Two highly imaginative experts explore viticulture, the Bible, and Jesus’ taste in wines.
In January of 2011, archaeologists announced the discovery of the oldest known facility for producing grape wine. Working in a network of caves in Armenia, they found fermentation jars, a 15-gallon basin for treading grapes, and the remains of crushed grapes, leaves, and vines. They dated the site’s age at about 6,100 years. This is not the oldest evidence of grape wine—that would be the 7,400-year-old chemical residues recovered in the Zargos Mountains in Iran. The Armenian site, however, is the oldest known wine production facility.
Why mention this in Christianity Today? Because the “winery” was just about 60 miles from Mount Ararat, where, the Bible says, Noah’s ark landed and thus near where he planted the first vineyard. “After the flood, Noah began to cultivate the ground, and he planted a vineyard. One day he drank some wine he had made, and he became drunk and lay naked inside his tent” (Gen. 9:20-21, NLT).
In Divine Vintage, Hebrew Bible scholar (and former wine importer) Randall Heskett joins with oenologist (and president of the Institute of Masters of Wine) Joel Butler to trace the Bible’s “wine trail” from Mount Ararat in the north to Egypt in the south. They devote the first half of their book to the wine trail documented in the Bible and other ancient texts, awakening the reader to the significance that wine plays in the economy of the ancient world and in the religious and economic life of Israel. The wine trail in the book’s second half is literal rather than literary: the authors visit contemporary wineries in the lands of the Bible, providing a helpful guide for wine tourists in the Middle East.
The authors argue that wine is “a key protagonist for the evolution of society from rootless and nomadic to settled, spiritual, and cultured.” Wine, they say, “is the heart, soul, and body of Western civilization.” While they don’t quite prove that exalted status, they do link developments in ancient civilization to the evolution of viticulture. Wine also played a very important role, both theologically and culturally, in Israelite history. The authors have no time for the conservative Christian belief that in the Bible, wine is always a bane and never a blessing. (On the second page of the preface, they announce that they simply will not treat “all of the pointless claims that promote abstinence from alcohol or assertions that wine in the Bible was not fermented.”) Their ultimate, light-hearted goal is to answer the question WWWJD: What Wine Would Jesus Drink? The authors saved their answer for the end of the book—so I’ll save it for the end of this review.
In the Bible, wine appears far more frequently as a vehicle of God’s blessing than an occasion of human folly. When Noah planted a vineyard, it was an act of faith in God’s promises. So argues biblical scholar Peter Green (currently pursuing a PhD at Wheaton College). After the flood, the God who had just destroyed (or “de-created”) the earth promised to permanently establish regular agricultural seasons. “As long as the earth remains, there will be planting and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night” (Gen. 8:22, NLT). A vineyard requires at least three years to produce its first usable crop of wine grapes. Planting one means betting on a long run of the right kind of weather and climate conditions. So when Noah took up his role as a second Adam to cultivate the garden and populate the earth, he was demonstrating faith in God’s blessing.
Unfortunately, wine’s first appearance in Scripture is tainted by human failure. But its second act is an unmitigated story of blessing (Gen. 14:17-24). After Abram pursued enemy kings who had taken his nephew Lot captive, he paid a visit to Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem (later known as Jerusalem), in order to thank God for his victory. Melchizedek brought Abram bread and wine, an act which Christian interpreters have seen as foreshadowing the Eucharist.
Abraham came from a beer culture, say Heskett and Butler. Because of Mesopotamia’s climate, wine had to be imported and was therefore a luxury item for the rich. But Canaan’s Mediterranean climate made wine an integral part of both Israelite and Canaanite culture. When the Mesopotamian migrant Abraham received wine from Melchizedek, he would have perceived it as a highly valued commodity. It thus served as a fitting precursor to the blessing Mechizedek was about to give.
An offering of wine (and food) similarly precedes Isaac’s blessing of Jacob in Genesis 27. Isaac, thinking he was blessing Esau, said: “From the dew of heaven and the richness of the earth, may God always give you abundant harvests of grain and bountiful new wine.”
