If you publish a wine-drinking manual, you’re going to be known forever as a big ol’ boozehead, Vincent Obsopoeus’ friends tried to warn him when he was working on his opus, The Art of Drinking, in the 1530s. Obsopoeus, a poet who lived near Würtzburg, in the heart of Germany’s Franconia wine region, ignored the advice, and later addressed his predicted “trashing”: “They say I went too far. Whatever. Obsopoeus doesn’t care.”
That’s the guy you’ll be spending time with in the new translation of Obsopoeus by Michael Fontaine, a professor of classics at Cornell, whose lively modern rendition appears alongside the original Latin verse in How to Drink: A Classical Guide to the Art of Imbibing, published in April by Princeton University Press. Nominally a treatise on the dos and don’ts of wine-drinking, it mashes up a How to Win Friends and Influence People Under the Influence sort of self-help book, a snapshot of a binge-drinking culture 500 years ago and a personal airing of grievances through the lens of one entertaining, wildly self-contradictory and extremely cantankerous tutor.
The book is divided into three sections, with helpful subheadings from Fontaine (“Ideal Drinking Buddies”; “Party Hearty, Not Hardy”; “I Recant Nothing”; etc.). In the first, Obsopoeus mostly advises on the company you should keep in your vinous adventures, and the much longer list of those better to avoid: buzzkills, blowhards, mean drunks, heretics, gossips, criminals, peer-pressurers, self-styled insult comics and bores. (“Any time these ‘sages’ are bickering like idiots back and forth over drinks, I’m ready to keel over and die.”) Catholics, however, are OK in his book.
Obsopoeus then launches into a frequently sarcastic and contemptuous description of the pitfalls of the binge culture; one senses Obsopoeus has done extensive field research here. “The funny thing, my friend, is that the whole time you’re trying to impress them, people are calling you a notorious waste and loser.”
But, since you’ll inevitably be challenged to drinking games, you might as well win, is the name of the game in the end. Take it from a master: “If anyone were to have me over for dinner and drinks, trust me, I’d be slaying cup after cup!” These games are mostly just guys sitting around hollering at each other to down drinks; the rules are never really explained. Wine, usually watered-down, from the vineyards around the area’s Neckar River, is the weapon of choice, and Obsopoeus regards beer fanciers as strange.
Many of Obsopoeus’ lessons are timeless or even prescient: Savor wine, don’t guzzle mindlessly; don’t drink on an empty stomach; excessive drinking leads down a path toward addiction, destitution and death (this long before any coherent clinical theory of alcoholism existed). Obsopoeus acknowledges he can be silly at times, and he usually champions moderation in a culture where, apparently, few others did. But just in case the message got muddled, he wraps up with a few go-to hangover cures.
The Art of Drinking Wine (Like the French Do) is a few centuries evolved from Obsopoeus’ partying days, a slim volume published as a promotional pamphlet in 1927 by the French distributor Maison Nicolas, written by the journalist Louis Forest. Originally titled Monseigneur Le Vin, it has been translated and republished this month by the imprint Rizzoli, including the original whimsical illustrations of Charles Martin.
Forest’s volume is also a three-parter—Prepare, Serve, Drink—that could more or less pass as a modern-day wine primer in advice if not tone: Wine-tasting is Forest’s love language. “When—slowly, blissfully, passionately, seriously, lovingly—I respectfully, mystically, delectably bring to my mouth a glass of wine …” he begins to unwind one hallelujah. He too looks around at the current state of wining disapprovingly: “Isn’t it incredible that, in a country like ours, ignorance about wine is so common.”
Forest then dutifully issues his corrective: How to buy wine, how to properly age it, whether and how to decant (apparently a contentious topic of the time), what sort of glassware to use, which wines to pair with which foods and what to do about guests who mix wines at the table (“never see these people again”). The suggested food pairings are particularly fun for the culinary time traveler: light reds with roast skylark, dry whites for “cold fish with mayonnaise.” As are the wine-tasting terms Forest assigns to fine or poor bottles: “has a waistcoat,” “has a blouse,” “has a dog” (good); “disheveled,” “bothersome,” “wears a hat over the ears” (bad). It’s a delightful document of the ways in which the world of wine has changed dramatically in the century since, but the rituals and celebrations remain largely the same.
Enjoy Unfiltered? The best of Unfiltered's round-up of drinks in pop culture can now be delivered straight to your inbox every other week! Sign up now to receive the Unfiltered e-mail newsletter, featuring the latest scoop on how wine intersects with film, TV, music, sports, politics and more.