Vitis vinifera - Wine GrapeFAMILY: Vitaceae
GENUS: Vitis
SPECIES: Vinifera
COMMON NAMES: Angur (Hindi), Draksha (Sanskrit), Grape, Grapevine, Gvid (Celtic, ‘bush’), ‘inab (Iraq), Khamr (Arabic), Palmes, Reba, Vitis Sativa (Latin), Weinranke, Zame Weinreben

Vitis vinifera is a perennial vine which can grow up to 35 feet in length with twisting, woody stems. The word ‘vine’ is derived from viere (to twist) in reference to the way this plant likes to grow. The roots are also woody, and burrow deep into the ground. The leaves are long and heart-shaped with a serrated margin. The flowers usually bloom on the lower vines and are tiny and yellow green, developing into green, red, purple, blue, or black clusters of grapes (Ratsch 1998, 535).

V. vinifera has been cultivated for quite some time, and thus it is difficult to determine where exactly the plant originated. Archaeological evidence suggests that the wine grape was cultivated in Iran as early as 3500 BCE, and spread out from there. At this time, wine grape cultivation takes place in every part of the world, including South Africa, South America and Australia (McGovern 2003).

Wine grapes are usually grown from cuttings, which are placed in water until they grow roots and then planted. Grape vines grow best in temperate climates. They cannot stand in water, and so they are often planted on slopes with good drainage. They love twining and climbing, and so are usually planted and trained on long trellises. The more sun grape vines receive the better – sunlight creates more sugar in the grapes, and it is this sugar which transforms into alcohol during fermentation. Different varieties of V. vinifera grow better in different climates and regions, so each wine grower must select the appropriate varietal for the land in question (Cox 2003).

TRADITIONAL USE: Grapes have been used to prepare inebriating beverages for quite some time, probably at least 9000 years. In Godin Tepe in Iran, clay vessels containing the chemical traces left behind by wine have been found, dating from between 3500 and 2900 BCE (McGovern et al. 1995). Wine grapes are known to have been cultivated in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Crete, Greece, and Rome, and the Romans spread viticulture into every part of their vast empire that had proper conditions for growing the vines (Lesko 1978).

The Egyptians began making wine around 3500 BCE using figs, dates, pomegranates, and so forth. Grapes were initially imported from the area of present-day Iran, as they could not be grown in Egypt itself. However, by 3000 BCE vines originating from many areas of the world had been established in the Nile Delta ( 2012). Wine culture became widespread during the New Kingdom period. Wine was referred to as irp, and was primarily consumed by the upper class and used as offerings to the dead and the gods. On certain feast days, all citizens were permitted to drink wine, but the beverage was usually restricted to royalty. Many flagons containing information about the wine and wine maker have been found in Egyptian sites (Lesko 1978).

Egyptian Priestesses Carrying Wine

Egyptian Priestesses Carrying Wine

Wine was the central entheogen of the mystery religion of Dionysus (or Bacchus), a god of fertility and sacred plants (particularly the psychoactive ones), and founder of the theatre. Dionysus is an archetypical shamanic figure – he is dismembered multiple times and is then reborn, fully conscious of his dismemberment and reintegration. He is aided by numerous animal spirits, and often dressed in women’s clothing, similar to the shamans of certain Siberian peoples (Ratsch 1998, 537).

Greek mythology tells us that it was Dionysus who introduced wine grapes to humanity. A brief summary of the myth of Dionysus demonstrates how entwined this god is with this plant. Dionysus was the son of Zeus, raised by nymphs and Silens (half men, half animals, similar to satyrs) in the wilderness. Therefore, he is well versed in the magical world of nature and wild plants. In order to return to the society of humans, Dionysus discovers and brings to humanity the grape, a plant which requires cultivation to bear fruit. The wine grape, when properly fermented, creates an intoxication that is not purely wild in nature, but which is part of both the wilderness and civilization – both natural and cultivated by men (Ruck et al. 2000).

A Column Depicting Dionysus and the Preparation of Wine

A Column Depicting Dionysus and the Preparation of Wine

The wine grape was used in masculine rituals known as symposiums (meaning simply ‘drinking together’), in which the participants would consume wine mixed with herbal additives in order to prove their capacity to face the state of drunkenness. The leader of the symposium was the magister, who was responsible for diluting the wine with water and adding the psychoactive additives, as well as determining the appropriate dosage. It was thought best to leave a symposium  intoxicated, but not too drunk. These events were often intellectual in nature, and from them the philosophy of many ancient teachers, such as Plato and Socrates, came forth. Women who followed the way of Dionysus had a different ritual – they would go to the mountains in winter and eat raw herbs and ‘natural wine’, probably made from wild entheogens, rather than consuming the cultivated intoxicant from the wine grape (Ruck et al. 2000).

