Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

In Praise of Wine

April 2004. Like fire, alcohol is a good servant but a bad master. Hard liquor can be a master of the most despotic kind. Though there is a tendency to lump together all three categories of alcohol – spirits, wine, beer – they are actually fundamentally different, not least in how they act on humans and how they are assimilated by the body.

This article is in praise of wine. I could live without spirits (though I would miss the odd glass of rare old cognac or calvados). Beer is refreshing and can exhibit real depth of flavour, but it does not have the complexity, or “soul”, of wine. Wine has many virtues: the volume/alcohol ratio is about right; and it is the most varied and delicious of drinks, capable of rivalling the beauty of great art or music. What’s more, it improves dramatically with age. A stock of maturing wine is one of the few things in life to give us a vested interest in growing older.

Civilising and vivifying

Wine has had a central place in our culture for thousands of years. It is praised in the Bible (notably by St Paul). Omar Khayyam is one of hundreds of poets who have celebrated wine. Some of the masterpieces of China’s Shang-Yin and Chou dynasties were the intricate bronze vessels and beakers for wine. Scenes of libations appear on many antique Greek vases. The Greek word symposium means, literally, “the act of drinking [wine] together”. As Michel Montignac observes, “wine is surrounded by a rich symbolism comparable to that of bread”.

Yet few of us make our choice of daily beverage consciously. With alcohol, it is usually determined by our nation of birth; our education and income level; and our parents’ income and lifestyle. Though the range of wines available today is bigger and better than ever before, and more of us choose wine as our mealtime drink, wine lovers are still a minority of the world’s population. If wine were on every table, I believe our planet would be an infinitely more peaceful – and civilised – place.

We would also be healthier. Many studies have shown that those who drink wine regularly, in moderation, enjoy better health and live longer. In this respect, wine, especially red wine, is superior to other alcoholic drinks. In most of northern Europe the national drink is a spirit – vodka, whisky, gin – with beer as a bibulous handmaiden. Thus the further north you go, the more you are likely to find people drinking spirits and beers. This pattern is reflected in a much higher incidence of heart disease, obesity, and other ailments.

Europe’s bibulous divide

In northern Europe, drinking tends to be seen as an end in itself, with a night out involving getting partly or wholly drunk. Relatively little importance is attached to leisurely and convivial drinking at table, with food. We northerners tend to find it hard to shed this attitude. The nervous whispering or raucous laughter of an English restaurant are seldom heard in its French or Italian counterpart, which rather hums with conversation as people enjoy themselves, utterly at ease.

Though violence is found everywhere, rowdyism and hooliganism seem to be restricted to beer-and-spirit regions. I have never witnessed such behaviour in the wine-producing countries, where it is viewed with incomprehension and disapproval, and getting drunk is rare.

So it is sad that the French authorities have started losing faith in the virtues of wine. A few years ago, the publicity around the “French Paradox” – evidence that those who ate and drank along French lines had healthier hearts – reached millions. Many Americans were persuaded to drink more wine. But a steady stream of French government propaganda halved French wine consumption over a decade. Meanwhile alcoholism stayed at the same level, showing that wine was not responsible for the problem in the first place. In fact, France’s alcoholism is at its highest in (guess!) the north, where no vines grow and the popular drink is a spirit, and at its lowest in the wine-producing regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux.

America’s fruitless crop

Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, gave much thought to drink. A great oenophile, he did his best to establish vineyards in America. Over several years spent in Europe he made himself an expert on French wines and his cellar at the White House became legendary. He wished that America would become a wine-drinking country and ensured that duty on wines was low. Despite the excellence of many modern American wines, his dream has still not been realised today.

If Jefferson had had his way, American cuisine might have become the equal of the French; for wine and gastronomy, inclusive of the skills of the kitchen, are inextricably linked. The world’s richest nation might have been influencing the world towards healthy and wholesome eating and drinking, instead of the opposite. For who can deny that America’s mammoth fast food and drinks industry is the powerhouse behind the global shift towards unhealthy food and beverages?

