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Salubrious Side Effects Echo through the Ages (May 8, 2014)

"Wine," wrote Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, "is a matter which in a miraculous way (is) intended for men to apply in good and bad health in the proper quantities." The Greek physician was born in 460 BC. He obviously enjoyed a glass or two because he lived to the ripe old age of eighty-three at a time when the average life expectancy in Greece was thirty years.

Hippocrates' words on the health-giving benefits of wine are echoed by the Apostle Paul in his letter to Timothy: "No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments." (Timothy 5:23) This theme of praising the medicinal effects of wine, rather than the sensual enjoyment of wine, dates back to ancient Egyptian papyri and Sumerian tablets inscribed over 4,000 years ago.

Both Testaments of the Bible are replete with references to wine, references that are at one and the same time literal, symbolic and metaphorical. The proliferation of these references speaks to the importance of the fermented grape in the daily lives of Israelites and the newly converted Christians of the New Testament. From Noah planting the first vineyard after the Flood to the wedding at Cana, when Jesus turns water into wine, the presence of wine in daily life is celebrated and, when taken to excess, deprecated. 

But of all biblical references to wine, arguably the most significant occurred at the Last Supper. During this Passover meal, with wine and unleavened bread central to the ritual, Jesus posited the concept of the Eucharist. According to the Book of Matthew, after blessing the bread he broke it and gave pieces to his disciples, saying, "This is my body." Then he blessed the wine and instructed those present, "Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."

Significantly, it was wine that Jesus chose as symbolic of his life rather than beer or mead (fermented honey), both of which predate wine. This would suggest that wine was the preferred beverage of the populace at the time (unlike today, when beer is the beverage of choice and mead is virtually ignored).

As in our era, biblical references reflect an ambivalent attitude towards the consumption of wine and by extension the imbibing of any alcoholic beverage that can lead to intoxication.

This dichotomy of thinking about alcohol is still with us today. Wine is a gift of God (or, for the ancients, the gods) that can bestow pleasure and delight on a community or degradation and destruction on individuals who take it to extremes. If one needed a biblical injunction to enjoy the pleasures of the table, you need look no further than Ecclesiastes 9:7: "Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favours what you do."

The consequence of that licence to imbibe could be overindulgence. The first documented instance of drunkenness in the Old Testament is poor old Noah, the original boat-builder turned zoo-keeper. According to Genesis (9:18) "Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent." Michelangelo painted a fresco in the Sistine Chapel entitled "Drunkenness of Noah" that depicts the inebriated patriarch being covered with a cloak by his son Ham to hide his nakedness. Noah's other two sons, Shem and Japheth, look on. Ironically, everyone in the fresco is naked except for an agricultural worker outside the tent who is nonchalantly tilling the soil.

Obviously, in days of yore there must have been a lot of people who were not aware of "the elephant in the room" because drunkenness, viewed as a sin, is mentioned either metaphorically or literally more than seventy times in the Bible. (There are, however, no biblical admonitions against dancing, which, as we are well aware, can lead to twerking.)

Interestingly, in the Hebrew Bible there are ten different words for wine and in the Greek Bible, only five. If you apply the syllogism that the Inuit have an unusually large number of words for snow because of their familiarity with it, then the Jews must be more intimately acquainted with wine than their Christian brethren. But not only is this false logic but the premise is invalid, since a linguist named Laura Martin proved that Eskaluet, a series of languages native to the Arctic Rim countries, "have about the same number of distinct word roots referring to snow as English does."

Suffice it to say that I am in full agreement with my fellow wine writer, Saint Paul, when it comes to the medicinal properties of wine; and I would go even further by having the words of the late André Simon tattooed across my chest – if I were of that mind. Simon, a great gourmand and founder of The International Wine & Food Society, wrote in his book The Art of Great Living, "Wine is purer than either water or milk because no typhoid or other deadly germ can live in wine."

André Simon died in 1970 at the age of 93. I rest my case.




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