Why We Love--And Write About--Wine

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Photo by khalampre/FlickrCC

There's a theory that humans first discovered wine when a hungry soul chanced upon some wild vines in late fall, their bunches well past ripe, rotten and slightly fuzzy with a blush of mold. Their taste would have been unlike other grapes, the skin having little resistance, bold and spicy with a little effervescence. But what really made them different was what happened afterward! Definitely a heightened sense of euphoria, perhaps a new-found ability to dance, possibly uncontrollable laughter or intense and profound conversation, and maybe after several bunches the fool-hearted courage was mustered to finally show that damned saber-toothed tiger who was boss.

What is quite clear from that first encounter is that the element of wine that kept us coming back was its ability to make us drunk! As we have evolved, so have our reasons for loving wine. But it is surely the transformative power of drunkenness that initially propelled wine from rotten grapes to the level of the spiritually transcendent beverage of the Elysium mysteries of the ancient Greeks, as Elijah's drink of choice at Passover or as a reasonable substitute for the blood of the son of the Christian God.

It was also Mohammed's personal experience with the misuse of wine's power that forced him to suggest wine should only be reserved for those that have obtained paradise in Islam, where it is said that wine will flow from fountains (God willing, it is Quintessa).

Not only was wine important enough to us to write about, but it seems that it was one of the first things that we wrote about!

Where does this idea of wine as a sacred beverage come from? This is difficult to trace back through history, as in order for something to be documented, it must be written down. So we must rephrase the question to, "When did humans first start to write about wine?" This is when we find something very interesting.

It is believed that writing began in several places around the world in about 3500 B.C.E. In Egypt the first writing was done in hieroglyphics or pictorial writing and the earliest form of this style of writing contains characters representing specialized terms for grapes (yrp), raisins (wnsy), grapevines (yarrt), and wine press (smw).

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Graphic by Aaron Pott and Max Fisher

The Egyptian demon-god Shesmu, whose name includes the word for wine press, was a god of the underworld who was associated with wine, oils for embalming, and most importantly pronounced judgment over dead souls, giving wine to the good and tearing off the heads of the evil, throwing them into the wine press and converting their blood into wine.

In the 1980s, in tombs excavated in Juxian, China of the Neothlithic Dawenkou Culture (4500-2500 B.C.E.), 20 wine vessels were found, which provide clues to the earliest of Chinese characters. Archaeologists and paleographers have since recognized 14 of the more than 20 drawings as pictographs and deciphered them as seven characters, including fan (ordinary), nan (south), and xiang (enjoy).

So it seems that not only was wine important enough to us to write about, but it seems that it was one of the first things that we wrote about!