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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.