Flashback Friday: The Golden Age of Cocaine Wine

The tonic of popes and presidents that made the Gay (Eighteen) Nineties bubble.
The Golden Age of Cocaine Wine/ Jim Bogin and Jeremy Bigwood

Each Friday, we’ll be republishing an article from the High Times archives. This week, we’re bringing you an article by John Groff, published in the August/September, 1975 issue.

Three centuries after the European discovery of coca leaves, their amazing properties were still generally unknown. Then, in 1859, Paola Mantegazza, an eminent Italian neurologist, published “On the Hygienic and Medicinal Coca Virtues of Coca.” This monograph extolled the virtues of coca in the practice of medicine and inspired widespread interest in coca leaves.

By the mid-1860s, Europe and America were deluged with cocaine preparations, and a great social experiment of freely experienced cocaine was under way. By the 1890s coca was enjoying a phenomenal popularity, available everywhere in an astonishing variety of forms: tonics, elixirs, wines, liquors, lozenges, teas, cheroots, and more. The leading figures of the Victorian age — doctors, scientists, churchmen, prominent politicians, artists, singers, composers, even kings and queens — enjoyed coca and publicly endorsed it with enthusiasm. Surely coca was a major stimulant of gaiety in the Gay Nineties.

The man behind this phenomenon was Angelo Mariani, a Parisian pharmacist whose spécialité was an exquisite coca wine called Vin Mariani a la Coca du Perou. Born in 1839 in Corsica, from a long line of physicians and chemists, young Angelo was studying pharmacy in Paris just as the coca fad began. As a student Mariani dreamed of someday creating a great spécialité. Destiny placed in his hands a small brochure on coca. He plunged into experiments mixing coca with alcohol and eventually came up with a “tonic” mixture of fine Bordeaux red wine liberally laced with an extract of carefully selected coca leaves.

Around this time Dr. Charles Fauvel, a noted throat specialist, befriended Mariani. Nearly all of Fauvel’s patients were opera stars, the Nineties’ equivalent of today’s rock stars. Fauvel was convinced that coca wine had a soothing, tensing effect on the vocal cords, and one day sent a rasping vocalist to Mariani.

“It is excellent,” said the star after sipping a sample. “You will send me a dozen bottles.”

The opera star’s order forced Mariani to begin production. With Fauvel’s recommendation, his coca elixir was soon the rage among opera stars. So Mariani opened a small apothecary shop, where he sold nothing but his specialty, coca wine in seventeen-ounce (half-liter) bottles. According to Dr. W. Golden Mortimer, master historian of coca, Vin Mariani was the first and only coca preparation to accurately reproduce the taste and effects of the fresh coca leaves of Peru. Dr. Mortimer dedicated his history of coca use to Mariani, “A Recognized Exponent of the ‘Divine Plant’ and the first to render coca available to the world.”

To Dr. Mortimer, Mariani’s refreshment was a miracle. In his words, “the wonderful qualities of Coca remained locked as a scientific mystery unsolvable by the multitude until it was finally released from its enchanted spell as through some magic touch of a modern Merlin.”

Mariani, in Coca and Its Therapeutic Applications, wrote, “Vin Mariani contains the soluble parts of the Coca plant. The combination of Coca, with the tannin and slight traces of iron which this wine naturally contains, is pronounced the most efficacious of tonics.

“The fresh Coca leaves that we employ, after careful selection, come from three different sources and are of incomparable quality. It is this that gives to our wine that special taste and agreeable aroma which renders it so acceptable to the sick.

“It is likewise to the combination and preparing of these three varieties of Coca leaf in our wine that we can attribute this important fact: during more than thirty years, no matter in how large doses taken, Vin Mariani has never produced cocainism, nor any other unpleasant effects.

“Vin Mariani is a diffusible tonic, the action of which is immediate. This action, instead of being localized on a single organ, the stomach, spreads to the whole system. Taken into the circulation, it awakens in its course the retarded functions of every organ, and this is owing to the presence in our preparation of the volatile principles of the plant.”

With magic in every bottle of his wine and his own charismatic personality, Mariani soon found himself surrounded by a sizable constellation of stars and influential people from virtually every sector of society.