Centuries later, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob moved back to Canaan, a “land flowing with milk and honey” that also a yielded plenteous grapes and abundant wine. In Numbers 13, the Promised Land is described as a well-watered place full of grape clusters so enormous that it took two Israelite spies to carry just one of them back to camp. This image came to epitomize Canaan’s agricultural richness.
Because abundance of wine signifies God’s blessing, it becomes a key element in the Bible’s vision of the good life. It is a divine gift that the Psalmist famously declares “maketh glad the heart of man” (Ps. 104:15, KJV). When Proverbs personifies Wisdom (Prov. 8–9), it uses mixed wine (probably with spices) as an important part of the banquet that Wisdom has prepared for those who respond to her invitation. The “brash” woman Folly, by contrast, offers her guests “stolen water” to drink.
Isaiah 55 echoes Wisdom’s invitation in Proverbs. God offers covenant blessing with an invitation to the thirsty: “Is anyone thirsty? … Come, take your choice of wine or milk—it’s all free” (Isa. 55:1, NLT).
The prophets continue to use wine as a key symbol of God’s promised blessing for his people: “Look! I am sending you grain and new wine and olive oil, enough to satisfy your needs. You will no longer be an object of mockery among the surrounding nations” (Joel 2:19, NLT). “The threshing floors will again be piled high with grain, and the presses will overflow with new wine and olive oil” (Joel 2:24, NLT). “‘The time will come,’ says the Lord, ‘when the … grapes will grow faster than they can be harvested. Then the terraced vineyards on the hills of Israel will drip with sweet wine! I will bring my exiled people of Israel back from distant lands, and they will rebuild their ruined cities and live in them again. They will plant vineyards and gardens; they will eat their crops and drink their wine.'” (Amos 9:13-14, NLT).
The prevalence of winemaking is assumed in the Law of Moses: it is prescribed as an offering and commanded as an element of celebrations. In Deuteronomy 12, 14, and 26, God commands people to set aside a second tithe of their grain, wine, and oil in the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of each seven-year cycle. They are to use this for a holy feast. If a person lives too far from Jerusalem to carry their produce to the party, they are instructed to convert it into money and then go to the Holy City and “buy any kind of food you want—cattle, sheep, goats, wine, or other alcoholic drink. Then feast there in the presence of the Lord your God and celebrate with your household” (14:26, NLT).
Of course, though the Bible’s fundamental image of wine is one of blessing, it also includes cautions about its use.
Since wine is at times a luxury, it features in the prophets’ condemnation of those who oppress the poor while enjoying dainty food and fine vintages (Amos 5-6). Proverbs warns judges and rulers to avoid habitual drinking, since the lives of others are in their hands (31:4-9). And wine is also a metaphor for God’s wrath, which stuns people and nations and makes them stagger as though they were drunk (see, for example, Ps. 60:3; Isa. 51:17; Jer. 25:16).
Heskett provides an easy-to-read survey of all these biblical materials—though he doesn’t actually deliver a theology of wine or of the vineyard. Unfortunately, he sometimes resorts to frivolous speculation. This is occasionally harmless, such as when he wonders aloud whether at the wedding feast in Cana Jesus might have turned water into white, rather than red, wine.
But in other contexts, his speculation panders to popular notions of the evolution of religions. For example, just after the Melchizedek blessing, Abram names Eshkol as one of the warrior chieftains who deserves a portion of the spoils of war for helping him rescue his nephew. The name Eshkol means “cluster” [of grapes]. Curiously, Heskett asserts that Eshkol is really the name of a wine god—as is ʾĒl ‘elyôn, the name of Melchizedek’s God. For these conjectures, he relies on Morton Smith, a biblical scholar who long ago established a reputation for imaginative reading between the lines. In this case, Smith argues from evidence that the Greek and Roman cults of Dionysus/Bacchus have their roots in Tyre, next door to Sidon (which Jesus visited) in what is now Lebanon. He then speculates that other wine gods must have preceded Dionysus in Palestine. Why not identify them with Eshkol and ʾĒl ‘elyôn? Why not? Those who have a biblical faith must certainly deal with the explicit record of Israelite syncretism, criticized openly by the prophets. But we don’t need to conflate YHWH with the assorted gods of ancient Canaan. Unfortunately, the degree of Smith’s speculation is not transparent to Heskett’s readers, and the paucity of the evidence is hidden from view.
