The origins of fermented beverages are lost in the mists of time, but it’s a safe bet that they were discovered by accident. Some poor soul stored fruit or grain soup in a clay, wooden or hide vessel and forgot about it long enough for ambient yeasts to ferment some of the sugar in the substrate to ethanol. When he or she came upon it again, it had a foamy scum on top and smelled funny. One member of the tribe, probably a teenaged boy who would have eaten an oyster on a dare, said “hey, I’m going to taste that.” To everyone’s surprize the risk taker didn’t drop dead on the spot and actually liked what he tasted. What’s more, he got awfully happy and danced around more than usual. Others tried it, and the fermented product became a staple in the tribe, something that could preserve the goodness of a summer’s harvest through the winter months while conferring a buzz as a bonus.
By no later than 10,000 years ago, fermentation was no longer a random process. The Natufian people in the Middle East were brewing beer from grain. This was at least one important factor in the shift of human culture from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Elaborate brewing bowls from that period suggest that beer was highly prized and undoubtedly used to celebrate rites of passage and grief, and to entertain important visitors from other communities. Wine production followed soon after, probably starting in the Caucasian region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea and serving the same functions as beer.
Wine consumption grew like topsy and spread through the civilized world. Three thousand years ago the Greeks were drinking the stuff diluted with sea water and flavoured with honey and herbs. Their product was likely nasty without adulteration, but the blended versions were at the heart of conversational groups called symposia (meaning drinking together.) The Romans were great wine enthusiasts, and one crucial factor in their military successes was the daily provision of a litre of vinum to its soldiers. They obtained nutrition from it, added it to water (which killed the micro-organisms which would have otherwise killed them) and applied it to wounds as an antiseptic. Not bad for rotted grape juice, eh?
In the centuries that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire wine took two courses. “Fine” versions helped church and state aristocracies maintain their elevated status, a curse that remains with us to this day in the form of wine snobs and label buyers. “Ordinary” wine became the liquid portion of the ordinary family’s daily main meal (if they could get their hands on wine or food.) It’s estimated that 10% of the daily caloric intake of Mediterranean peasants was obtained from wine. It’s also likely that wine consumed with family and friends added to the beauty of a meal, reduced anxiety in the diners, and added a little joy to their generally difficult lives.
Some people always consumed wine to excess, but modern alcoholism originated in the 19th century when cheap distilled spirits became available. This led to the “gin lanes” of England where people drowned their sorrows in gin. Signs advertised “drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence, straw free.” Besides ruining countless lives, inexpensive distillates also ruined wine’s reputation as a wholesome healthful drink. The temperance movement spawned by the excesses of the era persisted long past the end of gin lane and persists as a political and religious blight on any alcohol-containing drink. Any fermented beverage should be consumed in moderation (two standard drinks a day for men and half that for women), but today’s anti-alcohol lobbies in North America scream that they shouldn’t be consumed at all. If that side won, the incidence of heart disease would skyrocket. At least as importantly, beautiful experiences at the table with friends and family over pleasant meals part of which sits in a glass beside your plate would be lost. I can only hope reason and history can triumph over hysterical superstition.