I drink too much. I know this. My poor long-suffering liver knows this. Even observers both close and distant have noticed this. It’s the curse of a) being obsessed with wine, b) working in the world of wine and c) living in a country where my obsession is both high quality, readily accessible and cheap. It doesn’t help that I produce drinking videos, write blogs about booze and, clearly, have a podcast/blog dedicated to wine. But I’m no alcoholic.

I have my own rules of drinking:

  1. I never drink at home alone – unless the situation is drastic and for whatever the reason I’m having the worst day imaginable.
  2. I won’t drink for drinking’s sake – there needs to be at least some semblance of a point (and that can be as light as a sunny afternoon on a terrace).
  3. I don’t drink until I’m blind drunk and I regret the rare time’s it has happened.
  4. I try not to mix. If I’m on wine, it’s wine. If gin and tonic, then gin it is.

This got me thinking about the differences between the drinking cultures of my two homes – UK, the home of the past and Spain, the home of the now. I loved my time in Russia, but to start talking about the drinking culture there, well, we’d be here all day. I thought it would be interesting to look at the general ways the two countries drink, gazing through my own very personal and fuzzy lens.

UK

This, logically, was my first exposure to drinking. I shall precede this by saying that I never got drunk until I was 18 years old and in the first year of university.

I was never interested in drinking alcohol – I may have had the odd Bacardi Breezer at my friend Ollie’s house as a teenager – but just looking at the culture around me, what it did to people, was enough to put me off.

In the UK people – and of course I am painting with wildly broad brushstrokes here – seemed to be drinking to escape, forget, release, unleash, as opposed to really enjoying themselves. Every Friday and Saturday night, and nothing has changed, from the largest cities to the smallest towns – in my case Thames town Maidenhead – people could be seen at 1am, blind drunk; shouting, vomiting, fighting, weeping, having their backs rubbed as they sat on the curb, talking to the owners of the kebab shop as they clumsily shovelled low-grade meat and chips into their mouths, hollering at girls, hollering back at the boys.

It seemed, it seems, that a weekend evening is a failure unless you finish wobbling around with your cerebral faculties relegated to being a confused, angry or emotional gloop sloshing around your head.

I drank at university of course, but within a year had found my limits and would rarely return to the point where I wasn’t at least mostly in control of my senses.

In the second year I started to get into Port and crappy off-dry rosés. Classic gateway wines.

In the third year – abroad in Spain and Russia – I had got into beer and spirits and no longer liked sweet drinks.

In the fourth year I found both tea, coffee and wine to my taste. It became more about going to the pubs with friends and drinking local Somerset ales and ciders and being in good company. Very seldom were the times we could be bothered to go to a club or disco: noise, drunk people and dancing. The opposite of a good time.

Regarding wine, often the problem with the UK is two-fold:

  1. The way we drink – getting blitzed at the weekend. The idea of having a relaxed glass of wine for lunch is almost unimaginable.
  2. The price – the simple fact is that a lot of alcohol, especially wine, is quite expensive. So Mon-Thurs you take your foot off the gas, and then slam it down hard at the weekend to reward yourself.

Remember I’m looking at this through my not-quite-thirty-years-old goggles. My parents, indeed a lot of middle-aged and up people, tend to be more Mediterranean in their consumption.

Spain

Now, in the same way that not everyone is always going out and getting wasted in the UK, not everyone in Spain is an angel that never gets drunk. My goodness they do. But the tone is different.

I initially thought I was in paradise when I arrived in Madrid, for the simple reason that I could get bottles of very drinkable wines for the price of a glass of it in the UK. Hell, I could buy a litre of wine, though less palatable, for a euro. What was this alcoholic wizardry? I was young, surrounded by expats – teachers – and we drank. We had house parties, went out on the weekends and that was that. Cheap booze.

Quickly, via experiences as varied as eating arroz con bogavante (lobster stewed in rice) served with a crisp Martín Codax albariño in Guadalajara, a visit to Viña Tondonia in La Rioja where I was lucky to befriend the family – and to this day still receive a Christmas card from them, and drinking cold porcelain cups of Ribeiro wine in A Coruña with plates of steaming mussels, I started to love wine the way the Spanish did.

It all came down to interest and food culture. This was a country where the people drank their wine when they ate – indeed the Ministry of Agriculture officially recognises wine as a ‘food stuff’ and not a ‘booze’.

