The power to banish care: part2, by Hugh Johnson

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In the book 'The ultimate wine companion' (published by Sterling publishingKevin Zraly has compiled a complete guide to understanding wine by the world's foremost wine authorities.
In the second in an exclusive online series, here is an extract written by Hugh Johnson from 'The power to banish care'.

What is wine, and what are its effects? What has made men from the first recorded time distinguish between wines as they have done with no other food or drink? Why does wine have a history that involves drama and politics, religions and wars? And why, to the dismay of young men on first dates, do there have to be so many different kinds? Only history can explain.

The polite, conventional definition of wine is “the naturally fermented juice of fresh grapes.” A more clinical one is an aqueous solution of ethanol with greater or lesser traces of sugars, acids, esters, acetates, lactates, and other substances occurring in grape juice or derived from it by fermenta­tion. It is the ethanol that produces the obvious effect.
What is ethanol? A form of alcohol produced by the action of yeasts on sugar—in this case, grape sugar.image from

Ethanol is clinically described as a depressant, a confusing term because depression is not in the least what you feel. What it depresses (“inhibits” makes it clearer) is the central nervous system.
The effect is sedation, the lifting of inhibitions, the dulling of pain. The feeling of well-being it brings may be illusory, but it is not some­thing you swallow with your wine: your wine simply allows your natural feelings to mani­fest themselves.

What is true of wine is true of other alcoholic drinks—up to a point. Ethanol is the principal active component in them all. Its effects, though, are significantly modified by other components—in other words, the differences between wine and beer, or wine and distilled spirits. Little that is conclusive about these differences has yet been discov­ered by scientific experiment.
We are talking about tiny traces of substances whose precise effect is very difficult to monitor through the complexities of human responses. But much that is clearly indicative has accumulated over centuries of usage.

Wine has certain properties that mattered much more to our ancestors than they do to ourselves. For 2,000 years of medical and surgical history it was the universal and unique antiseptic. Wounds were bathed with it; water made safe to drink.

Medically, wine was indispensable until the later years of the nineteenth century. In the words of the Jewish Talmud, “Wherever wine is lacking, drugs become necessary.”
A contemporary (sixth century BC) Indian medical text describes wine as the “invigorator of mind and body, antidote to sleeplessness, sorrow and fatigue . . . producer of hunger, happiness and digestion.”
Enlightened medical opinion today uses very similar terms about its specific clinical virtues, particularly in rela­tion to heart disease. Even Muslim physicians risked the wrath of Allah rather than do without their one sure help in treatment.