Robert Louis Stevenson

Last month I came across a scholarship for Stage 2 MW students from the George T. Gamblin Memorial. I am not in the program, but the essay topic was interesting, so I thought I could give my two cents in a very light and casual style. The title is:

Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote that “wine is bottled poetry.” Explore how wine has the capacity to tap into our creative senses and provide inspiration.

First a premise: when I see words like “poetry” or “soul” together with “wine” in a sentence, an alarm starts sounding in my mind. It sounds because wine is after all matter and blending it with metaphysics and the immaterial may be done in good faith, or it may done just as a marketing tool, to dilute the fact that our favorite drink is a commodity produced by someone for someone else and sold to gain a profit.

However let’s face it: we feel good when we drink, we feel different. How? Why? I have a twofold answer to these questions.

First, the material answer: alcohol influences our brain. (1) It is metabolised by the liver, which in response produces a toxic substance called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde enters the blood stream and propagates all over the body. In the brain it stimulates different kind of neurotransmitters, inhibiting some of them (GABA, adenosine, glycine, glutammate) and stimulating others (dopamine). The former leads to (between the others) loss of memory, slow reflexes, lack of coordination; the latter gives us the typical euphoria associated with drunkenness.
To put it simply, when we drink wine we are not ourselves, we are more the product of who we are when sober and the effect of alcohol. Being actually someone else, thoughts may come to our mind that we would never have otherwise, both good and bad. In the wrong conditions this can even lead to tragedies, in moderation this is where a creative process starts, where we may have a sort of “eureka” moment. Mental walls are torn down, solutions to our problems are found. Maybe they were lying just in front of us.

The first factor does not pertain exclusively to wine, but there is a second special dimension: wine stimulates our imagination. When we drink a glass of Barolo or a good Morey-St-Denis we are effectively absorbing in our body a part of Piedmont or Burgundy; when we look at the vintage on the label our thoughts may fly back to that year, what we were doing at the time, the people we were seeing, the struggle we were facing or the victories we were celebrating.
If we have met the producer we may also be reminded of his face, the day we met him, the words he said, the smell of his cellar, the colors of his vineyard; or maybe we had already drunk this wine before: who was with us that evening, sharing the bottle? Why we were together?
These suggestions are very powerful and amplified by the alcohol: imagination enriches the experience. Wine ceases to be just a liquid, it becomes an essential part of a (real or made-up) world we are yearning for: the life slowly proceeding between Chianti hills, the aromas of a sunny town in Spain, the majestic flow of the Mosel. We like to evoke all these ideas, even if we have never been there, even if they may not be true. And with imagination comes praise of the wine, of the land, of the history. Inspiration follows: who knows what Francesco Redi was drinking while singing of Tuscan wines in his Bacchus in Tuscany? Or Charles Coffin, when he was celebrating Champagne in 1712?

The power of imagination and association is so strong that it is not necessarily linked to the actual consumption of alcohol. Even browsing the shelves in a shop, perfectly sober, we may start drifting through the hills of Burgundy. Sure, different places hold different appeal, and that is why sometimes we are happy to get a good Burgundy for 100, while the same price on a Languedoc wine would make us cringe. That’s the basis for marketing.

Wine rewires our brain and gives us something to think about, the right recipe for a creative process to start.
Can drinking be a “metaphysical” experience? Well yes, as soon as we recognize that “metaphysical experiences” just happen inside our brain.
Is it “bottled poetry”? Let’s put it this way: poetry is just a bunch of letters, signs carved one after the other. A cat won’t understand it, an idiot won’t get it. What matters is the interaction between the right letters and the right reader: that’s where emotions are born, that’s when we laugh or cry or feel powerful.
The same for wine. Maybe this will shock you, but there is not poetry in the bottle: it is fermented juice. I checked. It really is. But when the right juice and the right drinker meet, some magic happens.
There, in the twilight zone, love is kindled, friendships are forged, the past comes back to life. We feel detached from our body, our daily life; worries seem trivial, life ephemeral.
And then, in a blink of an eye, we are back again.

There, is where poetry lies. In the bottle there is just fermented juice.

(1) Opening a parenthesis: I made some research on the internet, to understand what exactly happens from a physical and chemical point of view when we drink a glass of wine, and good Bacchus!
Sites keep popping up telling me how bad alcohol is for my health, my body, my life! Give me a break! I want to read science, not listen to preaches! I had more luck searching in Italian than in English!