This was a country where on a Friday night if someone said ‘fancy grabbing a drink’ it didn’t mean ‘fancy getting blind drunk and vomiting in a policeman’s hat?’ It meant let’s have a drink with a nibble to go with it.

This was a country where restaurants, bars, clubs, were all open later. A place were there was no stress and social pressure to pound drinks and get as much booze in you before the inevitable ‘Last orders!’ was yelled to the ding dong of the pub bell. Here you had another drink if you wanted one, not ordering one to boost your level of inebriation.

This was a country were people got drunk, but as a choice or a bi-product of a nice time with friends. It wasn’t the aim of the night. And in over 7 years of living here, none of my friends have ever said ‘let’s get wasted’ and genuinely meant it.

It is a happier, less stressful, cheaper, tastier, slower, more social, amiable, and gratifying way of drinking. And yes, occasionally to the point where the act of walking in a straight line seems the most monumental complicated thing. And that’s how I prefer it.

Salud!

A must for anyone who wants say that they have been in Madrid is a visit to the Museo del Prado. If any of our readers or listeners do it, I’m sure they would like have a different perspective when visiting its rooms. Join me on a brief tour of this great art gallery through the eyes of a wine lover. We will not do a thorough scan of all works that in some way or another have wine as protagonist; that would be impossible. This is a personal proposal, sometimes a bit whimsical, but I think quite significant.

Let’s start our tour honoring the god Dionysus, or Bacchus as the Romans called him, the God of Wine, who we have already spoken on other occasions. Let’s stop in front of the marble bust of the beautiful and serene Antinous of Bithynia, the young man who was elevated to God by Emperor Hadrian himself, who was his lover, and on this occasion is represented as the god Dionysus. A little hint: see the small horns coming out of his forehead representing him as a faun or satyr, meaning therefore ‘of god’. Although the museum has many other representations of Bacchus, this is certainly my favourite.

Although representations  of Bacchus have not always been so flattering. The anonymous Baco accompanied by nymphs and satyrs, XVII century, shows an obese and deformed being, almost repulsive, like the one Cornelis de Vos shows in The Triumph of Bacchus. Or in Autumn of Mariano Salvador Maella, where we have a Bacchus with heavy eyes, raising his glass and saluting the audience. On his face we can notably feel the effects of a monumental binge.

But if there’s a painting of the God of Wine that you should not miss, it is The Feast of Bacchus by Velazquez. The main character is Bacchus, one of the artist’s first male nudes, dominates the composition with the brightness of his body and his clothes. On his left a naked satyr raises a fine crystal goblet and places us in the world of myths, while on the right a beggar and four men in brown cloaks, with leathery faces and tipsy expressions, constitute a truthful and realistic counterpoint. Before them is the figure of a young man, kneeling as he is being crowned by the God, perhaps receiving the gift of the artistic creation. Isn’t wine a way of creation? Wine not only has the ability to brighten the spirits of men and lead to non-rational states, but is a stimulus for creation, a vehicle.

As we know, the followers of God celebrate the pleasures of the flesh and the sacred liquid in what is known as Bacchanalia. The effects of wine in the body induced Dionysian ecstasy, as we can see in the Dionysian Dance, a marble relief that describes the cult of Dionysus. It was considered something dangerous but its value as a means of escaping for a few hours from the strict discipline of civic life was also appreciated. The maenad’s ecstatic dance and the leaping satyr playing with a glass of wine are impressively rendered. A similar event was painted by Titian in The Andrians in the XVI century. Gods, men and children join the celebration of the effects of wine. My favourite character is the young man who observes the wine against the light, a classical wine tasting. Enjoy the scene: naked bodies, frolicking, dancing, drinking … is there a better plan for a Saturday night?

Be sure not to miss the chaotic The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day by Pieter Bruegel “The Elder” (16th century), the Bacchanal by Nicolas Poussin (17th century) or the two canvases Offering to Bacchus and Bacchanal of Michel-Ange Houasse to see how the wine world and its pernicious effects are celebrated.

One piece that always jumps out at me is the politically incorrect Children Bacchanal by the Dane Keil, 17th century, who shows in this canvas three children who seem to be indulging in the pleasures of wine. Look at the bottle, covered with straw or esparto rope from the base to the neck, known as a Pilgrim bottle, precisely because it’s particularly easy to carry and to accompany pilgrims during the long way. A little later, from the porcelain Factory of Niderviller, we have a piece, also called Infantile Bacchanal, showing a group of children naked or with sheepskins on their back, crowned by garlands of leaves and carrying bunches of grapes, playing happily.

