(Not So Exceedingly Ecclesiastical) Mariani Wine

Of course, when Pope Leo XIII endorsed the wine, Angelo Mariani knew that his fortunes were forever secured. That he would have no worry of anyone questioning the health value of his “miracle” drink. He also didn’t mind the association with being Italian thanks to his misleading last name. He was, in fact, French. Or rather, Corsican. At the same time, when Pope Leo XIII was still Vincenzo Gioacchino Raffaele Luigi Pecci, he himself was technically born in the French Empire, thanks to Napoleon. Maybe therein lied their inherent connection. Being Italian but not. Being French but not. In any case, it was a vero italiano, Paolo Mantegazza, who called the potential of the coca plant to Mariani’s attention. He instantly saw in the descriptions given by Mantegazza the economic boon that could arise from distributing it on a mass level. And what better way to do so than through the already beloved conduit of alcohol? 

By 1863, his product was “perfected.” Or so he assured the suits involved. He didn’t bargain for the fact that his recommended six milligrams of cocaine added to the wine (which contained ethanol to activate the coca’s “properties”) would be changed to the higher 7.2 milligrams in the translation of exporting to other countries. The reason being, naturally, that one had to compete with the U.S.’ beverages, so comfortable was that nation with packing their products full of any old compound (later manifesting in the artificial slop one sees before them at the table today). It made Mariani uneasy. As though no good could come of it. He had already heard vague reports of people collapsing at the end of the night after enduring a heart attack, and he knew very well it wouldn’t take long for the accusation to be flung his way that the wine was responsible. Or rather, what was inside the wine. He had his fair share of endorsements from notable persons, but they were all known knaves in their own right–including the likes of Émile Zola. When Leo emerged to agree to endorse the product, Mariani could not have asked for a better moment for salvation. With the backing of the Church, no one would question the product, but rather what they were seeing and hearing about Mariani Wine’s damaging effects. With the pope on his side, they would write these “tales” off as just that: nothing more than wives’ tales. 

As for the pope himself, he genuinely was an avid drinker of this particular brand of vino rosso, this tainted blood of Christ, if you will. One could argue it was his frequent consumption, keeping it in a flask attached to his hip for easy access, that gave him such literally coked out notions as advocating for workers’ rights. At least, that’s how a great many of his advisors felt, particularly John Henry Newman, with all of his staid Englishness. He was an undercutting bastard, whenever Leo had time to think about it, and he was grateful that Newman was so often relegated to that cold and abysmal island. But Leo had little time to think of anything other than his plans and his treatises and his grand designs on remaking the church for the modern world. At his already advanced age (he began his papacy at sixty-eight, and finished it upon his death at ninety-three), cardinals and acolytes alike marveled at his superhuman energy, clearly not rooted in anything related to youth. 

He never told them just how reliant he was upon that lovely concoction from Mariani, so reliant, in fact, that in their talks to arrange for Leo’s posing for the advertisement, Mariani agreed to make a special, private reserve of wine for the beloved pontiff, filled with twice the amount of cocaine in the mass produced recipe (which never got passed down to any of Mariani’s subsequent generations). One might even say Leo’s entire motive for agreeing to promote the wine stemmed from wanting to cut a deal with Mariani himself in exchange for his holy services. Holy, to be sure, for the instant the Pope appeared on an ad endorsing the wine, sales went on an even higher uptick. Leo was additionally adamant about making Mariani wine the official blood of Christ for the communion at any St. Peter’s Basilica-held sermons. Can it be any wonder, then, that people were suddenly attending Church like it was going out of style? The priests had never seen anything like it. Couldn’t fathom what had changed so abruptly until they themselves started drinking this new-fangled “blood.”

The late orgiastic nights that would ensue afterward harkened back to the heights of Roman Empire debauchery. Leo was happy to turn a blind eye so long as it meant no one questioned him about his own dependency on the wine. Soon, he was even awarding Mariani a Vatican gold medal (as if that really signified anything), so grateful–so indebted–to Mariani’s ingenious elixir was he. No this, was not the gauche format Freud took to as he blew rails directly into his nose. This was the dignified, pious way to ingest the glorious coca plant.

Thus, Leo was somewhat horrified to learn of the news that the wine was to be co-opted by a new U.S. company called Coca-Cola. He felt it was another prime example of Italian genius and innovation being stolen, utterly bastardized by Americans for greater profit and commercialization. The entire affair was keeping him awake at night more than the coca wine itself. So bereaved was he for the loss of Italian prestige in consideration of this beverage invention that he decided the only thing to do would be to try this “Coca-Cola” for himself in order to judge whether the Americans had any concept of purity. 

The pear-shaped glass bottle was brought to him on a gold-corded, red satin pillow. The color of the liquid itself was already immediately displeasing to Leo, who practically retched at the sight. He placed his hand over his eyes as he took a grudging sip. Already prepared to hate it, it turned out he loathed it–even more than he anticipated. It was inferior, third-rate swill, no better than drinking raw sugarcane. It completely lacked the Italian sensibility in tempering a key ingredient with actual sophisticated taste. He threw the bottle down in anger, knowing that this…Coca-Cola would triumph. That the base discernment of the working man (whom he had advocated for solely as a means to curry lost favor with the Church) would end up preferring this detritus to the ottimo Mariani wine. 

It was on that day that Leo called upon Mariani, holding an audience with him that lasted almost an hour as he instructed his dealer to keep making as much extra “private reserve” wine for him while it was still possible, warning him that he was likely soon to go out of business. It is said that a few cases of this highly potent version of Mariani’s Coca-Cola progenitor still exist somewhere in the deep recesses of the Vatican. Whoever might eventually unearth it, be it pope, cardinal or otherwise, will find themselves becoming very productive indeed.

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