In vino veritas, the Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote. In wine is truth. It’s an old Latin phrase making fun of people who speak their minds under the influence of alcohol. The quote is buried in a rather hilarious and frightening chapter of Pliny’s Natural History devoted to chronicling drunkenness in Roman society. In this context, the saying is a warning against excessive drinking, and is often followed by in aqua sanitas, or in water is health.
Today, in vino veritas has been embraced by wine lovers as a positive, or at least a nuanced, statement. There is always that negative connotation of loose-lipped inebriation, but it also hints of a more positive truth, hidden within ourselves and revealed through wine’s mystical quality to elevate our spirit, as the wine we take at communion brings us closer to God.
On two consecutive evenings, on two sides of the country, and with two different groups of people, I experienced this positive truth in wine. The first occasion was a wedding. About a hundred people gathered at District Winery in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the union of two men in a hilarious and unconventional ceremony that combined elements of Greek drama and slapstick comedy with traditional religious ritual. Wine flowed as freely as the tears, and there was cheese and charcuterie amidst the camaraderie. Throughout the reception and dinner and dancing that followed, total strangers bonded over their mutual affection for the happy couple. (At one point, I heard someone exclaim, “I want to meet his sister!”) And I became closer friends with people I deal with regularly but rarely in person.
Wine was secondary to the occasion, of course, but we cannot conceive of such an event without it. Wine is the drink of celebration. We raise our glasses to toast each other, commemorate the past and welcome the future. It helps bring us together. Wine never tastes quite as good when we drink alone — it benefits from, even as it contributes to, communion.
Twenty-four hours later, I was in northwestern New Mexico with about a dozen colleagues. A long day of travel included airport delays, a flat tire in the middle of the desert for one of our team, and the kick of driving along the old Route 66. After all the work was finally done, several of us gathered at our hotel to unwind and debrief on the day’s events.
There was wine, of course. One colleague brought a bottle of Turnbull Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 from Napa Valley, a gift from his father. I contributed a Limerick Lane 1910 Block Zinfandel from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. Argentine malbecs from Gascon and Alamos, procured at local supermarkets, were offered and quickly emptied. There may also have been Crown Royal. Wine is supposed to be paired with food, but all we had was some cold gluten-free pizza and the makings of bruschetta, leftovers from a mid-afternoon dinner. They disappeared quickly, but fatigue was our main course.
And we feasted on conversation. After recapping the day, talk moved on to work and life. We didn’t say about much about the wine. Instead, we ragged on bureaucracy and bragged of our individual accomplishments, as well as those of our children. Before long there were several conversations going at once, as colleagues became friends and an ordinary work trip became an experience that we will remember for years and may ultimately be mentioned at our retirement parties. No one was drunk, but we relaxed and laughed and communed as wine transformed our fatigue into energy for a few hours. When the bottles were empty, we cleaned the room and called it a night, happy and ready to do it all again the next day.
Life and work drove these days, not wine. But wine added its charm and a measure of honesty. It was a voice in the celebratory choir of the wedding, though not the melody. It played magician to a small group in a hotel meeting room, changing a long and weary day into a memorable evening. On a more mundane level, wine can help us celebrate minor victories as well as major life events, or lift our cares and spirits when we are down.
In vino veritas.
A different version of this article was published on WashingtonPost.com in late May 2018.