Monday, December 9, 2013

Divine Vintage by Randall Heskett and Joel Butler

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age was written by a biblical scholar (Heskett) and a wine expert (Butler), who shared an interest in wine and in biblical history. (Credentials: Heskett has advanced degrees in the field from Yale and the University of Toronto. He is also the president of Boulder University. Butler is the president of the North America branch of the Institute of Masters of Wine, and was one of the first two certified Masters of Wine in North America. He has experience as a wine importer and writes for a variety of wine publications.)

This book was written to explore the history of wine and winemaking as it grew out of areas in eastern Turkey and the Caucasus and spread throughout the Western world. This history is interwoven with the myriad references to wine and grapes throughout the Bible. The authors do a good job of filling in the social and political history of the era - I found that my understanding of the writings of the prophets, for example, was deepened by knowing the economic implications of wine and wealth. The background brings to life the parables in Isaiah and also in the Gospels, revealing nuances which are lost on those of us far removed from that culture. I was also reminded of just how intertwined Christianity and Judaism are with wine, from the grapes of the promised land through the omnipresent metaphors throughout the Old Testament, to the very central sacrament of the Christian faith: communion (or eucharist, for those of other denominations).

In fact, after reading the book, I don’t believe the authors are exaggerating when they state that:

Wine’s fundamental importance as a key protagonist for the evolution of society from rootless and nomadic to settled, spiritual, and cultured informed our writing of this book. In our judgment wine is the heart, soul, and body of Western Civilization; it magnifies our best virtues and noblest ideas, yet its excessive use equally diminishes our humanity and dignity.

The first half of the book is as I have described it above, a history. The second part is devoted to specifics about modern winemaking in the Mediterranean, from Greece to Israel. This second part will be of interest primarily to wine geeks (like myself), and can be skipped by those who really don’t care about the difference between malvasia and viognier or the effects of limestone versus volcanic soils. Since individual wineries and wines are described, I would consider this book a good resource for travel. Alas, most of the wines are difficult or impossible to obtain outside of their home countries.

My perspective on wine is strongly influenced from my cultural background.

I was born and raised and continue to live in the United States, which has an “interesting” history when it comes to alcohol. Furthermore, many of my ancestors on both sides were Mennonite once upon a time (as in 100 years ago), and Mennonites, like many conservative Christian denominations, have generally abstained completely from alcohol. One might say that this segment of American Christianity has gone by the adage of “don’t drink, smoke, or chew, or go with girls who do.”

So, if you go back to my great grandparents’ generation, nobody (respectable at least) in my family drank. Around that time, however, my ancestors left the Mennonite sect, and joined more mainstream evangelical denominations such as the Christian and Missionary Alliance. It wasn’t really until my parents’ generation that things loosened up a bit. Society in general stopped making the assumption that Christians abstained, and only sinners and Catholics imbibed. This change has continued over the decades, and alcohol is only a litmus test in the most fundamentalist of circles. (I even saw in the news that some Mennonites were opening a winery.)

So, in my own experience, alcohol was occasionally consumed at extended family gatherings, generally in moderation. (Every family has someone - the crazy aunt by marriage or something - who gets tipsy once in a while.) This was a generally positive experience, which jarred a little with some of the anti-alcohol teachings that one would hear from time to time.

The worst of these was the Baptist fib that the wine in Jesus’ day wasn’t fermented but really grape juice. We didn’t believe that one - after all, why warn against drunkenness on grape juice? But there were and still are a few crazies that claim this. (The authors note in their preface that they will not treat “pointless clams that promote abstinence from alcohol or assertions that the wine in the Bible was not fermented.”

When I came of age, one of my big discoveries was wine. (My parents were sensible in their approach to this, never making it into a tempting forbidden fruit. I had a glass of wine with my dad as my first taste, and we would always use moderation. My dad’s tale of cleaning someone’s vomit out of his car in his youth was enough to make drunkenness unattractive.)

I have been a foodie for a long time. I learned to cook when I still had to use a chair to get high enough to use the stove, and cooked regularly during my teen years. Even before I could drink, I used sherry in cooking; so when I was able to make wine part of the meal, I felt like I had another tool in the chest. The pairing of wine and food fascinates me, and I think I am pretty decent at it.

