A History of the World in Six Glasses

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Wine Symbol Analysis

Wine Symbol Icon

From nearly the beginning of its existence, wine has been the drink of power and sophistication. Arguably more than any of the other symbol-drinks in Standage’s book, then, wine’s symbolic significance is plain, and has stayed the same over time. From the time of the prosperous ancient Greeks (who considered wine a celebration of prosperity, hedonism, and sensuality) to the early days of the United States (during which wine was a symbol of the decadent European culture America was leaving behind), wine has symbolized elitism and cultural sophistication. It’s important to bear in mind, however, that for some Greeks, like Socrates and Plato, wine was more than an invitation to hedonism—it was also an opportunity for the drinker to overcome vices with intelligence and self-control.

Wine Quotes in A History of the World in Six Glasses

The A History of the World in Six Glasses quotes below all refer to the symbol of Wine. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Walker Publishing Company edition of A History of the World in Six Glasses published in 2006.
Chapter 3 Quotes

Enthusiasm for civilized competition and Greece’s presumed superiority over foreigners were apparent in the Greek love of wine. It was drunk at formal dining parties, or symposia, which were venues for playful but adversarial discussion in which drinkers would try to outdo each other in wit, poetry, or rhetoric. The formal, intellectual atmosphere of the symposion also reminded the Greeks how civilized they were, in contrast to the barbarians, who either drank lowly, unsophisticated beer or—even worse—drank wine but failed to do so in a manner that met with Greek approval.

Related Symbols: Beer, Wine
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

The ancient Greeks loved to drink wine for a number of reasons, whether they were totally conscious of those reasons or not. To begin with, Standage argues that drinking wine was a way to test one's wit and intelligence: if you could drink wine and still hold your own in an argument, you were pretty smart and self-controlled (this isn't so different from the modern idea of being able to "hold your liquor"—a definite sign of maturity). Second, wine was a way for the Greeks to celebrate their own civilization's superiority. The association between wine and civilization ties in with Standage's general point about beverages and cultures. Drinking a drink takes no skill, and everyone can do it; the only requirement is that one have access to the drink in question. As a result, drinks are an excellent way for a group of people to celebrate their membership in the group. By drinking wine, the Greeks were implicitly saying, "We are Greeks, and you (barbarians, foreigners, etc.) aren't."

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As wine became more widely available—so widely available that even the slaves drank it—what mattered was no longer whether or not you drank wine, but what kind it was. For while the availability of wine was more democratic in Greek society than in other cultures, wine could still be used to delineate social distinctions.

Related Symbols: Wine
Page Number: 54-55
Explanation and Analysis:

In the ancient world, wine became more and more available. the growing availability of wine created an interesting situation: wine had always been the drink of prestige and sophistication, so its widening availability was something of a challenge to the elites. The elites' response was to stratify the consumption of wine by choosing ever more elaborate and expensive vintages for themselves. One could even say that wine was a metaphor for the nature of ancient Greek democracy: although wine was technically available to everyone, there were definitely some people who had more access to wine—and better wine at that—than others. In general, this quote is a great example of the paradox of beverages: beverages are symbols of equality, but also of elitism. In the end, what usually happens is that beverages become stratified, just like wine, in such a way that they're available to everyone, but in different qualities and at different prices.

Plato saw drinking as a way to test oneself, by submitting to the passions aroused by drinking: anger, love, pride, ignorance, greed, and cowardice. He even laid down rules for the proper running of a symposion, which should ideally enable men to develop resistance to their irrational urges and triumph over their inner demons.

Related Characters: Plato
Related Symbols: Wine
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Plato, the important ancient Greek philosopher, wrote extensively about the importance of wine and alcohol to human thought. Plato was interested in wine because it dimmed the powers of the intellect and aroused humans' natural tendencies to be wild, angry, greedy, etc. In short, Plato saw wine as bringing out the worst in human nature. It's for this reason that wine was so important to Plato: he believed that drinking wine was a way for intellectuals to "build up" control over their base urges. If a philosopher could drink wine and still be intelligent and self-controlled, then he was a great man. (At the end of Plato's Symposium, Socrates wins an elaborate argument while drinking massive amounts of wine, proving that he's truly the wisest man at the party.)

