As the Black Death, also known as the Black Plague, ravaged Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s, people became increasingly desperate for any iota of respite. Some tried blood-letting. Others opted for rubbing onions—or, in some cases, a chopped snake—directly onto their infected boils.
If that wasn’t quite doing the trick, a plague-stricken individual could always try drinking a wine-based curative, according to Pat McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at Penn Museum in Philadelphia. McGovern has written two books on the archeological history of wine, Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (Princeton University Press, 2019) and Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages (University of California Press, 2019).
“There’s one [recipe] that was put together by a king of Pontus in Turkey named Mithridates,” says McGovern. “There’s 73 ingredients that go into it.”
To make this particular concoction, someone would need “flesh of vipers,” wine, opium, rhubarb, black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, among other herbs and spices. Purportedly, this mixture would relieve symptoms like stomach weakness, difficulty breathing and perhaps even the plague itself.
“So, it was very important in the Middle Ages until it was finally shown to be not necessarily so effective,” says McGovern.
In 1348, the Report of the Paris Medical Faculty recommended “mixtures of wine and some water” that included ground peppers, cinnamon and other spices. The difference was that you needed to use a clear white wine.
“White wines are sometimes preferred, because they seemed to be easier to digest,” McGovern said. “This is what was called the Great Treacle, treacle being when you take sugar and make molasses out of it. But they also use that term for this wine mixture against the plague.”
It didn’t seem to work too well, though, because 500,000 people died in Venice alone, and a fourth of Europe—nearly 20 million people—was killed.
People’s desperation stemmed not only from the agony of the disease but also from deeply held spiritual beliefs. Some were convinced the plague was a punishment from God. Groups of flagellants would travel between towns whipping themselves as a form of public penance.
“You have something like the Middle Ages where there’s a lot of superstition that comes in,” says McGovern. “If you touch the piece of wood from the cross, supposedly it will heal you. [It was] the same way with some of the concoctions. The plague remedies could be very fanciful and also quite superstitious.”
That’s not to say that wine cures throughout history have been all hocus pocus. Wine has been produced for thousands of years, dating back to the Neolithic period. And no matter which part of the globe is in question, the civilizations of the era likely made some curative claims about wine.
Back to Ancient Times
“[In] Ancient Egypt, we have papyri that talk about medical treatments,” says McGovern. “In Mesopotamia, we have records. In China, we have records.”
For residents of ancient Greece and Rome, wine was basically “used to cure everything,” says McGovern.
“It was an antiseptic,” “It’s an analgesic. It’s antimicrobial, so you treat all your wounds with wine. And it turns out that is actually the best way to do it. Alcohol is a disinfectant, but it is even beyond that: The tannins and so on in wine set up a perfect environment for healing wounds.”
For millennia, wine was central to all the area pharmacopoeias. Physicians, more often than not, would prescribe one variation of wine or another.
“It’s an analgesic. It’s antimicrobial, so you treat all your wounds with wine… The tannins and so on in wine set up a perfect environment for healing wounds.”—Pat McGovern
“Sometimes it’s just the wine,” says McGovern. “Sometimes there’s an herb put in, or multiple herbs, that are put in to try to affect a cure against poisons, against all kinds of mental diseases. It just goes on and on.”
Short of curing illness, the Roman writer Pliny the Elder suggested using wine to sweeten one’s breath, sort of like an ancient mouthwash.
“It helps against decay,” says McGovern. “I mean, it does to some degree, because it’s got the antimicrobial properties. So, it’s like everything. Before you had synthetic medicines, what would you do? Well, this was the cure-all for humanity.”
And it didn’t have to be just grape wine. It could be beer. It could be mead. It seems that any liquid with alcohol in it was fair game.
“It really is just part and parcel of the physicians, starting with Hippocrates going all the way for 2,500 years up to the 19th century,” says McGovern.
The Modern Era
As Prohibition approached, all these wine recipes that had been prescribed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years gradually became more and more diluted. More people embraced the purity culture that the movement represented, and they began to see wine’s ubiquity as something that needed to be reined in.
“The negative aspects were brought out much more starting with Prohibition, even in the 19th century,” says McGovern. “The ultimate upshot of this is that wine was sort of pushed out totally. Maybe you could use Sherry—those carried on pretty well in the United States, which had more of a Prohibitionist movement. Sherry stayed in the formularies for some time until it was finally discarded, too.”
In the late 20th century, as wine drinking experienced a cultural boom, the French paradox came into play. This was the name given to the seemingly counterintuitive fact that French people, on average, had a low rate of heart disease despite consuming a diet rich in cholesterol and saturated fats. It convinced an entire generation that drinking wine and following a Mediterranean diet was akin to unlocking the fountain of youth.
“Because it was supposed to be healthy, like drink two glasses of wine at night and it’ll be better for your heart,” says Jason Wilson, author of Godforsaken Grapes: A Slightly Tipsy Journey through the World of Strange, Obscure, and Underappreciated Wine (Abrams, 2018). “I know people who literally started drinking wine because of this.”
But like the plague remedies that were peddled some 650 years prior, the French paradox may not have been backed by exact science.
“No research has proved a cause-and-effect link between drinking alcohol and better heart health,” says Samantha Coogan, director of the didactic program in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and president of the Nevada Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “While there are some potential heart-promoting benefits to the tannins, flavonoids and antioxidants in wine itself, the jury is still somewhat out in terms of a proper recommendation, and moderation is still key. You can also find those nutrients in unfermented berries and grapes.”
Even if the health benefits aren’t so black and white, that might not even be the point in the first place.
“It maybe took away a little bit of the snob factor, like it made sense—you had people in the Mediterranean: They drank [wine], and they were healthier than us, so it’s part of a healthy lifestyle,” says Wilson. “It took it away from being kind of this rarefied thing. That was the way people thought. It was hand in hand with people beginning to cook a lot with olive oil—all sorts of things that were before then not really mainstream.”
People liked the idea of being healthy perhaps more than actually being healthy. And that’s a phenomenon that appears to be on the rise yet again, as wines are increasingly marketed as “clean” and “pure.”
From buzzy celebrity-branded labels to wine subscriptions billed as “clean crafted,” cleanliness and purity have become the markers of the moment within the wine world. Wilson describes it as “magical thinking.”
“I don’t know if it’s an American thing or a human thing,” he says. “People just want a healthier alcoholic beverage. They want alcohol to be healthy—healthier than it is. So I think people twist themselves into knots to come up with ways [to say], ‘Oh, well, this alcoholic beverage is healthier than this other one.’”
From a nutritional perspective, Coogan stands somewhere in the middle. She isn’t quite convinced that the buzzwords can be taken seriously, but she’s empathetic toward people who are seeking an alternative approach to wine consumption.
“I love the attempt to make a healthier version, while I’m somewhat skeptical as to what the motivation might be,” Coogan said. “Oftentimes these are just marketing ploys, but if its message is to promote achieving health and living a more healthful lifestyle, then at least from a mental perspective, it could have a positive impact on someone who is truly trying to do the right things, but still wants to indulge.”
As for McGovern, he sees it as somewhat of a full circle moment for wine, even if it’s shrouded in sleek marketing speak.
“This is something that can be healthful,” McGovern said. “I see that as a positive sign. This is something that has been with us right from the beginning.”