A Greek Symposium

A Greek Symposium

The cultivation and fermentation of wine was a bridge between the world of nature and that of human civilization. The fermentation of the wine itself represents the death and rebirth of the god Dionysus, and was integral to the rituals of the faith – the fruit was picked and crushed by the men in harvest season but, rather than growing cold in death, it fermented, grew warm, and began to bubble with life. In the winter that followed, the women would gather together to consume a special psychoactive blend known as the Kykeon (an entheogenic mixture of something other than wine, which would not have been ready at this time – perhaps an ergot preparation) which invoked ecstasy and allowed them to invite the God to return to life. One month later, as spring began, the God was welcomed back in a three-day feast, during which both women and men joined together in revelry. At this time, it was said that Dionysus had returned to life once more (Ruck et al. 2000).

Dionysus with Wine Grapes

Dionysus with Wine Grapes

The stories say that Dionysus planted grape vines in every part of the world where they now grow. When new vines were planted, a goat, the favorite animal of the god, would be sacrificed in that place. According to  the prophet Tiresias in Euripides’ The Bacchae, “[wine] puts an end to the pain of suffering humans, when they are filled with the stream of the vine, and it gives sleep to forget the troubles of the day; there is no other cure for pain. Itself a god, to the gods it is poured as a libation, so that through Dionysus people may have good fortune” (Euripides 1998).

A Dionysian Bacchanalia

A Dionysian Bacchanalia

Massive wine festivals, known as Bacchanalias were held at the temples of Dionysus in Greece and Rome (where he was known as Bacchus). At his temple in Pompeii, for example, great quantities of wine were consumed, and it was thought that drinking this beverage would allow humans to become immortal (Ratsch 1998, 537). Dionysus was also responsible for bringing the Theatre to Greece, and indeed, the Greek Theatre was a venue for public drinking, in which the audience consumed a special wine known as Trimma, which contained other psychoactive herbs. This blend would assist the actors in calming the ego so that they could be possessed by the character they were portraying, and also allowed the audience to connect and tune in to this spiritual possession, and to participate in the process of catharsis, in which the actors’ portrayals of violent acts were said to allow for the spiritual and emotional cleansing of all participants (Ruck et al. 2000).

Robert Graves has suggested that Dionysus was originally a toadstool god born from lightning (as he has no father), but when the Mycenaean tyrants took over the Greek Isles, they substituted wine for mushrooms in the orgiastic rituals, and thus Dionysus became a god of wine (Graves 1948, 159).

Even now, Dionysus is a compelling figure. Plays surrounding his mythology are still performed, he may be found depicted on the labels of modern alcoholic beverages, and is even featured in modern literature and other media (including Robert Silverberg’s The Feast of St. Dionysus, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic books, among others).

Wine made from V. vinifera is also held sacred by various other peoples. For example, the Jews still drink wine as part of a festival known as Purim, celebrated one month before Passover. The holiday celebrates the actions of Esther, who saved the Jewish people from the plot of the evil advisor to the king of Persia, Haman. On Purim, the book of Esther is read aloud, and everyone boos, hisses, and rattles noisemakers whenever Haman’s name is mentioned. According to the Talmud, on this day everyone must also drink until he or she cannot tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai, Esther’s brother ( 2011). Reform Judaism does not follow the tradition of getting blind drunk on Purim, but Hassidic Jews still follow the ritual. This tradition can be seen as entheogenic in nature – one drinks to the point that the ego is no longer able to distinguish between good and evil. In this state, one is above everything, relating clearly to the divine truth that all is one, all is infinite non-dual connection with the divine. As with the festivals of Dionysus, the ritual of Purim breaks down the walls of the ego with its dual nature, and allows the true self to emerge.

Wine is also consumed in smaller quantities during the Jewish Passover Seder meal. Participants in the ritual must drink four cups of wine, each at a specific point in the meal, representing the four expressions of deliverance promised by God in Exodus: “I will bring out”, “I will deliver”, “I will redeem”, “I will take”. The four cups may also be associated with the four Matriarchs, the four historical redemptions of the Jews, the four worlds, and so forth (Wikipedia n.d.).

In the Catholic Church, wine is still an essential aspect of the Communion ritual. This tradition may have originated with earlier Germanic rituals known as Minnetrinken, in which a glass of wine is raised in honor of gods, folk heroes, and ancestors (Schultze 1867 cited in Ratsch 1998, 537). Wine is one of the few entheogenic sacraments (other than Frankincense) which is still held sacred by Christian peoples. The Catholics say that the wine served in their ritual of the Eucharist is transformed into the true blood of Christ through the process of transubstantiation. Through consuming his blood (and flesh, as symbolized by the communion bread), the life and death of Christ are memorialized and practitioners are able to come into divine communion with the Holy Trinity. In Protestant sects of Christianity, the wine is said to be only a symbol of the blood of Christ, but is still consumed in a similar manner at mass as a form of remembrance and connection with the divine (Richert n.d.)