Chapter 4 Quotes

While the richest Romans drank the finest wines, poorer citizens drank lesser vintages, and so on down the social ladder. So fine was the calibration of wine with status that drinkers at a Roman banquet, or convivium, would be served different wines depending on their positions in society.

Related Symbols: Wine
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

As the quotation shows, the ancient Romans' attitude toward drinking wine is perhaps the best example of stratification in the consumption of a beverage. While wine is a traditional symbol of power and sophistication, it was also widely available in the ancient world, especially in Roman society. In order to cement their status as elites, the leaders of ancient Rome developed elaborate, expensive vintages to drink, thereby proving that they were truly superior to the Roman masses, even if everyone did drink wine. While the Roman stratification of wine is similar to the stratification of the drink that occurred in ancient Greek society, it's important to recognize the differences. Roman stratification was much more precise and specific than its Greek counterpart. This suggests that Roman society was more rigidly hierarchical and less mobile than Greek society.

Wherever alcohol is drunk, wine is regarded as the most civilized and cultured of drinks. In those countries, wine, not beer, is served at state banquets and political summits, an illustration of wine’s enduring association with status, power, and wealth.

Related Symbols: Beer, Wine
Page Number: 89-90
Explanation and Analysis:

At the conclusion of his chapter on wine, Standage argues that wine has remained the drink of prestige and sophistication throughout the Western world (even in China, French wines are the ultimate drink for the elite). This suggests a couple things. First, it reminds us that drinks (or just commodities in general) are often associated with power and prestige simply because they're hard to get, not because they're inherently better. In other words, wine is a drink for elites, not because it's superior to beer but because it takes a long time to make it, and a lot of skill to make it well. In short, by drinking wine, a person is implying that he or she has the money to spend on the drink. Second, the supremacy of wine today is proof that stratification is an important way for elite beverages to remain elite, even after they become more accessible. Although wine overall has become pretty cheap and affordable, the most expensive wine has actually become less and less affordable. It's for this reason that people can buy "two-buck Chuck" from the grocery store, while presidents and kings wash down their caviar with champagne: these drinks are both wine, but one kind of wine is far more expensive and desirable than the other.

Chapter 6 Quotes

Jefferson did his best to cultivate wines in America and advocated a reduction in the excise duty charge on imported wine as “the only antidote to the bane of whiskey.” But his cause was hopeless. Wine was far more expensive, contained less alcohol, and lacked the American connotations of whiskey, an unpretentious drink associated with independence and self-sufficiency.

Related Characters: Thomas Jefferson (speaker)
Related Symbols: Wine, Spirits
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, we're told that Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers, tried and failed to popularize wine, his favorite beverage, in the newly established United States.

It's important to recognize that Jefferson failed for two basic reasons: wine wasn't practical, and it clashed with the idea of American culture. In the former case, wine was too expensive to import from Europe (the only area of the world where wine could be grown at the time—the California vineyards were centuries away). In the latter case, wine was seen by the American people as a symbol of "old-world" arrogance and snobbishness; in other words, everything that the Americans had started a revolution to escape. The Americans' two basic reasons for rejecting wine (practicality and cultural associations) reflect the two sides of beverages as Standage writes about them: first, the physical processes used to make beverages; second, the stereotypes that arise around beverages as a result of the way they're made, sold, or consumed.

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Wine Symbol Timeline in A History of the World in Six Glasses

