certain of defeat?

It’s a minefield of paradoxes: Opus-One-expensive and Thunderbird-cheap. Blood of Christ and work of Satan. For the rich and powerful and for guys who sleep under bridges. Gentrified pastime and threat to society. And now you know: builder of empires.
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About the Author

Jennifer Rosen - Jennifer Rosen, award-winning wine writer, educator and author of Waiter, There’s a Horse in My Wine, and The Cork Jester’s Guide to Wine, writes the weekly wine column for the Rocky Mountain News and articles for magazines around the world. Jennifer speaks French and Italian, mangles German, Spanish and Arabic, and works off the job perks with belly dance, tightrope and trapeze. Read her columns and sign up for her weekly newsletter at:

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