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.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 gets a number of 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.
Why does wine have this spiritual dimension? It isn’t because of the alcohol. Cheap whiskey doesn’t have it. It is not because it tastes good. Lots of beverages or 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. 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 symbolic association with status.
Instead, the wine lover, at least on rare 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 has that ability to 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.
When we are so transfixed by the sensory surface of the world, we stand outside that nexus of practical concerns and settling of accounts that makes up the self. Shorn of that identity we drink in the flavors seduced by the thought that there is goodness in the world—whole, unadulterated, without measure. This is part of the attraction of great art and music—a moment of ecstasy. So it is with wine.
No other beverage has the depth, complexity, and textural refinement to create that momentary mutation of the self.