The timeline below shows where the symbol Wine appears in A History of the World in Six Glasses. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Introduction: Vital Fluids
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...beverages, we can understand important things about human culture. He singles out six drinks: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola. Each one was “the defining drink during a pivotal historical... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...that often, workers were paid in beer. Later on, in the Mediterranean, humans began making wine from grapes. Wine became a symbol of Greek intellectual culture. (full context)
Chapter 3: The Delight of Wine
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...of sheep, lambs, ducks, chickens, etc.—but the most important part of the meal was the wine that Ashurnasirpal served. While beer was the most common drink at the time, the King... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
It is not known how, exactly, wine was invented. It’s been around at most since 6,000 BCE, when the invention of pottery... (full context)
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
In general, wine never became as popular and widespread in Mesopotamian society as it did in Mediterranean societies.... (full context)
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...referring to the foreigners’ inability to speak intelligently). Greeks showed off their sophistication by drinking wine. Wine was an intellectual’s drink—the Greeks liked to participate in symposiums, during which they drank... (full context)
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
In general, wine was a vital part of the Greeks’ belief in their own superiority to the rest... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
The Greeks drank wine by mixing it with water. This mixture was the beverage consumed at the symposium, or... (full context)
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...A game called kottabos, in which the players had to flick the last drops of wine in their glass at a specific target, was all the rage in ancient Greece, and... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...not only because of the sophistication of his arguments but because he succeeds in drinking wine without collapsing from drunkenness. In the dialogue, Socrates argues that wine is an opportunity for... (full context)
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...discuss the universe, was an apt symbol of Greek democracy. At a symposium, full of wine, everyone was equal. Yet this equality was limited—only male landowners were allowed to participate in... (full context)
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
Wine was the perfect symbol of Greek culture: intellectual and elitist, yet hedonistic. In the centuries... (full context)
Chapter 4: The Imperial Vine
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...We can see the differences between Greece and Rome in the way these cultures viewed wine. For the Greeks, wine was a mark of sophistication and pleasure, but for Romans, wine... (full context)
Imperialism Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
As Rome grew in power, it continued to use Greek methods for making wine. Powerful Romans purchased villas, where slaves worked hard to produce wine. This wine was then... (full context)
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
...of a loyal follower, who sent his slave to go to the market to buy wine for Antonius. At the market, the slave requested an especially fine wine—and when the merchant... (full context)
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
Like the Greeks, the Romans regarded wine as a drink for everyone to enjoy—and yet, even more so than the Greeks, they... (full context)
Imperialism Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
In 170 CE, there was a huge wine tasting in Rome. Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman emperor, sent his personal doctor, Galen, to... (full context)
Imperialism Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
...diminishing the size of the empire. While tribes disrupted Roman trade routes, the culture of wine in Rome remained very strong. One reason for this was the rise of Christianity. Wine... (full context)
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
...any kind, calling it an “abomination.” There were complex cultural reasons for Islam’s rejection of wine. In general, however, Islam turned its back on “the old notions of sophistication,” of which... (full context)
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
Wine remains the quintessential beverage in the Mediterranean, usually consumed in moderation and with meals. In... (full context)
Chapter 5: High Spirits, High Seas
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Distillation involves vaporizing and then re-condensing a liquid. This process makes the liquid pure. When wine is distilled, it becomes much more alcoholic, because wine’s boiling point is lower than water’s—that... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
...the Bad,” was lying on his deathbed. His doctors decided to try a new medicine—distilled wine, or “aqua vitae.” They had learned of the distillation technique from Arabic texts. The doctors... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
...in exploring the New World. All of these nations used alcohol to trade with Africa: wine and brandy were accepted forms of currency for slave traders in Africa. As Standage puts... (full context)
Chapter 6: The Drink That Built America
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
...During the early 1700s, colonists in North America had to make due without beer or wine, since these products were highly expensive to ship across the ocean. This changed in the... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...the invention of new whiskey derivatives, such as bourbon, which incorporated corn into its recipe. Wine remained fairly popular in America, but despite the fact that President Thomas Jefferson loved it,... (full context)
Chapter 11: From Soda to Cola
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
...1800s. Shortly after Silliman began selling soda, Americans found other recipes for the liquid. The “wine spritzer” was invented when chemists discovered that wine mixed with soda was less intoxicating than... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
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Pemberton’s original recipe for French Wine Coca contained alcohol. But because he recognized the influence of the Temperance Movement, which was... (full context)
Epilogue: Back to the Source
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
...they knew how to brew anything at all: water. For centuries, beverages like beer or wine were welcome alternatives to water because they carried no deadly diseases. Now, however, water purification... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...beer and Coke “tell stories” about history. Although drinking a coffee or a glass of wine is an ordinary act, this act was made possible by the ingenuity of thousands of... (full context)