Could one ever write a history of wine-drinking? One's immediate reaction is, "Why ever not?" But on reflection, one realises that much of what one initially thought could be evidence for such a history is in fact slightly beside the point, or rather evidence for a different kind of history. Literature, of course, is full of either descriptions or dramatisations of drinking scenes. But these are always distorted or refracted versions of a reality, even when they are modelled on a particular recollectionÂ â€”Â which is perhaps not often.Â
Wine-drinking has left us a rich legacy of objectsÂ â€”Â barrels, bottles, cups, glasses, corkscrews, decanters, filtersÂ â€”Â all of which have participated in episodes of actual drinking, but on which those episodes have left no legible mark. Some of the most evocative objects associated with wine are those twin-bladed cork removers jokingly known as "butler's friends"Â â€”Â presumably because they allow a cork to be taken out without evident damage, and the fine wine within sampled and replaced by something cheaper. Yet these objects are faithfully mute concerning any surreptitious drinking at which they may have assisted.
People who drink for business, such as wine merchants or wine buyers, have certainly left plentiful written records of their tastings. But again, this is not quite what we are after. These are the memoranda of essentially solitary and narrowly instrumental evaluations, not of convivial symposia or drinking parties. (Having said that, professional tastings can degenerateÂ â€”Â or evolveÂ â€”Â Â into such parties; but by that stage no one is any longer capable of writing.) These records are the legacy of a particular kind of business, and they stand in at best a kind of ancillary relationship to that more expansive and human activity of drinking towards which they point, but on which they can shed little light, and the dialectical nature of which entirely escapes them. One is driven to the conclusion that, for the most part, drinking is an activity which evaporates upon the wind. As it unfolds, it is accompanied by volubilityÂ â€”Â sometimes, at its best, by riotous and unbuttoned volubility. But these sallies are not, and must not be, even remembered, let alone noted down and recorded.
Was it always so? Our current amnesia about drinking means that historical and geographical variables are lost to sight, even though it is hard not to believe that in different places and at different times, people drank in very different ways. However, very occasionally in an archive one chances upon a document which unexpectedly opens a window upon a past scene of drinking. I found one of these a few months ago in a Swiss archive (the Swiss are exceptionally retentive when it comes to family papers, which makes their archives wonderful places to explore). It is a single, small sheet of paper, undated, with writing in French on only one side, in three different hands; and it records a difference of opinion about a wine which had been drunk one evening in LausanneÂ â€”Â an evening which must have fallen sometime between 1783 and 1787.Â