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the great philosopher of gastronomy, wrote “the fate of the nations hangs upon their choice of food.” Jefferson knew that choice of drink was equally crucial. America chose the path that led to prohibition, which set the pattern for decades ahead. Half a century ago the pioneer American wine writer Alexis Lichine wrote that Americans “think dry but drink sweet.” The fast food and drinks complex could not have hoped for a more suitable attitude: the consumer feels that this taste is “dry” and thus elegant (and therefore good for his or her self-esteem); but in reality eats and drinks “sweet”, which is immensely profitable for the companies in question. Sugar swells volume and draws a veil over mediocrity.

From chemistry to commerce

Food and drink are equally essential for survival, but choice of drink is pivotal. Opt for wine and, as day follows night, you are committed to good food. Wine is a litmus test: it might not turn blue when the food is bad but it does change taste. Sugary food makes good dry wine taste sour (though it never is sour). This is a simple chemical reaction. But when paired with good food, even something as basic as true farmhouse bread, the wine shows its best side and enhances the flavour of the foodstuff as well.

(However, not every good wine is an instant match for all good food: affinities between the two have to be found before each brings out the best in the other.)

Get consumers hooked on sugary drinks and alcopops and the door opens to crude synthetic flavours, with the deficiencies of mediocre foodstuffs masked by sugar, artificial flavourings, and additives. A palate thus tuned would find good dry wines forbidding (“astringent, domineering”) and, in food, would crave sweet, anodyne flavours to which sugared-up commercial sauces laced with malt or spirit vinegar are a welcome addition.

Teenagers brought up on such bland food often recoil in horror from the charnel odour of well-hung meat and the tangy, ozone-laden taste of crab, mussels, and fish. The innocuousness of fish fingers, hamburgers, and plasticky sausages is altogether more reassuring to palates that have been dulled almost at birth. As for oysters, the mere sight of them can make the gastronomically dispossessed more queasy than a nasty traffic accident. Yet oysters were once part of the normal diet of the London poor.

While millions of educated adults look the other way, multinational fast food and drink interests get the young hooked on unwholesome food and drink that can only have a damaging effect on both their mentality and health. Large, continual doses of sugar, fat and oil (which is never olive oil) cause obesity in vulnerable teenagers, and put them at risk from illnesses including heart disease, certain types of cancer, and diabetes. Research in disciplines like psychology, psychiatry and behavioural science is now harnessed by the industry, using budgets of staggering size. In America, schools have been paid to allow soft drink dispensers to be installed. In England, under-financed schools have been offered free exercise books – provided they are embellished with certain company logos.

Sweden’s efflorescence

During my lifetime I have followed one nation’s progress from near-prohibition to a more liberal, tolerant approach. When I arrived in Stockholm in the early 1960s Sweden was almost as far apart from the rest of Europe as the countries behind the iron curtain. People travelled little in those days and Sweden’s social-democratic government was a very paternalistic one, guiding citizens in the “right” direction in various ways. The Swedes were friendly but subdued (at midnight, in sub-zero temperatures, one would see pedestrians patiently waiting for traffic lights to change before crossing roads empty of traffic). I recall one well-travelled Swede telling me that he never found such passivity in any other country.

All importation of wines and spirits was controlled by Vin & Sprit, the state wholesale monopoly, while a retail monopoly, the Systembolaget, was in complete control of sales to the public. A mere 300 or so shops served a country twice the size of the United Kingdom. Bizarrely, the wholesale monopoly did not consult its sister monopoly about what it should purchase for Swedish consumers. Vin & Sprit, by the way, had to give up its monopoly about a decade ago, while the Systembolaget still exists with a little less power than before.

In the 1950s Sweden still had ration books for alcoholic drinks. This allowed the authorities not only to limit the individual’s consumption but also to keep tabs on it. Every bottle you bought was entered into the book; when the limit was reached you weren’t allowed another drop. This authoritarian attitude was still very much in evidence when I arrived. Monopoly shops could be as crowded as railway stations, with over a hundred people waiting to place their order. Customers might be turned away summarily, no matter how long they had been queuing. Outside, people pestered those on their way in to buy something for them. Some made a living by ostensibly buying for themselves and then selling on a profit. Many bourgeois citizens stowed their alcoholic purchases inside capacious briefcases, to hide them from prying eyes.

