The Social History of Wine's Health Benefits
Over the centuries, alcohol has been called ‘Aqua Vitae’ or ‘water of life’ and praised for it’s medicinal properties. Other times, it has been demonized as the cause of family breakups or poor work ethic among workers. In the next paragraphs, I’ll share a brief history of society’s attitudes towards alcohol and wine from the Medieval Period until the end of World War I.
Attitudes to alcohol in the Medieval and Renaissance periods
During the Medieval and Renaissance period, people celebrate wine and alcohol for it’s medicinal properties. They see wine as an important contribution to health.
This is because people observed that monks lived longer lives than the rest of the population! Naturally, people assumed it was because they drank wine regularly as monasteries owned many vineyards.
But it wasn’t just wine that was praised for its wonderful effects. Even distilled spirits were named ‘Aqua Vitae’ or ‘water of life’ due to their medicinal value.
For example, gin got its start as genever, the Dutch word for juniper. It was originally distributed by chemists as treatment for gout (sudden painful arthritic attack) and dyspepsia (indigestion).
As we leave the medieval period and enter the Age of Discovery, wine becomes part of the transatlantic trade and an important part of the diet on ships. Rations included 1.25 pints of wine per man per day.
In the 1600’s, Samuel Pepys (pronounced peeps) writes of using caudle as an effective treatment against sea sickness. Caudle is a hot drink made with a mixture of gruel with wine or ale.
Still for most people during the Renaissance and Age of Discovery, good wine is really only available to the nobility and upper classes. It is not everyman’s drink.
Then, society shifts.
Gin bad; wine good...
In the UK, gin develops an association with higher crime rates and the working classes. Public drunkenness is at an all time high and the Gin Act is passed raising taxes to slow consumption. Despite these efforts, gin sales continue to grow.
Gin’s image suffers immensely in the 1700’s because it is considered the cheap alternative to the more prestigious elixir of wine. In the northerly climate of Great Britain, wine must be imported from foreign countries. Gin can be made anywhere at low cost.
Not that there was a shortage of inexpensive plonk in the world. The English working classes just couldn’t afford wine as 18th century lawmakers slapped expensive customs and embargoes on poor quality wine.
As a result, wine here is only associated with the upper classes. Moreover poetry of the day strengthened the connection between wine, aristocracy and polite society.
Remember that at this time water generally wasn’t that safe for drinking. It was much safer to drink wine instead (see poster on the right).
The time of the revolutions: Industrial, French, and American
Wine spreads to most households
But in the top wine producing nations of France, Spain and Italy, wine is not separated along class lines in the same way as it is for Brits. Wine is seen as an extension of food and drunk by everyone.
In fact, even today most Italians do not distinguish between wine and food. To Italians, both food and wine offer the same benefits; providing necessary nutrition in their diets.
It’s ok to be drunk if…
Then, in the middle of the 19th century, 4 North American Grapevine Diseases Destroy Europe’s Vineyards.
At this time in France, wine is viewed as an inherent right. To deprive someone of wine is akin to depriving one of water. To meet the high domestic consumption of its populace, the French government loosens laws by dropping import taxes on sugar, on imported wine and even allows wine to be made from imported raisins.
Despite these measures, wine production drops and fraud runs rampant as officials confiscate barrels and barrels of unknown ingredients labelled ‘wine’. This, in turn causes grape prices to hit rock bottom.
By the beginning of the 20th century, farmers across France in Champagne, Bordeaux and Southern France revolt, forcing lawmakers to enact laws to protect the integrity of French wine. Wine is so crucial to French identity and to its economy, each wine region has its own set of laws and government departments to monitor production and to search out offenders and apply punitive measures against them.
The rise of whisky...
As grape shortages plague the world’s 3 largest wine producers, Scotch producers jump in to fill the void.
By the time the French industry recovers, Scotch Whisky has replaced brandy (Cognac and Armagnac) as the preferred spirit of choice.
Naturally, as the whisky fever takes hold, governments rush to stop its consumption outright. They flat out ban the sale of whisky until it is aged 3 years stopping all sales for a time.
Another twist this century…
Yet, wine is spared. As stated above, wine is an important feature during Catholic weekly gatherings.
So the United States and almost all of Canada vote for full prohibition (Quebec bans spirits but as a Catholic province continues to allow beer and wine sales). For most of Canada, the provinces individually repeal prohibition throughout the 1920’s. For the United States, prohibition continues until 1933.
Prohibition did change society, but not in the way its supporters intended.
The end of WWI…
By the end of World War I, there was a great social revolution across the globe. Monarchies came crashing down and their shortfalls were blamed for the war. It was the end of an old order and now it was time for modern morals.
For some, alcohol was a dark remnant of the old ways.
Prohibition caused far reaching effects on the American wine industry in particular. By the 1850’s, Sonoma already had two commercial wineries; Beuna Vista and Gundlach Bundschu. Napa Valley’s first commercial winery was formed in 1861. By the 1920’s, wine was a thriving business.
So when prohibition was mandated, it completely destroyed a massive industry! It’s not until the late 1960’s that the area finally began to revive itself.
Perceptions of alcohol have certainly changed over time. We no longer view alcohol as a medicine, nor as the source of all of society’s ills. Today instead governments conduct research on the best ways to regulate alcohol sales for the betterment of us all. Health guidelines recommend the maximum amount of wine, liquor and beer consumption per day for long term health.