Mariani’s wine flowed in the veins of royalty and anarchy, patient and doctor, genius and general, popes and rabbis, atheists and mystics, Decadent artists and performers of every persuasion and perversion.

Paris in the Nineties witnessed the flourishings of the electric light, les Décadents, impressionist and symbolist poetry, and drugs. The Decadents, as they unabashedly liked to call themselves, formed an esthetic subculture of a few thousand artists and intellectuals, many of them popular musicians and performers. Describing the group in Dreamers of Decadence, Phillipe Jullian compares their peculiar appearance and use of ether and morphine to the lifestyle of today’s “hippies.” Sarah Bernhardt was without question the most immortal of the Decadents, and Vin Mariani wine permeated her circle as much as the Decadent philosophy.

But Vin Mariani was praised by dedicated Decadents and vociferous anti-Decadents alike. By the 1890s, Mariani’s wine had overflowed the cup of arts and letters into the arena of politics and power. It was a decade of agonizing political turbulence. Phillipe Jullian writes: “The Church was losing many of its faithful … the bourgeoisie, terrified by the Commune, was finding it impossible to recapture the sense of security it had known in the middle of the century; while high society felt ashamed of having enjoyed itself too much under the Second Empire…. As the century drew toward its close, a feeling of uneasiness became apparent in every class of society…. There was a fear of the end of civilization, a sort of millennium whose destructive forces would no longer be the angels of the Apocalypse, but either Socialism or the Machine, or the Yellow Peril.”

Engravings from Les Figures Contemporaines, from the Collection of the Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library

To survive, Parisian politicos relaxed with Vin Mariani. Amid the fear and loathing of the decade came the notorious Dreyfus Affair, the Watergate of 1894. Notable figures on both sides of the case were Vin Mariani imbibers, including Anatole France, Émile Zola, Manuel Prévost and Henri Rochefort.

When Mariani died the newspapers listed advertising innovations as his most important contribution to history. Yet his main technique came about entirely by accident when he began to receive numerous spontaneous endorsements from prominent personalities of the day.

In 1895, the publication of the first volume of Les Figures Contemporaines sent shock waves through the advertising world. Thirteen handsome editions of Vin Mariani endorsements were printed on the finest paper and included a delicately etched portrait of each notable, together with a short biography and some personal expression of gratitude to Mariani—a poem, a sketch, a few stanzas of musical composition, a bit of prose. These endorsements were never paid or bargained for in any way.

Strangely enough, Vin Mariani was so well established by then that it needed no endorsements, since Mariani did not care to woo a larger mass market. The great pharmacist refused to expand operations beyond the limits of his personal supervision. In truth, the wine earned its reputation solely on its own merits — consistently high quality, reliable effectiveness and an instantly recognizable sensation on the tongue.

Vet Mariani was barraged with so many endorsements that he had to limit their inclusion in his album. Naturally enough, Mariani’s tonic was also drunk and lauded by major religious leaders. Dr. Mortimer remarks that Pope Leo XII maintained his ascetic retirement with a never-empty vial of Vin Mariani strung from his neck. Pius X, several cardinals and prelates of other faiths, and even the Grand Rabbi of France are included among Les Figures Contemporaines. “A modern prayer. We no longer say ‘Hail Mary,’ we say ‘Hail Mariani’,” wrote playwright Émile Fabre in his own endorsement.

In their turn, European royalty joined in the praise. The kings of Spain, Greece, Serbia, Sweden and Norway, the Prince of Morocco and the Shah of Persia all drank coca wine and endorsed it. Queen Victoria asked for and received a complete set of Les Figures Contemporaines, which she cherished.

Meanwhile, stateside, Vin Mariani easily found its way to the Oval Office. President McKinley’s personal secretary, John A. Porter, sent Mariani a thank-you note “on the President’s behalf.” The sculptor who created the Statue of Liberty, Frederic- Auguste Bartholdi, loved Mariani’s wine too.

Perhaps even more astounding to some Americans, Thomas Edison also endorsed Vin Mariani. Edison almost went to South America once, but missed the boat in New Orleans. Who knows what the inventor of motion pictures and the phonograph might have gotten into had he made that boat?

