Sunday, October 19, 2014

Robert Farrar Capon on Wine

The following is from Robert Farrar Capon's magnificent little 1967 book The Supper of the Lamb, pp. 89-93. Everything below the break (including the stuff in square brackets) is found in the book.


     One might have hoped that, with so gracious a creature as wine, even the most ardent religionists and secularists would have have made an exception to their universal custom of missing the point of things. But alas, between teetotalism on the one hand and the habit of classifying it as an alcoholic beverage on the other, they have both lost the thread of delight.

     Consider first the teetotalers. They began, no doubt, by observing that some men use wine to excess--to the point at which, though the wine remains true to itself, the drinker does not. That much, I give them: Drunks are a nuisance. But they went too far. Only the ungrateful or the purblind can fail to see that sugar in the grape and yeast on the skins is a divine idea, not a human one. Man's part in the process consists of honest and prudent management of the work that God has begun. Something underhanded has to be done to grape juice to keep it from running its appointed course.

     Witness the teetotaling communion service. Most Protestants, I suppose, imagine that it is part of the true Reformed religion. But have they considered that, for nineteen centuries after the institution of the Eucharist, wine was the only element available for the sacrament? Do they serious envision St. Paul or Calvin or Luther opening bottles of Welch's Grape Juice in the sacristy before the service? Luther, at least, would turn over in his grave. The WCTU version of the Lord's Supper is a bare 100 years old. Grape juice was not commercially viable until the discovery of pasteurization; and, unless I am mistaken, it was Mr. Welch himself (an ardent total abstainer) who persuaded American Protestantism to abandon what the Lord obviously thought rather kindly of.

     That much damage done, however, the itch for consistency took over with a vengeance. Even the Lord's own delight was explained away. One of the most fanciful pieces of exegesis I ever read began by maintaining that the Greek word for wine , as used in the Gospels, meant many other things than wine. The commentator cited, as I recall, grape juice for one meaning, and raisin paste for another. He inclined, ultimately, toward the latter.

     I suppose such people are blessed with reverent minds which prevent them from drawing irreverent conclusions. I myself, however, could never resist the temptation to read raisin paste for wine in the story of the Miracle of Cana. "When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made raisin paste . . . he said unto the bridegroom, 'Every man at the beginning doth set forth good raisin paste, and when men have well drunk [eaten?--the text is no doubt corrupt], then that which is worse; but thou hast kept the good raisin paste until now.'" Does it not whet your appetite for the critical opera omnia of such an author, where he will freely have at the length and breadth of Scripture? Can you not see his promised land flowing with peanut butter and jelly; his apocalypse, in which the great whore Babylon is given the cup of the ginger ale of the fierceness of the wrath of God?

     The secularists, on the other hand, are no better. They classify wine as an alcoholic beverage, which makes about as much sense as classifying cheese as a salted food. Alcohol occurs all over the place; bread has its share, rotten apples do very well by it, hard cider is amply provided with it, and distilled spirits are full of it. How foolish, therefore, to encourage people to think of alcoholic content as the principal identifying note of wine. The general classification, of course, is legitimate enough as far as it goes. But it is hardly more than slightly relevant. Apart from an intellectual fascination, I have no consuming interest in alcohol; nor, I think, does any sane man. It is tasteless, odorless, indigestible, and, in sufficient doses, blinding. Far from being the only, or even the most notable, ingredient in wine, it is simply one member of a vast committee--and not the most responsible member at that.

     Nothing appalls me more than to hear people refer to the drinking of wine as if it were a forbidden and fascinating way of sneaking alcohol into one's system. My flesh creeps when I hear the legitimate love of the fruit of the vine treated as if it were a longer-winded way of doing what the world does with grain neutral spirits and cheap vermouth. With wine at hand, the good man concerns himself, not with getting drunk, but with drinking in all the natural delectabilities of wine: taste, color, bouquet; its manifold graces; the way it complements food and enhances conversation; and its sovereign power to turn evenings into occasions, to lift eating beyond nourishment to conviviality, and to bring the race, for a few hours at least, to that happy state where men are wise and women beautiful, and even one's children begin to look promising. If someone wants the bare effects of alcohol in his bloodstream, let him drink the nasty stuff neat, or have a physician inject it. But do not let him soil my delight with his torpedo-juice mentality.

     Wine is not--let me repeat--in order to anything but itself. To consider it otherwise is to turn it into an idol, a tin god to be conjured with. Moreover, it is to miss its point completely. We were made in the image of God. We were created to delight, as He does, in the resident goodness of creation. We were not made to sit around mumbling incantations and watching our insides to see what creation will do for us. Wine does indeed have subjective effects, but they are to be received gratefully and lightly. They are not solemnly important psychological adjustments, but graces, super-added gifts. It was St. Thomas, again, who gave the most reasonable and relaxed of all the definitions of temperance. Wine, he said, could lawfully be drunk usque ad hilaritatem, to the point of cheerfulness. It is a happy example of the connection between sanctity and sanity.

     Once wine is defined as an alcoholic beverage, however, sanity is hard to come by. As a nation, we drink the way we exercise: too little and too hard. Our typical gala dinner party is a disaster: three or four rounds of martinis followed by a dinner with two tiny glasses of middling Burgundy. The food is wolfed without discernment, the wine is ignored, and the convivialities come on so early that no one is up to the profundities when they arrive.

     How much better if we would forget, at least in our dinnering, the alcoholic idiocy--if we would provide our guests with long evenings of nothing but sound wine, good food, and fit company. Try it sometime. Sherry or Cinzano or Dubonnet--or, best of all, a good rainwater Madeira before dinner. No gin, no whiskey--and, in the name of all that's holy, no vodka. More importantly still, no dips, no crackers, no de-appetizers at all. Only a mercifully brief aperitif, followed by a long and leisurely meal, with one wine or many, but with whatever wine there is dispensed with a lavish wrist: a minimum of half a bottle per person, if you are dealing with novices, or a whole bottle if you have real guests on your hands. Your party will reach an O Altitudo, an Ecce, quam bonum!, to which wine is the only road. Hard liquor is for strong souls after great dinners; it is the grape that brings ordinary mortals usque ad hilaritatem.

     And ordinariness is the right note on which to sum up the case for wine. It is precisely the foolishness of classifying wine as an alcoholic beverage that keeps so many of us from taking it with our lunches, suppers--and even breakfasts, if you like. Whiskey, gin,and rum are sometime things. A man who takes them too often courts disaster. But wine is simply water that has matured according to nature's will. It is the ordinary accompaniment of a grown man's food. How sad, then, that the secular conscience sweeps Sherry into the same category as vodka and looks on Zinfandel as liquor. God gave us wine to make us gracious and keep us sane. The light aperitif en famille, and the half bottle or bottle split by husband and wife over cold meatloaf and brawling children, are not solemn alcoholic dosages. They are cheerful minor lubrications of the frequently sandy gears of life. Properly underrated--that is, taken for what they are, and not as great problem-solving idols--they are on the side of the angles; they can hardly be overrated at all. A ta Sante!

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