Monday, March 19, 2012

Wine and civilization: we wouldn’t be here without it

As a physician I go to a lot of symposia, the term often used for meetings where exchange if ideas is the goal. It is interesting to note that the word “symposium” actually derives from classical Greek, meaning  “to drink together.” The tradition was that following dinner, the men would retire to a special room dedicated to the purpose of drinking and philosophical discussions. There would be toasts to the gods, ancestors, and fallen heroes, then the revelry would truly begin, often lasting until the early hours of the morning. Here’s an excerpt from Plato: “Socrates took his seat then they turned their attention to drinking. “ A member of the party named Pausanius said “Well gentlemen, how can we arrange to drink less tonight? To be honest, I still have a hangover from yesterday. “ Hard to believe that the canons of Greek philosophy, the underpinnings of modern civilization, had such origins as this.

But going back even further, wine is what civilized our nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors. Other crops could be re-sown each year in a new place, but vines require year-round maintenance. Pruning, shaping, harvesting, fermenting –all depended on settling in one place. But doing so posed new challenges, such as keeping drinking water sanitary when the source was in proximity to “bathroom” facilities. Here again wine played a role by countering water-borne pathogens, and the tradition of adding wine to water became a necessary tradition in seafaring, voyages of exploration, trading, and military campaigns. Wine both civilized mankind and fueled some of our less laudable actions, and we are still conflicted today.

So what of wine in the modern era? The great tendency now is to treat wine as a pharmaceutical, whether deliberating the evils of alcohol or trying to tease out the secret components that explain why it is so good for us. But doing so misses the point on both counts; alcohol in the right amounts can be a healthy thing, and many of the known health benefits attribute to the lifestyle pattern that defines healthy drinking. So while the science of resveratrol and the long list of polyphenol antioxidants in wine is impressive, it isn’t the whole story and likely never will be.

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