The same evolutionary view of religion is evident when Heskett indulges in pop phenomenology to equate Christ and Dionysus. When Jesus claims to be the true vine of which his followers are the branches, he says, “Christ here evokes the portrayal of Dionysus as a living vine, his shoots flowing out, becoming Maenads (female worshipers … who were incited to religious frenzy) ….” Sigh.
In the book’s final section, Butler appears to take the lead from Heskett. (Butler: what a great name for a wine expert! The Anglo-Norman word originally meant the person in charge of the bottles.) The authors deliver a rare wine tour of contemporary Greece and the Middle East. Since the earliest winemaking facility was located in what is now Turkey, Butler and Heskett begin there and follow the stops on Paul’s third missionary journey. Many of these places were noted for their wine in the ancient world, but later Muslim prohibitions on alcohol largely restricted wine production to the non-Muslim population. Then the Armenian genocide (1915–18) and the Greco-Turkish War (1919–22) resulted in the near disappearance of the groups that knew how to make wine.
But Turkish winemaking has experienced a revival in the latter part of the 20th century thanks to secularist policies initiated by Kemal Ataturk, and Butler and Heskett assure us that vintners are now producing wines that are, variously, “well-structured [but] not too oaky,” “rich, fruity, and distinctive,” and with “fine texture and promise, with deep fruit and balanced oak.” There is plenty of that kind of writing because this is, after all, a wine book co-authored by a wine expert.
The listing of wines and wineries in Turkey, French-influenced Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Greece will help any thirsty traveler in the region connect with the best wine producers.
Worried that Israeli wines all taste like Manischewitz? Not anymore. On my own travels to Israel, I noticed real progress between the early 1990s and 2007. Boutique wines are now available that match some of the best small wineries in California, Washington, and Oregon for sheer interest.
Israeli wine production is plagued by one serious irony, Butler and Heskett note. To be sold in most grocery stores, wine must be kosher. Wine can only be certified kosher if all those who work to produce it are observant Jews. Observant Jews, however, must cease from work on the weekly Sabbath and a number of holidays. This means that vintners and their workers are unable to time their harvesting and other steps of winemaking with the precision that other makers of fine wines aim for. Not all Israeli wines are kosher, though, and some of the better wines need to be purchased directly from producers.
Beyond mere wine tourism, such as one might do on a visit to California or France, Butler and Heskett seek out wine producers who are trying to restore ancient winemaking techniques. One such vintner is the Shiluh-Süryani Sarabi vineyard in a Kurdish region of Turkey not far from the Syrian border. This area was settled by Syriac (Aramaic-speaking) Christians in the fourth century, and, while only 18,000 Syriac Christians live in Turkey today, about 3,000 are concentrated in this region. Today, this winery grows its grapes organically, crushes them in traditional stone gats, and ferments the wine for 45 to 60 days in large clay jars kept cool by being buried in the ground. Then, without any filtration or fining, the wine is bottled. This preserves the wine’s purity for sacramental use in the Syriac church.
The authors call these Syriac wines “truly biblical” because they are produced using ancient methods that are part of a wine-making tradition reaching back to biblical times. That brings us back to the question, What wine would Jesus (criticized by his opponents as a “winebibber”) drink?
Jesus seemed more than ready to break the ritual kosher rules, say Heskett and Butler, especially if fellowship would be impaired by ritual purity. That freed the authors to consider a wide variety of wines made according to ancient techniques. They finally settled on a traditionally made white wine from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, not exactly biblical, but definitely ancient. They describe the 2009 Pheasant’s Tears Rrkatsiteli as “deep yellow-gold” and having “saline-mushroom, floral-herb, and olive scents.” It has a “chewy finish that is more like a red wine’s.”
But what about a red wine? Jesus would be eating lamb, no? One of the authors’ suggestions is a traditionally made red from Sicily: the 2010 COS Pithos.
But really, was Jesus a wine snob? Or did he drink wine as a form of fellowship with those excluded from Jewish society? If the latter, Heskett and Butler are right to say on the very last page that Jesus would, as a guest of honor, be humble enough to drink whatever he was served.
David Neff is the former editor in chief of Christianity Today.