Wine: The Great Civilizer


There is no doubt that the unique role that wine has played in the history of Western Civilization is central to its prestige

In Europe, wine is known for having been a civilizing force throughout history. If one breaks civilization into its constituent processes — economics, politics, society, culture, technology, environment and history — it is easy to see the role that wine has played in the development of each of them, especially when viewed in particular geographical contexts, keeping in mind that ‘civilization’ has as its root ‘civitas’ or city.

The social role of wine

Wine facilitated the development of local economies because it was not only a desired product for popular consumption but also a convenient and reliable currency. Its liquid state made its measure by units consistent, and its high value to volume ratio made it easy to transport, as compared to soil, wood or stones, for example. The fact that it was preservable contributed to its stability as a currency. Politically, wine stimulated the creation of a number of new laws because it was a substance with unique properties, the likes of which were not seen in other agricultural goods such as beans or broccoli. Socially, it became an indispensable component in ritual, both religious and secular, and therefore acquired strong cultural meaning, which only reinforced its social role. Wine also catalyzed technological innovation, given its unique requirements with regard to fermentation, storage and other aspects of its manufacture. In a previous piece, I outlined its environmental effects on the Valtellina landscape, effects that were reproduced in one form or another anywhere vineyards were cultivated. Historically, of course, all of these processes extended and looped back upon themselves, carrying the whole swirling mass forward while simultaneously remaining rooted firmly in the past, and in tradition, which is the use of the past in the present. It is no exaggeration to say that wine was at the very core of the development of human civilization as it progressed through the millennia, at least in Europe.

Underlying the great civilizing agency of wine is a quality for which it has been both celebrated and criticized: its inebriating effect. An entity can possess no greater power than the power to change the consciousness and perception of the one who consumes it, with the psychoactive properties of a parasite having a greater capacity to drive evolution than those which are merely nutritive, as important as those qualities are to the basic functioning of a system. If wine were just grape juice, it would not have played the role in Western Civilization that it did. As a parasite, wine analyzed (selected) euphoria, paralyzed (eliminated) fear, and catalyzed (combined) imagination, and the determination to make it real.

Not only sunny Chardonnay and courageous Cabernet

Of course, it was not all sunny Chardonnay and courageous Cabernet. The problems of drinking too much wine were sung about in Ancient Greece: the headaches, the chronic illness, its pernicious effect on overall health, its ability to hinder clear thinking, and the role it played in bad decisions, and its addictive and sometimes all-consuming quality, which could lead to a life of ruin, have long been known. But even these negative effects played a positive role in the development of civilization, in the form of political, social and cultural measures, for example, that arose to counteract them. This is the way of the parasite, whose agency often emerges ironically, producing good effects by being a bad actor.

Wine was not always or only so complicated, however. It served as a staple in the diet of peasants – let’s say contadini instead – for many of its virtues noted earlier. It was easily apportioned and carried, being liquid and relatively dense in nutrition. It was easily consumable and kept well in both the heat of summer and the cold of winter. It both slaked thirst and eased hunger, as it filled the stomach, at least temporarily, and was easily digestible. When it was cold it warmed you up and when it was hot it cooled you down. Its inebriating effects were manageable because the wine drunk by those working in the field was comparatively weak, perhaps only 3 percent alcohol by volume, compared to table wine which was three or four times as potent. Also, the combination of hard work and a relatively spare and simple diet allowed the liver to do its work, and no doubt even the little alcohol that was present eased the ache of muscles at the end of the day, while its psychoactive effect kept those working in the field from being overwhelmed by the dim prospects and encroaching absurdity of their daily reality.

The soil sustained you, the vine was your companion (the similarity of grapevine to the human body in its basic size, form and longevity has long been appreciated, particularly as it was trained vertically with outstretched tendrils to resemble Jesus on the cross), and the cluster of grapes was the gift that he gave you for your dedicated nurturance, but the wine that was made from those grapes – Christ’s blood – was your salvation.

Humans and wine

What more could you ask for from a simple plant? You can see how it wheedled its way into the hearts of people throughout the continent, how it came to take over huge tracts of land, extending from the muddiest flood plains to the rockiest mountain slopes, beguiling the humans on hand to make even highly inhospitable places fertile enough for it to take root, thrive and reproduce. The lives of Vitis vinifera and Homo sapiens have long been intertwined.

The story, the cascading chain of parasites, does not end with the wine, however. Whereas sun and soil, the most essential of hosts, nurture the vine and make the wine possible, the wine itself imbues the sun and especially the soil with new value and meaning. A vineyard is unlike any other agricultural plot. Economically, politically, socially, culturally, technologically, environmentally and historically it occupies a class unto itself, one that has been, for good and ill, regarded as more noble, more dignified, more refined, more sophisticated, and more complex than any other crop and the land on which it is grown. There is no doubt that the unique role that wine has played in the history of Western Civilization is central to its prestige.