"One cup of wine is becoming to a woman," begins one of the rabbis in the Talmud, nodding to the aphrodisiac power of wine. If the early Jewish text were to be a true manual on how to live, there would be no avoiding the stickier subjects of the birds and the bees, and the vines, for that matter. The teacher continued, "Two cups are degrading, and if she has three, she solicits publicly." Ancient sexism aside, that's how wine often looks in history's musings on its romantic potential: A little puts you in the mood, a lot, in the gutter.
The ancient Romans, never lukewarm on the subjects of sex and drink, were among the first to overcome such mixed feelings. They were clinically serious about their aphrodisiacs and love-philters, and wine usually played a role, either as a solvent, a boiling agent or a topical ointment. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder, writing in the 1st century AD, recommends wine mixed with, among other curatives, xiphion root (iris), asphodel, garlic, coriander and erythraicon (probably dog's-tooth violet; this one works just by holding it in one's palm, but is much more effective if dunked in "rough, astringent wine").
For the more outré (or desperate?), the Romans counseled drinking white or sweet wine containing the muzzle and feet—other sources say genitals—of the large skink lizard, as it was considered among the more phallic-shaped members of the animal kingdom. The right testicle of a donkey, taken with wine, would also do. (Animal bits dissolved in drink were usually dried and ground up first.) For another wine-based cure, Pliny insists, "Persons of experience in these matters have asserted that it is of primary importance that the application should be made by a maiden, and also that she must be naked at the time."
In later Europe, diffident manhoods could be set straight with a concoction of ground stag penis, pepper and malmsey wine, while women trying to procreate might try wine with powdered boar testes. Rather more ominous is the tale of a Florentine woman deemed a "sorceress" who had allegedly tried to arouse a man by feeding him wine mixed with water taken from the skulls of the dead.
As late as the 16th century, a certain St. Foutin, whose name seems to be an apocryphal combination of a local bishop and the French verb foutre (translation unprintable), was venerated in parts of southern France for his powers of restoring virility and fertility. The diocese of the town of Embrun was said to have possessed the saint’s most miraculous relic. Coitally frustrated churchgoers poured wine over the tip of it, staining it red, and a vessel beneath collected the liquid, left until it turned to "holy vinegar." Afflicted parishioners could then use the blessedly invigorated vinegar to an extraordinary restorative effect upon which the historical record does not elaborate.
Beyond matters anatomical, wine has always kept a place at the table during courtship. The Romans liked to say, "Sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus," a bit from the poet Terence: "Without Ceres and Bacchus"—that is, food and wine—"Venus would grow cold." In the great plays and ballads of medieval and early modern Europe, wine opens romance. Mythical lovers Tristan and Isolde, for example, shared a drink to pass time while at sea, thinking it perhaps a nice Amarone; rather, it was a love potion. Mozart’s Don Giovanni throws a bash of “chocolate, coffee, wine and ham” to get the ladies in the mood. Other ballads were bawdier: One praised Bacchus for opening “every woman’s door.”
But wine played a role in real-life matchmaking as well as in bardly boasting. Gifts of wine were always popular in Europe as demonstration of romantic interest (and of having the scratch to buy wine). In medieval Venice, for the Festival of the Twelve Marys, young men paraded to a church to give out desserts and wine to eligible bachelorettes; the next day, the gentleman callers would find the ladies again, this time at the homes of wealthy town dignitaries, where they would once again woo them with wine and sweets, as described in A. Lynn Martin's Alcohol, Sex and Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Some have interpreted a symbolism to this giving and receiving that had nothing to do with drinks and candy. At any rate, the powers-that-be eventually felt the need to put an end to these coed mixers, lest youngsters celebrate the Holy Mother with conceptions of their own.
Of course, wine has presided at marriages for centuries, even before Jesus livened up the Wedding at Cana with his water-wine switcheroo. Ever since that miracle, cups of wine have been hoisted as witness and benediction to seal the bond of matrimony. Apparently, this was even taken to its legal extreme at times: A case of a broken betrothal in 15th century France was put to rest when the plaintiff and the defendant drank from the same glass. The verdict: "You are betrothed to one another; I call the wine to witness."
Wine wasn't always an accomplice to love, though—for some, the drink itself was their first, their last, their everything. The narrator of 17th century English poet Robert Herrick's ode "Farewell to Sack," tearfully bids adieu to his favorite tipple, Sherry:
The kiss of virgins, first fruits of the bed,
Soft speech, smooth touch, the lips, the maidenhead:
These and a thousand sweets could never be
So near or dear as thou wast once to me.
O thou, the drink of gods and angels!
If you're looking to keep things lively on Valentine's Day (but want to skip the lizard garnish), what can history recommend you pop? Well, tut-tutted Jean Molinet in the 15th century, the wine of Reims—Champagne—"is the wine of lechery."
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions