The Life of Wine

 |  December 26, 2012

It’s January. The carols have been sung, the eggnog has been drunk, and the little baby Jesus once again failed to turn up at the party I held in his honour. Oh well, at least the world did not end as the Mayan priests predicted and that was certainly worth celebrating with a glass or two of wine. So wine and religion – what’s the deal?

Just to be clear, the Mayans didn’t drink wine – in fact, nobody tasted wine in the Americas (even though there were vines all over the place) until the Spanish brought it across with syphilis – but they did drink blood, I think, which makes them harder than the Christians, who merely pretend to drink blood. However, nearly all civilisations across the rest of the world were producing wine.

Wine has been around for at least five thousand years and has been used to drink the health of the gods for just as long. The Sumerians, Egyptians and Persians loved a drop. Each worshipped a goddess dedicated to wine and no self-respecting Pharaoh ever seriously considered making the journey aboard Ra’s boat to the afterlife without several amphorae of wine to help him on his way.

The Greeks and the Romans drank a great deal of wine and both had slightly insane gods to make sure there was a plentiful supply: the Greeks had Dionysus, the Romans bowed to Bacchus. As any son of the supreme god at that time was expected to do, he got involved in some quite fantastic adventures, and was also associated with boozy rituals of ecstatic madness.

For Christians, wine is certainly no less important. Exodus in the Old Testament may never have been written if the Hebrews had not been persuaded to abandon their beloved vineyards, get on their donkeys and head for the Promised Land where a far better drop than the Egyptian rubbish they had been drinking was said to be waiting for them in the local taverna.

Wine is also referred to numerous times in the best-selling biography to the King of the Jews. John tells us how the Son of God got everybody dancing in Cana by introducing the idea of a free bar. Indeed, some historians believe the whole water into wine trick was crow-bared into the Bible as a way of proving to those still not convinced by the new Christianity that Jesus was just as cool as Bacchus.

Central to Christian worship is the Eucharist, or Communion, or whatever you want to call it. The whole issue of what Christ was on about when he suggested devotional cannibalism to his mates after a few glasses at their last meal together has understandably led to confusion and 2,000 years of arguing. I’ve always thought that rather than quibbling about whether Jesus meant the bread and wine becomes his body and blood, or is representational of his body and blood, church leaders might have spent their time better coming up with something less macabre for Communion. Like a vase of flowers? I bet there was a pretty vase of flowers at the Last Supper that could have represented Christ’s soul or something – “Sniff this Geranium, for ‘tis the soul of Christ”, perhaps. Whatever, wine remains a fundamental part of Christian worship and the demand for squashed grapes kept monks across Europe extremely busy and, I assume, happy. The contribution to winemaking made by these tonsured toilers cannot be underestimated.

And all is not lost for abstemious Muslims. Although told in no uncertain terms that wine on this earthly plain is the handiwork of Satan, the Qur’an suggests that for the virtuous, rivers of delicious wine will flow for those wishing to slake their thirst with a glass of plonk in the next life. In fact, the text of the Qur’an actually praises wine pretty early on as a gift to mankind, but the scribes were probably hit with a ruler by the Imam, and told to rewrite it as the creation of Beelzebub.

Good old Buddhism actually rejects the use of alcohol as its consumption is seen as something that makes the path to enlightenment trickier to negotiate. But Buddhism is a wonderfully casual religion in which interpretation of the rules is very much down to the local community and the individual. In Thailand it is definitely customary to drink something more potent than coconut juice at a funeral to wish a loved one good luck as they continue on that path.

As for Hinduism, Taoism and Confucianism, the rules have changed through the centuries, but wine is generally accepted as part of the various rituals just so long as those attending the rituals can string a sentence together, keep their trousers on and don’t try to get off with the priest.

Nearly all religions have had to come to terms with the fact that wine has been keeping people happy and healthy for thousands of years. They’ve had no choice but to strike an uneasy balance with the grape. Religions will continue to come and go as they have for centuries. Wine, however, will continue to sustain the body and soul as it has done for millennia. And that’s a nice thought.