Wine, milk and intoxication

We all know that sommeliers and wine experts smell, swirl, taste and spit. At professional tastings, when trying hundreds of wines in a day, anything else would be impossible. On the other hand, there is something contradictionary with this method of approaching wine. One reason for this is that wine is best experienced after having swallowed it, to get a complete experience through retronasal smell. Another aspect, that we tend to forget, is the importance of the intoxicating effect of wine. This inherent part of wine and other alcoholic beverages is ultimately what makes it different from other products we consume. The altering effect that alcohol has on us is part of its attractive and of course also, problematic nature, sometimes leading to excess and addiction. Human beings prediliction for alcohol is connected to our fruit-eating heritage. The sometimes heard argument that drinking alcohol is not “natural” because animals do not do it, is therefore not completely right. Wine (even “natural” wine) is of course an artefact of man, but the consumption of alcohol as well as the capacity to digest it is not limited to human beings. Even more interesting is the fact that not only human beings seem to be enjoying the effect of sugar that has converted into alcohol. In the fascinating book “A natural history of wine” (unmissable for any wine lover), Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle give examples of animals, from fruit flies to monkeys and elephants, being drawn to overripe fruit not only for its sugar content, but also for its stimulating effects. In my homecountry Sweden this sometimes gets proved during the autumn when moose are found in gardens feasting on fallen apples. Whether these big animals actually get tipsy or not by the fruit is debated by researchers, but in any case it leads to hilarious headlines.

In the text “Wine and milk”, Roland Barthes examines the symbolic function of wine in a culture. This symbolic value is to Barthes mainly connected to its altering and transforming capacity. Barthes calls wine a “resilient totem”, a “galvanic substance” with an “alchemical heridity” and a “philosophical power to transmute and create ex nihilo”. Barthes describes how wine has the capacity to extract the opposites from objects, “making a weak man strong or a silent one talkative”. It can serve different purposes: “Being essentially a function whose terms can change, wine as at its disposal apparently plastic powers: it can serve as an alibi to dream as well as reality, it depends on the users of the myth”. Wine has been consumed in rituals and religious ceremonies for thousands of years throughout different cultures. In modern times however, the world of wine has had a tendency to focus more on technical aspects than physical and spiritual ones. Although within technical wine tasting the physical sensations are a big part, it seems like the rational analytic mind has the upperhand. Nicola Perullo is one of the people who challenges the dialectics between body and mind within his research area “Epistenology”  – described as “knowledge about wine, with wine”. He offers an alternative to the strongly radicated norms regarding how to taste, express and experience wine. In his view, which I examined further in an earlier blog post, wine cannot be approached on a distance but must be experiencied from the inside. Tasting wine is an action in which both body and mind is involved, a complex multisensorial experience (something being investigated in the emerging field of Neurooenology). Perullo also considers wine tasting as an individual and “sterile” practice a paradox considering that wine usually is consumed in a social context. We can just look at the ancient Greece´s Symposium where food, wine and conversation were main components to understand the social importance of wine consumption historically. Also Barthes focuses on the role of wine on a larger, societal level. To Barthes, wine is a mythical symbol for the social collective in France and he goes as far as saying that the French society is based on the consumption of wine. He contrasts the symbolic function of wine; vitality, fire, alteration, to that of the “anti-wine” milk, being cosmetic, restoring and soothing. Wine is transformation and mutilation whereas milk is innocence and recovery. Wine delivers, milk covers. Wine is above all a converting substance which alters our consciouness and our experience of the world. Wine has, as Barthes says, the capacity of reversing situations and states. For better or for worse? Up to us to decide. Moderation is, as usual, the key.

‘The marmozettes’ (1842) by Sir Edwin Henry Landsee. CC BY -



5 thoughts on “Wine, milk and intoxication

  1. You make a very interesting point about the predominance of an analytical/mind approach to wine, and it seems like this dominance and even separation of mind and body overflows into many areas of society and culture. It’s also very interesting Barthe’s comparison of wine and milk on a social level (I must read it!), it sheds light on the fact that wine, as with many other types of food and beverage, can be explored internally in terms of its intrinsic characteristics and our perception of them, in as much as it can be externally in terms of its societal/cultural significance. A thought provoking read for sure!


    1. Yes, I find it interesting and ironic how a substance which fundamentally alters our emotional, intellectual and physical state can become an object for intellectual analysis. It is almost as if the intoxicating effect would be taboo to mention – as if the physical aspect of wine would not be “fine” enough. If you are interested in this topic I warmly recommend Nicola Perullos writings on haptic taste in Epistenology, and his attempt to bridge the dualism body/mind in wine tasting. And thank you as always for you careful reading and thoughful comments!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s almost like trying to achieve the reverse effect of imagining everyone in the room in their underpants and perhaps part of the cause of the disconnect and intimidation people feel who aren’t very “knowledgeable” about wine. I’m finding many books I’d love to read on your blog!


      2. I love this metaphor! “the reverse effect of imagining everyone in the room in their underpants”. Like trying to make civilized something that is actually quite primitive!

        Liked by 1 person

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