I quite like dry wine. I’m far from a sommelier but when trying to decide what wine to buy if the back of the bottle says it is dry, that is a selling point. What I’m less fond of is dry facts. “Wine: A Graphic History” is fairly dry. Newly translated, this French comic holds our hand tightly as it walks us through the histories of great wine making civilisations and the evolution of the process of producing wine around the world.
Written by Benoist Simmat
Art by Daniel Casanave
The history of wine is nothing less than the history of civilisation. It is the religious drink par excellence — from the Ancient Greek god of wine, Dionysus, via the vineyard Noah planted after the Flood in the Old Testament, to Christ’s miracle at Cana. In the monasteries and churches of the Middle Ages, the syrupy drink of antiquity, unpalatable if undiluted, was transformed into the wine we know and love today.
Oenophile Benoist Simmat and artist Daniel Casanave tell the story of wine from its origins in the Mediterranean to the globalised industry of the 21st century. Tracing the innovations that have accompanied this ancient art and science, from oak-barrel ageing to the invention of the bottle, Wine: A Graphic History will leave readers with a fresh and full-bodied view of our own drinking culture.
To fuel my writing of this review, I am drinking a Chilean Merlot from Lidl, a discount supermarket, that cost me £4.09. I buy a bottle of this particular wine pretty much every week. Wine can mean many things, but it has often become ritual. Whether it’s my buying this cheap bottle of Merlot, or the traditions I grew up with; my parents sharing a bottle on a Saturday night, the Communion wine at church. Wine has been this comforting, routine background noise. It’s appropriate in most settings, it’s easy to drink, it lubricates conversations well. It’s ubiquitous. What I wanted from “Wine: A Graphic History” was an engrossing social history, telling tipsy tales of the place of wine through time. What I got was something much blander, more interested in clear, technical facts than the blurry experiences of evolving drinking cultures. It told me about the changing processes of wine production and stated its social role, but I never felt the heady looseness of being wine drunk. I wanted to get tipsy on wine facts, but instead got black out drunk, presented with so many details, I was overwhelmed and have forgotten most of the specific information.
I have no doubt that Benoist Simmat knows his stuff when it comes to wine, in terms of reference material, and historical fact, “Wine” is detailed and extensive. It talks about development of wine over millennia in loads of contexts, its scope is so broad and it weaves confidently through that. Daniel Casanave’s art meanwhile is full of this cartoony kineticism, never sitting still, it’s fluid and bright. You would hope that the two opposing tones of the art and writing could elevate each other; the dry facts of the writing made moist and tender by fluidity of the art; the light-hearted art given a greater weight by the writing. Unfortunately, they sit awkwardly together, neither quite fermenting to their full potential.
Simmat and Casanave give us a guide for our journey, directly addressing the reader and slightly detached from the action of the panels in a way reminiscent of Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics.” However where McCloud’s iconic self is an excited friend, here we have a god, Bacchus — the Roman god of wine, to lecture us with a kind of devine detachment. Dressed in a plaid shirt and cuffed skinny jeans and Doc Martins, with a big ginger beard, he comes across as an obnoxious craft alcohol hipster from five years ago, mansplaining about stuff in a way that forgets about your interests and instead just inflates his own ego.
It’s a shame because the idea of Bacchus (Dionysius to the Greeks) is an inviting one. He’s a god that encourages everyone to come together and have a good time. In the introduction, we are invited into his world. We see him sat across from a woman, both with glasses of wine. She is rendered more realistically than him, with finer lines and speech lettered in a typewriter-esque font. She is us, in a detailed reality, while Bacchus’s world which we are taken into is softer and made up of icons standing in for a past reality. At first reading the opening I liked it, it felt like a bridge being built from reality to the necessarily summative nature of a book like this. But looking back at it now, it just highlights the disconnect at the heart of this book.
“Wine: A Graphic History” is written like a reference book that is fairly accessible but is dry and not particularly trying to entertain, while the art is fun and bouncy and focused on entertainment. And they never work together. It just ends up awkward and boring. I couldn’t connect to it, struggling to make the connection between the pages of the book and the wine I’m drinking now in my bedroom.