So there is the history.

It stands in contrast to the experience of millenia before and after the birth of Christ where wine and wine making were an everyday part of the religious experience. The breaking of bread, and the sharing of wine.

I suspect that my perspective would have been different if I had grown up in, say Italy. Or, on the other hand, if I had been a child of alcoholics. I do not want to give the impression that I condone drunkenness. If anything, we lawyers are likely to see the downside to the loss of inhibitions. However, some of the stuff that gets taught in certain churches (and in some curriculum) seems misguided to me. The claim that alcohol is a poison and that it is as sure to lead to dissolute behavior as hard drugs is a bit of a stretch, for example.

Some things I liked about this book:

I liked the authors’ commitment to avoiding the “Bible as infallible history book” approach. Or, perhaps more accurately, the “letterist” approach to dates. (The most popular version of this counts the named persons in the various genealogies and their years and decide that creation took place no more than 6000 years ago. One could do extended discussions on both the problems of this as exegesis and as history.) Thus, the Biblical events are placed within a reasonable estimate of history as determined by a variety of sources, and the authors don’t try to make more of what the Bible says than is warranted by the text itself.

It was interesting to read about the first evidence of wine, which date back about 9000 years ago. Wine cultivation appears to have originated in the areas in Turkey not too far from Mount Ararat. The earliest evidence points to the use of wild grape vines that had male and female plants (similar to kiwi fruit). Eventually, hermaphroditic plants were discovered (or bred, perhaps), and these varieties came to be cultivated. Over the next several millennia, wine spread from this area throughout Europe and Asia, along with what we consider Western Civilization.

I’ll also mention the story of Melchizedek as one that appears different after getting some background. First, this is the first mention of wine in connection with Abram. Second, the Hebrew word for the god that Melchizedek served as priest is closely related to the word for the god of wine as worshiped at the time. (This story is intriguing for many reasons, not least because it shows some of the early development of the a monotheistic worship from a polytheistic culture.)

Likewise, it was fascinating to learn of the way that wine went from being a luxury available only to the rich, who tended to use it in excess at parties which were an orgy of drunkenness (see the tale of Belshazzar), while excluding the poor; to commodity available to the masses by the time of the New Testament. In fact, this economic divide makes passages about social justice in the prophets take on an entirely different light, because of the way wine is both a description of the inequality and excess, and is used as a metaphor by the writers for wrath, judgment, and yet also blessing and abundance.

Classism hardly disappeared by the time of Saint Paul, of course. The authors’ description of the bacchanals common among the wealthy of the time fits perfectly with Paul’s complaint against the Corinthians that the rich would get drunk at the love feasts while the poor went hungry. This was a continuation of the bad aspect of that culture, and Paul pointed out that it was contrary to the spirit of Christianity, wherein all would share as equals, and the sharing of the bread and wine would point to a universal need for communion with Christ.

One final thought has stayed with me as well. The agricultural foundation of the ancient nation of Israel was three crops: grains, wine, and olive oil. These are mentioned throughout the Bible, but are specifically named as the blessings of God in Psalm 104:15.

[W]ine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts.

Grapes, olives, and grain. The blessings of God.

Odd historical note:

As I noted above, the second half of the book will be boring for those not really familiar with wine and viticulture. One of the things I found the most fun was reading about ancient grape varieties which are uncommon today.

Anyone who has browsed the wine aisle at the supermarket can tell that the modern market is dominated by French varietals. Thankfully, there is getting to be more than the trifecta of Cabernet, Merlot, and Chardonnay available, but one still has to look for the unusual.

I mentioned malvasia above, because I have been able to try that unusual Mediterranean variety.

The most fascinating variety from this second section is one called “limnio.” This was mentioned in connection with a winery near Thessaloniki which produces this grape. Limnio may be the most ancient of grape varietals still in production. It is mentioned by Aristotle, writing more than 2300 years ago; and, even earlier, by Homer.

Note on Prohibition:

One of these days, I need to write up my theory that America’s obesity epidemic is primarily the result of slavery (in the Caribbean) and Prohibition.

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