The Last Supper

The Last Supper, at which Jesus offers bread as his body, and wine as his blood to his disciples

In the Himalayan region, wine is held sacred to Shiva, along with Cannabis, opium, aconite, and many other inebriating substances. Wine is also an important aspect of Indian Tantra, as Indians are generally forbidden from drinking wine, and tantra aims to break down social taboos in order to integrate the ego with universal consciousness (Serrano 1982 cited in Ratsch 1998, 537).

Europeans refined the art of wine making over many hundreds of years, during which time the beverage was one of few safe alternatives to the potentially dangerous drinking water in increasingly populated areas. Wine grapes then traveled to America, where they were grafted onto native American grape rootstock to prevent the spread of the phylloxera blight, creating new strains of American wines. Partially due to the fact that the Drug War has outlawed many forms of consciousness-altering substances, wine culture has since grown into a massive worldwide phenomenon in the last hundred years. The commercial wine industry is only growing bigger, with trendy wine bars and boutiques springing up in cities and towns all over the world. Wine grapes are now cultivated worldwide, and indeed, the industry is one of the very few that is still growing in the present economic climate (circa 2013).

It is unfortunate that the consumption of alcohol in much of the world is now associated almost exclusively with hedonism and status, and that the beverage is consumed in such exclusive excess that it threatens the physical and psychological health of millions of people the world over. Yet as the above information demonstrates, the state of being drunk on wine can be viewed as connecting one with God and the non-dual state of consciousness, and thus, the wine grape may indeed be called an entheogen – a substance that manifests the god within. May the wine grape, and the beverage fermented from it, once again become known as well-respected sacred inebriants and medicines.

TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: To prepare wine, juice is pressed from V. vinifera grapes, and is then fermented. In ancient times, it was common to add other psychoactive plants to wine to produce a variety of effects. These additives included chocolate (Theobroma cacao) powder, henbane (Hyoscyamus niger, Hyosycamus alba), frankincense (Boswellia sacra), opium (Papaver somniferum), coca leaves (Erythroxylum coca), ergot (Claviceps purpurea), and cannabis flowers (Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica), among many others (Ruck 1982). There are two methods of doing this – either the additives are placed into the fermenting beverage, or the additives are macerated in the finished beverage. An example is the famous mandrake wine, in which fresh or dried Mandragora officinarum roots are added to the fermenting grapes. Wine containing psychoactive alkaloids may be very potent and must be treated very carefully. In fact, the ancient Greeks felt that wine was too strong to take on its own, and always mixed it with water in order to allow for more careful and reasonable dosing, a lesson that modern wine drinkers seem to have since forgotten (Ratsch 1998, 535).

Wine was also mixed with other medicinal plants during the Middle Ages in Europe. Hildegard von Bingen prescribes wine with boiled arum root for melancholy and fever, for example. Spiced wine, or mulled wine, was particularly popular – in northern Germany, a beverage known as Clareth, which contained honey, sugar, saffron (Crocus sativus), cloves, and nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) was very popular during the 15th and 16th centuries (Ratsch 1998, 535-536). Wine that has stinging nettles and dried apricots steeped in it for several weeks is also sometimes used as a warming blood and kidney detoxifier.

In fact, the tradition of blending wine with other medicinal herbs is still carried on in the form of spiced and mulled wine. For example, a warm blend of wine and various medicinal herbs known as Glögg is served in Nordic countries during Christmas. If you’ve never tried this delicious, warming beverage, why not give this simple Glögg recipe a try?

Mulled wine was also very popular in Victorian England at Christmas time, and is even featured in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol. One popular recipe, known as the Smoking Bishop, is prepared as follows:

“Make several incisions in the rind of a lemon, stick cloves in these, and roast the lemon by a slow fire. Put small but equal quantities of cinnamon, cloves, mace, and allspice, with a race of ginger, into a saucepan with half a pint of water : let it boil until it is reduced one-half. Boil one bottle of port wine, burn a portion of the spirit out of it by applying a lighted paper to the saucepan; put the roasted lemon and spice into the wine ; stir it up well, and let it stand near the fire ten minutes. Rub a few knobs of sugar on the rind of a lemon, put the sugar into a bowl or jug, with the juice of half a lemon (not roasted), pour the wine into it, grate in some nutmeg, sweeten it to the taste, and serve it up with the lemon and spice floating in it. Bishop is frequently made with a Seville orange stuck with cloves and slowly roasted, and its flavour to many tastes is infinitely finer than that of the lemon” (Acton 1868, 580-581).

