Byron wrote of "claret light and Madeira strong" but is wine "bottled poetry" as Robert Louis Stevenson described it? Not, perhaps, if you scan the deathless prose of your average wine tasting note (my own among them). Auberon Waugh was idiosyncratic, once describing a Languedoc red as "hairy and longbottomed"; Kingsley Amis curmudgeonly: "When I hear someone talking about an austere unforgiving wine, I turn a bit austere and unforgiving myself".
Virginia Woolf thought "language is wine upon the lips". In The Waves, she writes: "Instinctively my palate now requires and anticipates sweetness and lightness, something sugared and evanescent; and cool wine, fitting glove-like over those finer nerves that seem to tremble from the roof of my mouth and make it spread (as I drink) into a domed cavern, green with vine leaves, musk-scented, purple with grapes".
"Give me books, fruit, French wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors," requested John Keats. Sponsored by The Independent, The Woodstock Literary Festival is in full swing today and I will be there to introduce a tasting of Castillo Perelada by Charlie Croft, who I'm expecting to be somewhere between Virginia Woolf and Kingsley Amis.
I don't suppose anyone will mention Wine Drinking for Inspired Thinking by Michael J Gelb (published on Monday by Running Press, £11.99). But this thoughtful guide cites Leonardo da Vinci, Socrates and Einstein as supporters of the view that wine is capable of inspiring creative thinking. According to Gelb, they believed that "relaxation opens the gate to the vast potential of the mind that is beyond the ordinary IQ," in other words, to creative thinking. Da Vinci went further: "write drunk, revise sober".
"Wine makes men happy and sociable," said Baudelaire; "a great giver of happiness, well-being and delight," in Hemingway's view. The power of wine to help us lose our inhibitions was recognised by Aristophanes. "Quick, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever." Rather grandly, the American author Clifton Fadiman saw this gateway as an opportunity "to savor a droplet of the river of human history".
Gargantua's cry at birth was "Drink! Drink! Drink!" but, on reaching the Temple of the Bottle, he sees inscribed above the door: "In wine lies truth". Rabelais' message is that wine makes us receptive to truths. Heraclitus would disagree: "Hide our ignorance as we will, an evening of wine soon reveals it". Is "one of the disadvantages of wine ... that it makes a man mistake words for thoughts," as Samuel Johnson suggested?
Goethe felt that "wine rejoices the heart of man, and joy is the mother of all virtue". Though we look askance at conspicuous consumption today, much praise of wine has often come with a health warning. "Use a little wine for the sake of thy stomach," said Paul to Timothy. Socrates advised that "if we drink temperately ... the wine distils into our lungs like the sweetest morning dew".
For John Milton, "wine, one sip will bathe the drooping spirit in delight beyond the bliss of dreams. Be wise and taste". Indeed, but we mustn't be allowed to forget that pleasure comes with a price tag. "I like best the wine drunk at the cost of others," said freeloader Diogenes, while Horace was keen to remind us, "come taste my wine but ere thou try it, remember friend, that thou must buy it".