Wine is an alcoholic drink made from the fermented juice of fruit, specifically the fruit of the grape vine Vitis vinifera. Most non-Moslem countries and cultures have evolved social rituals for the consumption of alcohol, using it to celebrate feast days and special occasions such as weddings. In many societies, alcohol is consumed in the form of distilled spirits, drunk in small shots and often accompanied by toasts. In Russia, for example, vodka is widely drunk; in China and Japan it is baijiu or sake. This drinking of distilled spirits, consumed in small shots, is typically limited to groups of males and can often result in public inebriation.
The European tradition of wine consumption is different, in that the wine is sipped slowly, usually accompanied by food, and in social or family groups that include women. Wine drinking is thus regarded as a healthier and more civilized way of consuming alcohol. In modern societies, where women are playing an increasingly independent and important role in business and public life, wine drinking is thus becoming more and more widespread.
Whether for reasons of health, economics, or social change, the consumption of distilled spirits and beer has seen a steady decline in the twenty-first century while the consumption of wine has increased dramatically. Cocktail parties have long been being replaced by wine-and-cheese parties, and prime rib dinners are increasingly washed down with Burgundy rather than bourbon. For the world’s two largest markets, wine consumption in the US and China is forecast to increase by 25 percent between 2014 and 2018.
In 2010, the US became the world’s largest consumer of wine, surpassing even France. But while wine drinking in France, as in most of Mediterranean Europe, is part of the traditional culture, in America wine drinking is something new. For a variety of reasons which I examine in my book, North America has evolved a long tradition of whisky and cocktail drinking, while wine drinking was regarded with a certain amount of suspicion as being “European” with all the ambivalent connotations that the word implies.
From an early age, most Southern Europeans have been drinking wine with every meal; they drink wine to quench their thirst and to help them digest their food. In France, wine drinking crosses all class divisions; rich and poor, young and old regard wine as the natural accompaniment to every meal. Of the Italians, it has been said that they do not drink wine, they eat it; meaning that, like salt and pepper, wine is regarded as an everyday accompaniment to food. Of course rich Europeans can afford more expensive wine than poor Europeans, but it is believed that no man is so poor he cannot afford a glass of red to aid his digestion.
A two thousand word survey of French wine, Etude Des Vignobles de France: Regions Du Sud-Est Et Du Sud-Ouest, published by the eminent Dr. Jules Guyot in 1868, concluded:
Wine is the most precious and stimulating element of the human diet. Its use in family meals saves a third of bread and meat, but more than that, wine stimulates and strengthens the body, warms the heart, develops the spirit of sociability; encourages activity, decisiveness, courage and satisfaction in one’s work.
Many young European children begin drinking wine (mixed with water) at mealtimes. In contrast, Americans prohibit alcohol until the age of twenty-one, often leading to binge drinking at college. Therefore, if only for legal reasons, those Americans who do enjoy wine usually did not start drinking it until they were in their twenties, and then only for special occasions. Consequently, although attitudes are changing, compared to Europeans, Americans are often self-conscious or apprehensive about drinking wine and still regard it as something “mysterious.”
My book has been written to dispel those fears and to remove the mystery from wine. Based closely on the very popular six week Wine Appreciation program offered regularly at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida, the book covers all the basics, from the history of wine to how best to drink and, most importantly, how to discover and appreciate its many pleasures.