An American in Pollenzo

Truth in wine (writing)? Looking more closely at “in vino veritas”


As I continue to prepare for the seminars on English-language wine writing and wine blogging that I will be leading next week and the following (as part of the UniSG Master’s in Wine Culture program), I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of truth in wine (writing) and how we perceive absolute truths in our awareness of wine when it is depicted or described in words.

There’s an ancient association of truth and wine that looms over the notion of truth in enography: The Latin motto in vino veritas, which, when translated literally, is rendered in English as [there is] truth in wine.

Some attribute the earliest exemplar of the expression to a fragment of a lost poem by the ancient Greek poet Alcaeus (although, beyond a Wikipedia mention, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of substance in the assertion that Alcaeus was the first to utter the phrase).

Italian scholarship points to the sophist (or teacher for hire) Zenobius as the first chronicler of the phrase, which he included in a collection of aphorisms.

To my knowledge, all concur that the Latin expression is an adaptation of the Greek εν οἴνῳ ἀλήθεια (en oinoi aletheia). And here’s where it gets interesting.

Whereas veritas means truth or reality in Latin, aletheia has a slightly different meaning in Greek. It’s generally translated as disclosure (see this excellent Wiki entry on the term).

When the 20th-century critical theorist Heidegger revisited the notion of aletheia, which would become a key element of his work, he wrote that: “to raise the question of aletheia, of disclosure as such, is not the same as raising the question of truth. For this reason, it was inadequate and misleading to call aletheia, in the sense of opening, truth” (see the Wiki entry above for the quote and explanation).

It’s generally believed that in ancient Greek, the meaning of the expression was perceived as inebriated people are more likely to be talkative and not inebriated people are more likely to tell the truth.

It’s also likely that the ancient Romans perceived an irony in the expression (perhaps because of their contact with the culture of ancient Greece or perhaps based on their observation of human nature). This would seem to be borne out by Horace who wrote: Quid non ebrietas designat? Operta recludit. In other words, is there anything that inebriation doesn’t reveal? It shows hidden things (Epistles, 1.5.16). It’s highly plausible that when the Romans uttered the expression in vino veritas, it was was with a wink, as if to say, people sure gab a lot when they have been drinking, but they hardly tell the truth. (In my observation of human behavior, this seems to be more often the case.)

Philologically speaking, a better translation of the Latin expression in vino veritas might be the following: hidden thoughts are revealed in wine.

And when it comes to the world of wine writing and the enoblogosphere, as it were, it seems that truth is neither black or white nor white or red. In fact, I believe, honesty and transparency in wine writing are derived more from recognizing the medium as an expression of disclosure than considering it a vehicle of (absolute) truth.

It’s grape for thought and one of the topics I’ll be covering in my seminars.

If you’re not already enrolled in the UniSG Master’s in Wine Culture program, there is availability for the spring term. Click here to find out more…