From its origins in Eurasia some 8,000 years ago, wine has spread to become a staple at dinner tables throughout the world. But wine is more than just a beverage. People devote a lifetime to its study, spend fortunes tracking down rare bottles, and give up respectable, lucrative careers to spend their days on a tractor or hosing out barrels. Wine has an attraction that goes beyond mere liking. For us, wine is an object of love.
The word “soul” has unsavory philosophical connotations so I won’t throw it around. But whatever it is that allows us to live with gratitude, conscience, humor, and Eros—wine can speak to that part of us, the whole self, not that truncated part that is a palate or nose.
The spiritual dimension of wine has a long history. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, was said to inhabit the soul with the power of ecstasy—the Ancient Greek word ekstasis meant standing outside the self via madness or artistic expression, and wine was thought to encourage that transformation. The Romans called the same God Bacchus with similar associations. The Judeo/Christian world tames the ecstasy yet still acknowledges the virtues of wine. Judaism has long included wine in its rituals for which it incorporates a specific blessing, and of course, for Christians, wine represents the blood of Christ and receives many mentions in the Bible. Other alcoholic beverages have existed for as long or longer than wine, but none have its spiritual connotations. Today, wine is just one among many alcoholic beverages consumed in great quantities. Yet it sustains its sacramental role—as status symbol, fashion statement, a sign of class, refinement, or sophistication, a source of intellectual delight, the object of a quest for a peak experience, or the focal point of social life—all contemporary renditions of “spiritual” some more debased than others.
What makes wine an appropriate object of love? Why does wine have this spiritual dimension? It isn’t only because of the alcohol. Cheap whiskey doesn’t have it. It is not because it tastes good. Many beverages and foods taste good, but they lack wine’s power to move us.
Spirituality is about inward transformation. Dionysus was a gender-bending, shape-shifting God who entered the soul and transformed the identity of the one afflicted. Go with Dionysus and achieve ecstasy by escaping the confines of one’s identity; resist and be torn apart by conflicting passions, according to the myth. Wine too is about transformation–the grapes in the vineyard, the wine in the barrel and bottle, the drink in the glass as its volatile chemicals release an aromatic kaleidoscope of fleeting, irresolute incense. Wine changes profoundly over time. In turn, the drinker is transformed by the wine. But not merely by the alcoholic loosening of inhibitions or the ersatz identity appropriated through wine’s association with status. Instead, the wine lover, at least on occasion, is transformed by the openness to experience she undergoes when gripped by sensations whose very beauty compels her full attention. For unlike any other drink, wine can arrest our habitual heedlessness and distracted preoccupation and rivet our attention on something awe-inspiring yet utterly inconsequential, without aim or purpose, lacking in survival value, monetary reward, or salutary advance in our assets.
Why wine has this power to move us is a question for another day. Today, it’s just important to celebrate it.