Wine & Health and the Triumph of Bacchus

Tomorrow has no certainty, so dance and sing and love today.

-Lorenzo de Medici (Poetic lyrics from his 1490 carnival song “Triumph of Bacchus”)

For the cover of my book Wine & Health: Making sense of the new science and what it means for wine lovers, my publisher chose a painting portraying the story of the Triumph of Bacchus. It’s a subtle nod to my analysis of wine’s renewed role in healthy living, but it also underscores the temptation to oversimplify the controversial topic. Sure, Dionysus (later Bacchus in the Roman pantheon) was the god of wine and revelry, but he also inspired generosity, joy, and temperance. The story goes that he gave a grape vine as a gift of gratitude to King Oenos, giving rise to the terms oenology and wine, endowing them from the beginning with positive attributes of human nature.

There are dozens of depictions of the Triumph of Bacchus, from Titian to Raphael, but perhaps the best know is Velasquez’s masterpiece in the Prado. Known also as Los Borrachos (the drunkards), I think it misses the mark thematically. The story derives from classical Greek mythology, depicting the marriage of Dionysus (Bacchus) and Ariadne, the clever and beautiful daughter of King Minos of Crete.  She found herself in a bit of a situation after aiding the hero Theseus in his mission to slay the Minotaur, the half human, half bull monster of the great labyrinth. Minos, in retaliation for his son’s death at the hands of an Athenian, had demanded the people of Athens to send young men and women to be sacrificed to the Minotaur or suffer destruction; Theseus, a strapping lad, volunteered so that he might have a chance to slay the beast. Ariadne fell for him at first sight, and offered to help if he agreed to marry her, whereupon she gave him a sword and told him how to find his way through the maze with ball of thread to mark a path.

Alas, Theseus was apparently a cad, and he abandoned Ariadne on an island during the journey home. Bacchus found her there (the original pilot for “Bachelor in Paradise”?), and was star struck. He took her for his own wife, and the rowdy scene of The Triumph is a celebratory wedding procession.

The Getty Museum has a monumental 16th century tapestry of the Triumph of Bacchus, originally commissioned by Pope Leo X. In this version the moral side of the story is represented, with characterizations of the cardinal virtues—Justice, Charity, Prudence, Faith, Hope, Fortitude, and Temperance. Our cover Bacchus is typical of this interpretation, with the demigod appearing more dignified than debauched.

And so it is with wine. In moderation but regularity, I contend that it remains a central component of healthy living. In Wine & Health I unravel the controversies about healthy drinking, and follow the lines of recent research through the labyrinths of science. I find answers emerging from new paradoxes: Studies declaring the demise of the French Paradox may be globally accurate while missing wine’s position in health and well-being; wine drinkers outlive nondrinkers on average, even as we are warned about alcohol’s threats to health; and evidence of wine’s benefits can be found in the very studies telling us about alcohol’s hazards.

Bacchus discovered the juice of the grape and introduced it to mankind, stilling thereby each grief that mortals suffer from . . . and sleep that brings forgetfulness of daily ills, . . . ’twas he that gave the vine to man, sorrow’s antidote.

—Euripides, 407 BC, The Bacchae

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