It was like Alice in Wonderland. While selling drink to the public was the Systembolaget’s raison d’être, it did everything possible to persuade them to abstain. When sales dropped, as they sometimes did (perhaps when illicit stills were unusually productive!), they published exultant advertisements in the press, drawing the public’s attention to the downward trend.

Some of the propaganda was alarmist. To men it was hinted that drinking would make them impotent; one poster in monopoly shop windows showed a picture of a human body with hideously distended internal organs, with a text claiming that such was the inevitable result of habitual drinking. Those wanting to go out for a drink found that there were scarcely more than three or four places in the whole of Stockholm where this was possible. And if you got into one of them (there was always a queue) you could not get a drink before you had ordered a hefty – and very expensive – sandwich. The drinks themselves were four or five times more expensive as in an English pub. All of this produced a neurosis about alcohol comparable to attitudes to sex in Victorian England.

Drunkenness was endemic. Indoors, it was rare to see people drinking in a relaxed and convivial manner – apparent high spirits were often tinged with desperation. On the streets, drunks were to be seen everywhere, at all times of day. It was impossible to take a short stroll without bumping (sometimes literally) into a succession of very drunk people. They fell out of doorways, toppled down stairs, reeled along pavements.

Sweden’s national drink is a strong spirit: brännvin or vodka. This was at the root of the problem – it confirmed that, as Jefferson remarked, no nation was sober where the dearness of wine pushes people towards hard drink. In 1723 the Swedish parliament had to acknowledge that most people thought that brännvin was “the only medicament for the conservation of health”. It frequently served as a substitute for money, with servants and others often receiving their wages in potable form. Brännvin was dispensed from special booths outside churches, so pious citizens could make a rapid switch from the spiritual to the spirituous. According to estimates, some 180,000 pot stills were in use in 18th-century Sweden to satisfy “household requirements”. This left an indelible impression and led to the growth of a vast and powerful temperance movement, and prudish, repressive attitudes.

An education in alcohol

I became convinced that most if not all of Sweden’s problems with drink would vanish if the system were liberalised along continental lines. I started writing columns about food and wine, and advanced arguments in favour of lower duty on wine, more liberal licensing laws, and greater toleration generally. I entered into debate in a trade magazine with the chief buyer at the wholesale monopoly. To the surprise of many, he actually agreed with some of my points, particularly those on duty. I wrote articles on the pathetically small range of wines offered by the monopoly, accounts of visits to French wine producers, as well as detailed tasting notes on wines not found on the Swedish market. I also provided information on how much cheaper given wines were on other markets. In the 1970s I was glad to learn that a postgraduate student at Linköping University had cited my articles in a doctoral dissertation on the belated development of a vinous vocabulary in the Swedish language.

I got to know a number of France’s best wine producers (Trimbach, Pol Roger, Comte Georges de Vogüé, Alain Graillot, Bonneau du Martray, and many more) and, by becoming their representative in Sweden, began to get some of their wines listed in monopoly shops.

At last I was able to demonstrate to the Swedes what I thought good wine was about. Later, when the rules were relaxed, I became one of the first generation of licensed wine importers in Sweden.

A belly-warming tale

Thus, over nearly four decades, I witnessed one European nation’s slow, but very sure, progression towards a more liberal – and human – attitude towards drinks in general and wine in particular. I suspect that alcoholism has stayed at about the same level throughout the whole period. What has definitely changed is how the average Swede drinks. Now public drunkenness, at least among adults, is rarely seen and the ambience of restaurants is more relaxed and convivial than it was. Per capita consumption of spirits had been falling for decades, while that of wine has increased substantially. Alongside this, the Swedish restaurant sector has thrived, and today the country can claim some of the best tables – and cellars – in Europe. At last, Sweden really belongs to Europe’s gastronomic mainstream.

My experiences convince me that a wine-drinking Europe, with a flourishing gastronomy to match, would be a more effective counterweight to fast-food America than one that merely offers a common currency. I am sure that in such a Europe there would be far less binge drinking and hooliganism. Who knows: such a Europe might even lead to Jefferson’s dream of a wine-drinking nation at last being realised in the United States.

Copyright Frank Ward 2004

This article was first published on www.opendemocracy.net

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