The Wine of Israel and Wine in Biblical Times
By Jennifer Jordan
Israel is a nation possessing a rich past. The turning pages of history find it at the center of the Bible, while present day finds it at the center of conflict. A country known for many things, wine is not necessarily one of them. Going into a liquor store and requesting the finest bottle of Israeli wine isn’t something many people do.
The reason for this is because wine, until recently, wasn’t something Israel brought to the table, proudly placing a bottle between the rolls and potatoes. Instead, Israeli wine was filled with a reputation for being a type of drink someone should put a cork in. This, however, wasn’t for lack of trying.
Wine production on Israeli lands began thousands of years ago, perhaps even prior to the Biblical era. However, the wines that were made during this time often tasted so bad that bottles shipped to Egypt were garnished with anything that would add flavor. Stopping just short of adding RediWhip, people tossed in everything from honey to berries, from pepper to salt. The bottles sent to Rome, though not lacking flavor, were so thick and so sweet that anyone who didn’t have a sweet tooth, or a spoon, wasn’t able to consume them.
The wine was of such poor quality that when Arab tribes took over Israel in the Moslem Conquest of 636, putting a stop to local wine production for 1,200 years, disappointment didn’t exactly ferment.
In the late 1800’s, wine production began again in Israel. Determined to let Israeli grapes have their day in the sun, a Jewish activist and philanthropist name Baron Edmond de Rothschild began helping Jews flee oppressors, eventually helping them adapt to their Palestine settlements. He then began to help them plant vineyards. Because of this, he is known as a founder of Israel’s wine industry.
But, the kindness and intentions of even the most good-hearted of men wasn’t enough to save Israeli wine from its past reputation. Because the lands of Israel and the climate were not ideal for vine growing, the wine produced was often of poor quality. Too coarse and too sweet to be consumed, Israeli wine was looked on unfavorably until just a few decades ago.
With the adoption of modern equipment, the import of good vine stock, the encouragement given to viticulturists, and the planting of vineyards in mountain ranges, near lakes, and in flat areas, Israel wine has recently become much more appreciated, for its taste and its variety. Replacing the sweet red wines with lighter, dryer red wines and producing more champagne, the wines of Israel have finally begun to climb up the vine in terms of greatness.
The wines presently produced in Israel are done so in one of five regions: Galilee, Shomron, Samson, Negev, and Judean Hills. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc are viewed as particularly good, although Israel also produces several Merlots and other common varieties.
While not all the wine produced in Israel is Kosher, a good portion of it is. This has led many wine drinkers to have the wrong impression about Israeli wine, an impression that is based on a misconception of what the word "Kosher" truly means.
Some people possess the assumption that when food and drinks are Kosher the taste of the product drastically changes, similar to the way making a hamburger "vegetarian" forever alters its flavor. However, when something is Kosher it simply means that it was made in a way that adheres to the dietary laws of Judaism.
There are two types of Kosher wine: Mevushal and non-Mevushal. For wine to be non-Mevushal, which is the basic form of Kosher, the preparation of it must follow a regime of specific rules. To begin, the equipment used to make wine must be Kosher, and only used for the production of Kosher products. As the wine goes from grape to bottle, it may only be handled, or opened, by Sabbath-observant Jews. During the wine's processing, only other Kosher products may be used: artificial preservatives and colors, and animal products may not be added.
Wines that are Mevushal are subject to an additional step on the Kosher agenda. Going through flash pasteurization, the wine becomes heated, making it unfit for idolatrous worship. This, in turn, removes some of the restrictions, keeping the wine Kosher no matter who handles it.
Jesus and Wine
The history of Israeli wine is unique in that it also involves the history of Christ. Whether or not Jesus advocated drinking wine, and whether or not the wine he drank was alcoholic, has become a cornerstone in many historical and religious debates. While some people insist that Jesus drank wine, others insist that he didn’t, and, of course, a few Bill Clinton fans insist that he drank, but didn’t inhale.
There are hardly any people arguing on the premise that Jesus consumed large amounts of wine. Instead, people argue whether or not the Bible condemns all use of alcohol or whether it condones its use in moderation. Depending on which side a person prefers to linger, innumerous references from the Bible can go in both directions. Some people assert that the “wine” referenced in the Bible was nothing more than nonalcoholic grape juice. But, those who take an opposing stance state that there are too many Biblical references warning against excessive use of “wine.” If it was just grape juice, or a wine with virtually no alcohol content, there would be no need for precautions.
Though there are several examples of passages in the Bible that involve Jesus drinking wine, with the most famous one likely being The Last Supper, the Bible also includes innumerable references to wine in general, wine drinking that does not necessarily involve Christ.
There are approximately 256 references to wine written in the contents of the Good Book. From these references, readers learn that wine was made from grapes, figs, dates and pomegranates. It was often consumed as part of the every day diet, during times of celebrations, during weddings, as gifts and offerings, and as a symbol of blessing. In some passages, it was even used for medicinal purposes.
Wine Strength During this Era
Another question that often arises in regards to wine in the Bible and Christ’s consumption is its alcoholic strength. If the wine was in fact wine and not grape juice, then it obviously had some sort of alcohol content. However, the wine of the Biblical era was much weaker than the wine we know today. While one reason for this was the addition of water, another reason was naturally fermented wine (wine that does not have additives) was the only wine available during this time. Because sugar and yeast were not yet added to wine, its alcohol content remained lower than modern day spirits.
Whether or not Jesus drank wine, and whether or not it was condoned or condemned, is based on a great deal of speculation. Like many items of debate, people often use passages in the Bible to move an argument in their direction, even when their chosen reference is laden with ambiguity. Some people may swear that he drank, while others may insist that he didn’t. However, in truth, we will probably never know and, along these lines, we really shouldn’t need to: when it comes down to it, a person’s faith is based on much bigger things than their opinion of alcohol.
Jennifer Jordan is the senior editor at http://www.savoreachglass.com. With a vast knowledge of wine etiquette, she writes articles on everything from how to hold a glass of wine to how to hold your hair back after too many glasses. Ultimately, she writes her articles with the intention that readers will remember wine is fun and each glass of anything fun should always be savored.