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Wine and the Origins of Human Civilization

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It's common to see references to "wine culture," the culture that surrounds wine and wine drinking, but it's not so common to talk about how fundamental wine might be to human culture itself — and indeed, maybe even to human civilization. Humans have cultivated grapes and made wine for millennia and it's been argued that humans have evolved to enjoy alcohol. Maybe the decision to cultivate grapes for making wine constituted a vital turning point in human cultural evolution.


In our nomadic past, the culture of wine was a civilizing force. We settled to tend the vines. Unlike grain, which could be sowed in a new place each year and harvested at season’s end, the vines held us to one place. We had to wait four or five years before they produced even a small crop. Unlike grain, they required attention throughout the year – pruning in winter; shaping, or training to a tree or stake in spring; tasting for ripeness and harvesting in autumn. Once crushed, the berries met their “death,” were transformed by fermentation, and reborn as wine.



Unseen yeasts worked their magic; man added nothing, did nothing beyond crushing the fruit. His role was to watch and to tend, as a parent might a child. He was not the “maker,” as our modern term might imply. The process inspired awe and wonder, leading the ancients to consider wine sacred. As symbol and metaphor, it became part of Christian and Jewish ritual. The culture of wine spread, and so did its role as a catalyst for community, for bringing together family and friends.



...Grapes come from the earth, and depend on nature for their quality and consistency. Climate and soil determine where vines can successfully be cultivated, but each year’s weather determines if the wine will be good, or else if it will need intervention. The Romans added honey and spices to improve taste as freshness faded. The Greeks added pine resin to retard spoilage – we still taste that bit of history in their retsina.


Source: Paul Draper, Wine & Philosophy: A Symposium on Thinking and Drinking




Alcohol is typically associated with causing a person to become restless and less civilized, not rested and more civilized. That, however, is an association made solely with immoderate consumption of alcohol. When one is also responsible for the entire process of producing alcoholic drinks — and especially wine — then a wandering, uncivilized lifestyle just won't work anymore. It would be at little ironic, then, that an alcoholic drink could produce so much uncivilized behavior but also, originally, be at least partially responsible for civilization itself.



Wine is certainly different from other alcoholic beverages in the sense that it requires a commitment unnecessary for the others. Grains used to produce beers and other some other drinks don't require the sort of close attention throughout the year which grape vines require. Fruits used to produce alcoholic drinks may not require much attention at all, depending on how hardy the trees or bushes are. Grapes good enough and in large enough quantities for wine, however, require plenty of attention and well-organized settlements where skilled labor can be found.




 


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