Let us take a moment here to pause from our usual commentary on films and music and all things pop culture, to sing of the grape—of wine, specifically.
I love wine. I always have, and I expect I always will. And for wine’s obvious therapeutic benefits (when not taken in superabundance), I have been more interested in it than ever before during these many pandemic-addled months in the life of the world. I look forward to each trip to the wine shop on Friday after work, followed by cracking open a bottle that I have not tried before and sitting for an hour or so in peaceful, pleasant conversation with my wife—all the cares of the world be damned.
Apparently, I am not alone! During the peak of global lockdowns in 2020, and despite widespread restaurant closures, wine sales were up by 500%! Now, if this spike in consumption represents the glugging of cheap, sugary stuff that could just as well be bottom-shelf vodka or prescription opioids, then we have a problem. If drinking wine—or anything—makes you sadder or angrier or simply more numb, I would stay away from it. Indeed, in theory, I’ve always admired the “straight edge” lifestyle and have, at times, embraced it. But most of the time, I simply like life better when wine is a part of it. I like the shopping for it, the drinking of it, and the ongoing study it inspires.
Such study includes reading Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible and making careful selections of fewer bottles of finer stuff, and I’ve finally begun exploring French Burgundy reds and whites, which MacNeil calls “the most spiritual of wines.” Along the way, I’ve begun to notice how often wine jargon overlaps with theological language. The late Sir Roger Scruton, a philosopher and sometime wine critic, noted that wine “doesn’t contain its meaning entirely within itself.” We intoxicate wine, rather than the other way around. It is in our cultivation and enjoyment of wine as a gift from God to be shared that wine becomes the enchanted stuff of legend.
Caught in wine’s thrall during the pandemic, I have shared some of my selections on Instagram and have had fun interacting with fellow winebibbers among my family and friends. I’ve also been thoroughly enjoying the Wine Show, and I daydream of joining the cast, and tasting one fine vintage after another on a Tuscan estate.
Reader, I know I sound hopelessly bourgeois, but on a higher plane, I ground my wine enthusiasm on divine revelation. Simply put, Christianity needs wine, and it’s a Christian thing to drink it. Our religion depends upon wine as one of the two elements required for the celebration of the Eucharist, instituted by our Lord at the Last Supper, but prefigured for us by King Melchizedek of Salem in Genesis 14:18-20. The Catechism tells us that to Israel, wine was offered along with bread “in sacrifice among the first fruits of the earth as a sign of the grateful acknowledgement of the Creator” (CCC 1334). The Cup of Blessing is essential to the Jewish Passover meal down to the present day. And because God requires our use of wine under the Law of Grace in Catholic sacramental worship everywhere on the planet Earth, he also allows our enjoyment of it apart from religious observance. Drinking wine outside the context of the Holy Eucharist can even be a pledge of the effect of sacraments and sacramentals in all aspects of life with God. We note that in his first public miracle, Jesus made gallons and gallons of extra wine for people who had already drunk their fill.
Wine is also an emblem of divinely directed human progress according to timeless truth. Cultivating vines requires abandonment of a nomadic lifestyle in favor of the stability of agriculture and of the establishment of towns, cities, and trade routes to get the produce where it needs to go. It is no accident that Melchizedek shows up with his thanksgiving offering of bread and wine shortly after Abram obeys God’s command to go to the fertile land of Canaan and settle down. Wine also requires time and care, a respect for the earth, and patience in the face of an unpredictable natural world.
Wine has a way of abiding, despite great tumult from one era to the next. In France, the wine industry was rocked by the breaking up of the great vineyard estates during the Revolution of 1789 and the Napoleonic period; but it came back. Then in 1858, an aphid brought over from America began a two-decade reign of terror, decimating a huge number of ancient European vineyards and others across the world. Interestingly, the solution to the problem was grafting an aphid-resistant rootstock from America—Texas, in fact!—with the traditional French stuff. Today’s most celebrated old world Grand Cru was once wiped out by a new-world pest and then brought back by new-world human ingenuity.
Times are . . . odd. Outlooks and societies are not merely shifting but being shaken by their roots seemingly everywhere we look. So let us appreciate the stability of wine. When we drink today, we should remember that there will be wine in the world to come. The prophet Isaiah says, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (Isa. 25:6).
Until then, I raise my glass to the glory of God, in good times and bad. And amid the ongoing global crisis that has driven me to the bottle, I say to you all, as the French say, “À votre santé!”