The earliest known wine production occurred some 8,000 years back in today’s Georgia, a tiny country nestled in the Caucasian Mountains.
This natural border between Europe and Asia is volcano country, a land of endless forests and eternal snows, and a font of culture and legend. Noah supposedly landed there after the Flood; Zarathustra preached in the region; and the inhabitants embraced no fewer than six major religions, namely Judism, the Orthodox Church, Monophysitism (a form of Christianity), and Sunni, Shiite and Buddhist teachings.
The Tradition of Wine: Mystical Love and Spiritual Intoxication
Wine has been a sign of wealth, power and happiness in every ancient culture. Considered a hallmark of civilization, the nectar quickly acquired a powerfully symbolic and divine character.
Christ changed water into wine during the Marriage at Cana. Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god who judged souls and represented life after death, was also the god of wine. Wine became the tears of Horus, and the sweat of Ra.
In Babylon, a magical vineyard of precious gems was described in “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the first work of fiction ever recorded.
Jewish history is also closely linked to wine. The Torah speaks of it as a symbol of blessing, joy and wealth, and it’s a crucial part of key Shabbat rituals. In Genesis, Yahweh gave Noah the grapevine he planted that resulted in the earliest account of drunkeness.
Over 3000 years ago, the Greeks decreed that wine was divine. The mysterious and sacred fruit belonged to Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, and to Dionysus, son of Zeus and Semele. Dionysus embodied the quest for spirituality through wine. As god of winemaking and ritual madness, he used mystic ecstasy to transcend death.
Closer to modern times, the empire of Bacchus dates back 2500 years. The Romans deconsecrated wine and made it available to the masses. We are indebted to them for cultivating fine wines, creating vintages and refining the art of wine tasting. However, it wasn’t long before the early Christians put wine back on its sacred pedestal.
A symbolic moment infused wine with even more mysticism and power as Jesus offered a chalice to his disciples and proclaimed, “Drink this, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant…”
To Christians, wine is not only a symbol, but it is a part of God. Drinking wine during the Eucharist conveys a message of universal love and provides access to eternal life. By commanding, “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus insured that wine will always be at the heart of the mystery of his presence. The Holy Grail further emphasizes to Christians that wine is the symbol of the blood shed for them. Of all religions, Christianity most firmly positions wine as an essential embodiment of its message.
1600 years ago, wine became even more pervasive as evangelizing Christian monks blanketed Europe with vineyards. Some of France’s greatest appellations were planted around their monasteries.
Islam outlaws drinking wine, but parts of the Koran are ambiguous. Wine is described as a gift from Allah to mankind and is to be used for mystical intoxication.
So, let’s talk about vines! Wild vines have impressive strength. They can break stones, choke trees as they climb to seek light, dig roots 40 meters (130 feet) below the surface to find nourishment, withstand drought, and live more than 100 years. They also produce a fruit brimming with juice so packed with natural sugars and yeast that it undergoes a spontaneous alchemy and transforms into a natural alcohol nectar with multiple flavors. It is a true miracle of nature, present in the spirituality of all civilizations. Small wonder that Noah took vines on his arc.
Wine and the French Soul
Wine has a special place in French hearts. For two millenniums, France has developed a “wine lifestyle” that every French family adopted and passed down through the generations. As part of this wine culture, the French acquire a taste for wine and learn its rich traditions, symbolism and history. Each great French vineyard stands witness to the important events that shaped the country. They are noble testaments to the style, fabric, and soul of a nation.
So What Place Do Women Have in All This?
Throughout wine’s history, women have been largely ignored. There were a few exceptions. Ama-Gestin, one of the oldest Sumerian deities, was called the “mother of wine.” She had a temple in the city of Lagash and was said to have owned an extraordinary vineyard called Sâbîtu Siduri. Her sister, Nin-Kasi, was the goddess of intoxicating beverages.
But since ancient times, generally only courtesans could drink wine, and this was usually at orgies where corporal pleasures trumped good morals. “Loose women” and wine were closely associated throughout the centuries and this was a major excuse for forbidding women to drink.
Men also considered the menstrual blood produced during a woman’s reproductive cycle as unclean or impure – the exact opposite of divine blood and its close connection to wine.
Except for the “Widows of Champagne” who ran their husbands’ estates when they were at war, women were excluded from wine.
This began to change in the early twentieth century when female artists, intellectuals, and wealthy heiresses, like George Sand and the libertines of the Roaring Twenties began drinking like men. Consuming alcohol fueled women’s challenge to the male chauvinist political, philosophical, and artistic status quo.
Drinking wine represented a certain lifestyle and was instrumental in the liberation of women.
photos: Paris Match