A Smoking Bishop

A Smoking Bishop

MEDICINAL USES: The ancient Egyptians were familiar with the antiseptic qualities of wine, and used it as a base for medicine, an antiseptic for wounds, and an addition to drinking water to prevent disease (a common practice in every region where wine grapes were cultivated) (vine 2012).

In ancient Greece, all kinds of wines were used as vehicles for administering herbal medicines. Many medicinal herbal wines are described by Dioscorides – in fact, the entire fifth book of his comprehensive De Materia Medica is devoted to wines! He states that the leaves and tendrils of V. vinifera may be used as a poultice for headaches and gastrointestinal inflammation, and are cooling and astringent. The juice of the leaves may be taken for dysentery, parasites, and other stomach troubles, and the resin that exudes from the vine may be used to remove kidney stones. The ashes of the branches, husks, and seeds of the grapes that are left after the grapes are pressed may be mixed with vinegar to treat genital warts (Dioscorides 2008, Book V).

Similarly, early Ayurvedic texts discuss the medicinal benefits of wine, which they call Draksharishtha. This wine is usually made with various herbs, and has a somewhat vinegary taste due to the lack of micro-filtration and temperature monitoring in fermentation and storage. Draksharishtha is said to ease Kapha imbalances, as it has a strong fire and air element. This wine is even now sometimes prescribed by Ayurvedic doctors in a dose of six spoonfuls mixed with an equal amount of water with meals (Sharma 2011). Traditional Tibetan medicine also includes V. vinifera in its complex medicinal blends.

In modern times, the health benefits versus the health risks of drinking red wine are much discussed. In various scientific studies, red wine has been found to protect heart health, lower cancer risks, prevent colds, and treat gum disease, among other things. However, these benefits are only found at one to two glasses of wine a day – anything above that actually increases the risk of some cancers, and can be very detrimental to overall health (James 2012).

TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Wine grapes contain large quantities of grape sugar, fructose, citric acid, tannic acid, various other acids, potassium salts, and small amounts of starch (Downton and Hawker 1973). The grapes also contain an anti-fungal substance, α-Viniferin.

Wine can vary in alcohol content from 6-18%. White wines are usually between 10 and 12%, and red wines are usually between 11 and 15%. It is thought that red wine also contains anandamide, an analogous substance to THC (see Theobroma cacao, Cannabis) (Ratsch 1998, 539).

‘Old wines’, which were prescribed by doctors in Europe to treat various ailments for many years, have been reported to have odd psychoactive effects, including inducing visions of drunken angels. Ratsch suggests wine that has been stored for a long time may undergo chemical transformations which produce visionary effects, but it would be difficult to test this unless a collector of very old wines were willing to provide samples for testing (Ratsch 1998, 539)

Wine Cellar in Pannonhalma Archabbey, Hungary

Wine Cellar in Pannonhalma Archabbey, Hungary

One or two glasses of wine is generally uplifting, relaxing, and often increases sociability. By drinking wine in equal ratio to water, one can continue to enjoy these beneficial effects indefinitely. However, drinking too much wine on its own produces an intoxication that includes loss of motor coordination, blackouts, and possible loss of consciousness. It is thought that sparkling wines have somewhat different effects than non-sparkling wine – they are thought to increase blood circulation, making them both stimulating and aphrodisiac in effect (Ratsch 1998, 539).

Drinking too much wine can lead to confusion, shallow breathing, loss of consciousness, coma, and death. The more rapidly wine is consumed, the more likely it is that toxic levels of alcohol will build up in the blood stream. When alcohol levels get too high, breathing, heartbeat, gag reflex, and motor control may be seriously impaired. Approximately 50,000 cases of alcohol poisoning are reported annually in the U.S., and about 1 person a week dies of alcohol poisoning ( 2011). Even if it is not deadly, drinking too much wine can lead to the dreaded hangover, in which one pays for one’s extravagant intoxication with headache, drowsiness, dizziness, and nausea.

Wine can be very dangerous when combined with other substances, especially pharmaceutical medications and other synthetic drugs – some such combinations can easily lead to serious liver damage and even death. Please be careful and respectful when consuming wine, and do some research to be sure that you are not combining it with anything unsuitable.

By considering the religious and medicinal history of this sacred beverage, perhaps it may once more be used respectfully as an entheogenic sacrament. Next time you sit down to dinner with a delicious glass of wine, take a moment to remember the sacred and medicinal nature of the beverage, and the beautiful vine from which it comes.

Salute! (To your health!)



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