Yes, you read that correctly: I have praised the wine cooler. Otherwise known as a spritzer, that classic bottled beverage from the 1980s and the bane of wine connoisseurs everywhere.
There is a reason for this, apart from my being a
child young adult of the ’80s and drinking. . . .well, not terribly many of these things. Of course, the ladies I was often after would drink them, so I at least had some skin in the game, so to speak. No, I like the idea for historic purposes, namely because it represents Civilization itself.
You read that correctly.
I speak, obviously, of the ancient Greek habit of mixing their wine with water. The Greeks figured anyone who drank their wine straight was an uncouth barbarian, and that it would likely drive the imbiber insane, perhaps even unto death. Why? I’ve seen a number of explanations. One is that their wine, produced to travel, was much stronger and more concentrated and intense than what we think of as wine, and therefore it needed to be diluted in order to be able to drink it without gagging. Imagine it being more like wine syrup than our normal sort of wine.
It also added another layer of complexity to the entire ritual surrounding entertaining. One often had what amounted to a wine steward or a wine master (magister bibendi) in charge of the mixing, who would no doubt have his (probably) own preferences as to what constituted the optimum ratio of water to wine and who would oversee the entire process.
The other postulate is that wine was generally drunk over long periods, what we call session drinking, often beginning before a meal and lasting through it and afterwards. Thus, the mixing diluted the wine sufficiently to avoid being plastered the whole time. Maintaining a certain decorum while drinking allowed the cultivated Greek to discuss art, politics, and poetry for several hours while still enjoying a satisfying buzz. This contrasted with the barbarians who would drink to simply get smashed.
There’s also something of a public health idea as well, such that one is not really diluting wine with water, but vice versa: bacteria-laden water could be made potable by adding in some alcoholic wine and thus allowing one to drink enough to satisfy one’s thirst in relative safety while also getting a nice health buzz. I’m not sure this one flies since I don’t think the amount of alcohol present (unless it was, in fact, much stronger than typical modern wines) was enough to really sterilize the typical water that was available.
As for the origins of the modern wine cooler or spritzer, well, try here. I make no claim to accuracy by providing that link, btw. But in reality, the concept goes at least as far as the Greeks and perhaps even earlier. Still, even growing up I learned the basics through the Catholic Mass wherein the celebrant mixes a bit of water with the sacramental wine. The theological justification for this, apparently, was that water represented humanity and wine the Divine, thus inextricably intermingling the two, as in Jesus, and our own sharing in that.
From what I’ve seen on the Interwebs, the modern wine cooler was killed off by a tax on wine that made it too expensive to go diluting it, when one could make similar malt-based concoctions much more cheaply. Again, I merely link; it may have simply run its course.
I do have a soft spot for the old Bartles and Jaymes commercials. That to me is the quintessential Wine Cooler of the ’80s. I haven’t seen it in years, although I just did a quick search on their web site and found that it’s available in my (Seattle) area. I doubt I’ll go buy any. I’d much rather mix my own up, which I admit I don’t do very often — or haven’t, at any rate — although at the moment I have mixed a 50-50 blend of a nice riesling and some Diet Sprite (because I had the latter on hand), which is rather greater than the generally maximum of 2:1 water:wine ratio favored by the ancients.
So go ahead. Buy a cheap jug of wine, some soda water (or Sprite!), recline on your favorite couch with some friends and discuss eastern art and dramas (intellectual llamas optional), and enjoy four millennia of history in your glass.
And, um, try not to play Madonna on the stereo.