Since the first days when humans decided to jot down their histories, thoughts, emotions, and dreams, writing and wine have held a strong connection. Ancient civilisations embraced alcoholic beverages, including beer, mead and other early wine-like libations. Wine-making dates back as far as 8,000 years ago, a few millennia before the invention of writing, and it persists today as a human activity that transcends cultures.
When it comes to literature, wine and wine drinking can be plot devices, vehicles for life lessons, or fuel for creativity. Why is wine so inspiring? The answer parallels the connection between not only human civilisation, but human existence and distilling grapes into a tasty beverage.
Writers throughout history have explored, either directly or parenthetically in their works, the good and bad features of wine and drinking. Here are some of the best quotes on wine, from the oldest days of our existence to today.
Fancy yourself as a bit of a wine buff? Then take our quiz below and see if you or your friends can match the wine quote to the person!
One of the earliest known examples of writing is a cuneiform tablet discovered in Iraq. The “Instructions of Shuruppak,” dates to around 3,000 BC. It is a list of wise words to live by — like an ancient Sumerian version of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Several of Shuruppak’s admonishments refer to the need for caution in drinking beer, but the wisdom literature applies to other alcohol, too.
During the time of these early civilisations, beer and wine were very similar and somewhat interchangeable in language.
A highlight is Shuruppak’s advice to his son: “You should not pass judgement when you drink beer.”
A few hundred or so years later, drinking advice continued in Mesopotamia with the world’s first known drinking song, the “Hymn to Ninkasi.” Ninkasi, it seems, was the ancient goddess of brewing. The hymn reads like brewing instructions recited through an adoring narrator, “Ninkasi, you are the one who holds with both hands the great sweetwort … Brewing (it) with honey (and) wine.”
Not too far from the bustling early civilisations of Sumeria and Mesopotamia, but a thousand or so years later from their writings, the ancient Greek culture quickly became breeding grounds for philosophy, art, and literature. Homer wrote in his “Odyssey”: “Wine can of their wits the wise beguile, Make the sage frolic, and the serious smile.”
While this lyrical and memorable platitude seems perfect for adorning a wine glass or sign in a vineyard tasting room, Homer also confused scholars with over a dozen references to a “wine-dark sea.” Either ancient Greek wine was blue, or their seas were the colour of a glass of Pinot Noir.
The ancient Greek civilisation gave way to Roman culture, then a considerable period of literary darkness. Before we get to the birth of modern literature, there are some biblical quotes about wine. In the book of John in the New Testament, a party host gets credit for serving his most excellent wines and not serving swill to the drunks.
“Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
There are other references to wine, such as turning water into wine in the Gospels, but the real heady wine conversations are found later on in the middle ages.
Modern English literature grew out of a myriad of sources, but Geoffrey Chaucer’s impact was one of the most indelible. In his “Canterbury Tales,” from circa 1390, the “Pardoner’s Tale” provides a sermon on drunkenness. “A lecherous thing is wine, and drunkenness
Is full of striving and of wretchedness.”
Around the same time, the anonymously-penned “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” detailed wine-drinking as revelry much like one would witness at a Medieval Times restaurant. At a gala, “Each couple had twelve dishes, good beer, and bright wine as well.” The bright wine was probably drunk from a goblet, while knights jousted for honour.
The 1500’s ushered in the Renaissance, with Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton as leading literary figures. Shakespeare’s works are filled with wine-quotes, such as in “The Merchant of Venice” when a character extols, “Let me play the fool. With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come. And let my liver rather heat with wine, than my heart cool with mortifying groans.”
Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac” was a more modern type of wisdom literature, but it mirrored some of the philosophy espoused in Sumerian and Biblical verses from thousands of years prior. “Women and wine, game and deceit, make the wealth small and the wants great,” illustrates Franklin’s caution about overindulgence, but the tome also included a wine-making recipe.
The list of famous modern-day wine quotes is long. One highlight is Ernest Hemingway’s discussion of wines virtues in “Death in the Afternoon”: “Wine is one of the most civilised things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.”
Just in 2014, the great modern Japanese writer Haruki Murakami wrote in his “Men Without Women: Stories”: “You are a pastel-colored Persian carpet, and loneliness is a Bordeaux wine stain that won’t come out.”
Lastly, Isak Dinesen wrote about wine in her “Seven Gothic Tales.” “There are many ways to the recognition of truth, and Burgundy is one of them,” is a fitting summary of how wine relaxes and inspires writers to seek answers in a wine-dark sea.