Here are but a few of the accolades offered to Mariani and his wine.

Thomas Alva Edison: “Monsieur Mariani, I take pleasure in sending you one of my photographs for publication in your Album. Yours very truly.”

Sarah Bernhardt (actress): “I have been delighted to find Vin Mariani in all the large cities of the United States, and it has, as always, largely helped to give me that strength so necessary in the performance of the arduous duties which I have imposed upon myself.”

Émile Bergerat (poet, dramatist): ‘‘One glass of Coca Wine for an article, and two glasses for an aquarelle—that’s my dosage. But the real genius is at the bottom of the bottle.”

Lillian Russel (actress): “I have found Vin Mariani a pleasant stimulating tonic; and I constantly recommend it to my fellow artists.”

Alexandre Dumas fils: “Mariani, your sweet flasks delight my mouth.”

Jules Verne: “Since a single bottle of Mariani’s extraordinary coca wine guarantees a lifetime of a hundred years, I shall be obliged to live until the year 2700! Well, I have no objections! Yours very gratefully.”

H.G. Wells drew two little cartoons of himself, before (slouching and depressed) and after (radiant and elated) drinking Mariani’s wine.

Sully-Prudhomme (poet, philosopher): “You rejuvenate faces by at least a quarter of a century.”

Edmond Rostand (playwright, author of Cyrano de Bergerac): “I always keep a flask on my work table.”

Camille Flammarion (founder of the French Society of Astronomers): “Solar rays in bottles.”

Anatole France: “It is true that Mariani’s coca wine … spreads a subtle fire through the organism.”

Charles Gounod (composer of symphonies and operas): “To my good friend Mariani, beneficial revealer of this admirable coca wine from Peru, which has so often restored my strength.”

Louis Bleriot (the first aviator to fly the English Channel, in 1909): “I took the precaution of bringing a small flask of Mariani wine along with me, and it was a great help. Its energetic action sustained me during the crossing of the Channel.”

Despite the widespread popularity Vin Mariani enjoyed in its day and the thousands of famous people who endorsed its use, the fine wine is utterly forgotten today. Among the other coca-drinking lights of the fin-de-siècle period were playwrights Henrik Ibsen, and Victorien Sardou, actress Lillian Russell, opera stars Augusta Holmes and Enrico Caruso, artists Auguste Rodin and Felicien Rops, composer Camille Saint-Saens, and William Butler Yeats’s peripatetic lover, Maud Gonne.

How did Mariani live with this incredible success? What did he do with all the money? Always the gourmet and fond of throwing large dinner parties, Mariani entertained a salon of notables in his lavish Valescure villa with its Edenesque grounds. He cultivated coca plants “simply for amusement” in a greenhouse at his Neuilly residence. The ceiling of the living room was reserved for an allegory painted by his friend Eugene Courbin: The Goddess Bringing the Branch of Coca to Europe.

In all his business affairs — he made a fortune almost in spite of himself — Mariani was the ideal coke dealer. Georges Regnal, who published a biographical sketch of Mariani, describes him well:

“There was never any sign of servility in this shop. One felt that the ‘dealer’ did not exist, only a man who spontaneously empathized with even the slightest problem of whoever entered his threshold.

“In the evenings and on holidays, once his storefront was closed, he would go back upstairs to his home and become once again the enchanted wanderer, the lover of the beauty of life. Forever distracted by something or other, he would smoke on the terrace among his roses, leaf through books classifying the works of the poet and the artist he could have become himself had he chosen to express himself so. Already he preferred to remain the discrete amateur. Already he was buying the canvases of heavily indebted painters … and always enlarging his hospitality.”

Dubbed the “Propagator of Coca” in his own time, Mariani became a living legend. But the secret formula for Vin Mariani died with him in 1914, ironically the same year that Congress in the United States passed the Harrison Narcotics Act, making cocaine illegal.

Today another coca-derived drink, a pale imitation of Vin Mariani, sets the pace of the modern age. We are told to “relax,” “pause” and “refresh” with mass marketing’s answer to Angelo Mariani’s bracing elixir. Here’s to the Parisian pharmacist and a time when things did go better.

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