Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.
—The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
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Why We Drink Wine
An Acquired Taste
Obviously, the first word that pops to mind is "pleasure". Yet wine—excepting the grotesquely over-sweet—is an acquired taste: it is very unlikely that a babe or small child would drink it with pleasure. But in truth, a great many of the esthetic pleasures humans seek are acquired tastes. The cynic might dismiss it all by remarking (and we have actually heard intelligent adults say this) that it's just to get inebriated.
Who knows? Perhaps thousands of years ago, when the magic of fermentation was first discovered, that might have been the chief motivation. But if that's all it were about, no one would be expending the effort to make, or the money to buy, good wine today; the cheapest sweet rotgut would suffice. Nor is it just a social device to disguise a goal of inebriation, because the huge and complex superstructure of wine-making and wine-consuming wouldn't have lasted millennia if it were merely a social convention. So what things have led humans to acquire this taste?
Wine and Food
One major reason is sheerly practical: we have to eat every day, usually multiple times a day, and wine enhances the dining experience. Our palates, like all our sensory apparatus, are subject to fatigue; our responses to repeated stimulation of the same sort is decreasing sensitivity to that stimulus. Smells, awful or pleasant, that overwhelm us when we enter a room redolent of them become unnoticed a bare few minutes later. Noises, soothing or jarring, if merely repeated soon become effectively inaudible—people sleeping in their homes are unaware of the highway or train noises that keep their overnight guests tossing and turning. And so with food. The most exquisite savors, if we simply take in forkful after forkful, rapidly lose their specialness.
Therefore we alternate the foods we eat at a meal, now the main course, now this side dish, now that. But also we drink between mouthfuls, both to moisten our palates and to vary the stimuli. We could, of course, simply use pure cool water; but that is essentially tasteless, a cleaning but not a variation. Certainly, we must avoid anything that would fight against the character of the foods, which usually means nothing sweet or very rich—no sodas, no milk.
Wine fills the role admirably; a wisely chosen wine will not only vary our palatal sensations, it will do so with a taste that complements and thus augments the flavor character of the food with which it is consumed.
Wine On Its Own
Some wines are characterized as "food wines"; that can mean different things to different people, but it carries a suggestion that if the food is complemented by the wine, so also is the wine complemented by the food—which is to say that perhaps the wine wants or (gasp!) even needs such complementation. Be that as it may, there is another class of wines that are not infrequently described as wines for contemplation, which is an orotund way of saying that they can be drunk apart from meals and yet deliver significant drinking pleasure. (Whether they are supposed to be wines that one drinks while contemplating Life, the Universe, and Everything or wines we are supposed to contemplate as we drink them remains unclear).
When we drink wine on its own—unless we are merely sipping it as background to some other activity, such as party chatter (which is a waste of wine)—we are to a good degree focussed on the wine's qualities. That is not to say that we are doing nothing but focussing on the wine: there is some difference between on the one hand idly and unthinkingly taking sips of wine while chatting and on the other hand pausing a conversation (or reading in a book, or the like) to take a sip to which we pay attention and savor. That we can deeply enjoy wine even when doing nothing distracting speaks to the appeal it has to the palate, a topic we explore more fully elsewhere on this site. But the point is that the pleasure of the slow, deliberate drinking of wine enhances other intellectual pleasures with which it is combined.
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