Although if  you want to face a real politically incorrect topic, see this painting by Luca Giordano: Lot intoxicated by his daughters, where due to the lack of men on earth, the daughters intoxicate their father to lie with them and ensure offspring to propagate the race. Hey, just a moment, it’s not me, it’s the Bible: Genesis 19, 31-35.

But let’s keep our feet on the ground and leave aside these mythological scenes. Let’s use the museum as a time machine to transport us to ancient times to see how the townspeople enjoyed wine as the great master Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, or just ‘Goya’, did. Goya painted during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

In his The Grape Harvest or Autumn, we can see how the harvest should be in those days. A young man dressed in yellow, offers a bunch of grapes to a young lady, a child tries to catch it, but it seems that these are reserved only for adults. As children we all felt that same curiosity for the precious liquid. Behind them is a peasant carrying a basket full of grapes on her head. In the background, peasants working in the fields, busily collecting the fruit. The silhouette of the mountains in the background reminds us of the Sierra de Gredos. Is that one of the very first Wines of Madrid or perhaps it’s from Méntrida? Vinos de la Tierra de Castilla y León, perhaps?

Goya also left us The Drinker, where a young man sitting in the shade of trees is drinking wine from a boot with certain gluttony, while the boy accompanying him, looking thoughtfully at the viewers, is eating a turnip. Not a very solemn moment, but very significant of the society of the time, hungry and thirsty, roguish and somewhat shameless. Remember when I told you that my grandfather kept wine in a boot? Well, here it’s a clear example that Spain has been doing it for a long time. Moreover, in Still life with melon and figs, apples, wineskin and snack basket in a landscape by Luis Egidio Meléndez, you can see one of them in much more detail.

Goya left us countless scenes of those times, a great way to discover how the Spanish people of the late 18th century lived. Look at The Threshing Ground or Summer painting. Goya depicts this season with a scene of harvesters recovering from the summer heat by sitting beside a pile of recently harvested wheat sheafs. On the left a group of peasants try to inebriate another character whose clothing and stance define him as a typical character: the village idiot.

Or stop in front of The Picnic, also Goya’s. You’ll see how young people enjoyed to go picnicking by the banks of the Manzanares River on the outskirts of Madrid, eating, drinking and smoking. Yes, believe it or not, that’s Madrid.

One of my favourite pictures reflecting the Spanish society of late 19th is the painting by José Benlliure y Gil, Smalltalk and drink, a close and honest representation of the very reality of a country, its people and their customs. Four old peasants, dressed in the traditional way, chatting quietly around a jug of wine. I see on their faces serenity, experience and sacrifice.


It is also seen in the face of
The drinker, by Maximino Peña Muñoz. The old man grabs his jug of wine (we also talked about that, remember?), while reading the newspaper El País..

Let me also tell you about the canvas ‘Till I see you, my Christ!! of Jose Garcia Ramos, also from the late 19th century, early 20th. A beggar bearing an image of baby Jesus quaffs a glass of wine until he sees at the bottom an image of crucified Christ, under the watchful eye of the innkeeper and a customer. To drink until you see Christ. That phrase never made more sense. I love the sign hanging in the window: “Today we do not sell on credit, but tomorrow”.

Already stuck in the 20th century, Inocencio Medina Vera left us a painting, Romería de San Eugenio, which shows the feast that was celebrated on the first or second Sunday of November in the El Pardo hills, near Madrid. I have included this work to show you how the way people consume wine is evolving, this time wine is carried in a glass jar or bottle, what the Italians call frasca. As you can see wine is always naturally present in these events.

Although we could go on for hours wandering through the many rooms of the museum, discovering more details about wine and its history, I will be ending because I know you will be already looking forward leaving the museum to enjoy a delicious glass of wine. That’s why I invite you to see one last painting with me. It is Smoking and drinking monkeys by David Teniers, painted c. 1660. Four monkeys smoke, gathered around a table; one of them raises his glass to toast. Another is asleep and rests his head on a bench. The painter is reminding us that we are nothing but animals, who somehow don’t look too far removed from the grotesque image of apes around a table.

Since starting our tour through the museum, we have seen how wine brings out man’s real nature and depths, their weaknesses and their passions. Wine opens doors, but also exposes our more human and authentic side. Do not miss it. Find it out. Let yourself go.

And now it’s time to go for that well deserved glass of wine. Thanks for joining me. Do not forget your backpack at the locker.

All pictures are copyrighted by MUSEO NACIONAL DEL PRADO.