Wine was revered in ancient times as the work of a god. Its subsequent place at the heart of our civilisation justifies that attitude. Wine has been, for us, a glowing threshold through which we pass from work to play, from business to friendship, and from means to ends. In due course wine became an essential part of the sacrament that defines the Christian religion, singled out by Christ himself as the right way to honour him, to be taken at communion in remembrance of his sacrificial death. Through all our art and literature wine displays its distinctive light, offering shared moments of joy, and shining a light of forgiveness on our everyday misconduct.
As a writer and philosopher I owe much to wine. Those long days before a blank page, attempting to capture the thoughts that hover just out of reach like captious flies, have almost always been crowned by some small success when, at 7.30, I pour myself a glass of white Burgundy. However badly the day has gone, the words will then begin to gather into sentences. Life never appears so rosy, Napoleon said, as when viewed through a glass of Chambertin. I would add that, for me, words never assemble so obediently, as at the bottom of a glass of Montagny. (Of course, they would assemble even better at the bottom of a glass of Montrachet, but my budget is more limited than Napoleon’s.)
At a certain stage, when the left-wing press was united behind the great project of forbidding the joys of Old England, the New Statesman took what I assumed to be a suicidal step in inviting me to write a wine column. Our new rulers were keen to target the things that they disliked — hunting, shooting, smoking, the Christian curriculum, the old idea of marriage and anything else that might be tainted with the vestiges of our rooted way of life. And who knows if they might not one day set their sights on wine?
I recalled H.L. Mencken’s definition of puritanism: ‘The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.’ I therefore used my column to write about the joyful things that the readers would not find elsewhere in the magazine: family, horses, Christianity, hunting, and the many other objects of love that were threatened with extinction. I gave a prominent role to my horse Sam, promoting him to the office of wine-taster, and in general poked fun at my readers, many of whom began to look forward to the column as light relief from the righteousness that filled the other pages.
As a result of this adventure, which Sam enjoyed as much as I did, I came to see the deep connections between philosophy, as I practise it, and my drinking habits. For me, a glass of wine expresses the place, the way of life and the culture that produced it: it is a record of the human spirit, in its most local manifestation, as a form of attachment to community and soil, and a defiance of the vigilant puritans who seek to control us. It is a distillation of weather, climate, geology and beauty. It captures the sun, as it shines on a particular terrace, a particular vineyard, a particular leathery old face. Of all the things we eat and drink, wine alone testifies to its locality. It does not come to you from the glass, but invites you into the glass, and back to its home. You taste where it came from and the fellowship, industry and faith of those who live there. In this time of globalised disorder, wine alone refuses to be a global product. And because it has a place of belonging, wine has acquired a history and a culture of its own.
Every now and then, in serious works of literature, the writer takes time off to sing the praise of wine. When I encounter such a moment I experience a warm glow of fellow–feeling. The demure philosopher Plato, the raucous satirist Rabelais, the death-focused romantic Keats — all have been at their most human when praising the glass before their lips. But for me the true hero among the literary winos is Avicenna — Ibn Sina — the great Muslim philosopher who helped himself in this life to the potion that the Koran promises, but only in the next. He set an example that our Muslim citizens ought surely to follow, and I cannot help thinking that the insanity and cruelty of the Middle East today is connected to the fact that this once sacred drink is so widely forbidden there, in the place of its birth. In my life, at least, wine has been the one reliable and much-repeated peacemaker. It is obvious to me that we must be faithful to it, rejoice in it, and laugh at the fools who forbid it. And the same goes for all the other joys I mentioned.