Israel is a nation possessing a rich past. The turning pages of history find it at the center of the Bible, while the 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 their finest bottle of Israeli wine isn’t something many people do.
The reason for this is because wine, until recently, wasn’t something Israelis brought to the table, proudly placing between the rolls and potatoes. Israeli wine had a reputation as the type of drink that should be permanently corked up. This, however, wasn’t for lack of trying on the part of Israeli viniculturists.
Wine production in Israeli lands began thousands of years ago, perhaps even prior to the Biblical era. The wines from these times 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 to pepper to salt. Centuries later, the wine sent to Rome, though not lacking flavor, was so thick and sweet that anyone who didn’t have a sweet tooth or a spoon couldn't consume them.
The wine was of such poor quality that when Arab tribes took over Israel in the Moslem Conquest of 636, disappointment didn’t exactly ferment when local wine production stopped for 1,200 years.
In the late 1800’s, wine production began again in Israel. A Jewish activist and philanthropist of the era named Baron Edmond de Rothschild began helping Jews flee oppressors, and eventually helped them adapt to their Palestine settlements. Determined to let Israeli grapes have their day in the sun, he helped these settlers plant vineyards. Because of this, he is known as a founder of Israel’s wine industry.
But the kind intentions of even the most good-hearted of men wasn’t enough to save Israeli wine from the roots of its ancient reputation. Because Israel's lands and climate were not ideal for viniculture, 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 importation of good vine stock, the encouragement given to viticulturists, and the planting of vineyards in microclimates found in mountain ranges, near lakes, and in flat areas, Israeli wine has recently been much more appreciated for its taste and variety. As sweet red wines have been replaced with lighter, dryer red wines and champagne, the wines of Israel have finally begun to climb up the vine of greatness.
The wines presently produced in Israel are from five regions: Galilee, Shomron, Samson, Negev, and Judean Hills. Israeli 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 given wine drinkers the wrong impression about Israeli wine, based on a misconception of what the word "Kosher" truly means.
Some people assume that when food and drinks are Kosher, the taste of the product is drastically different from non-Kosher varieties. They imagine a difference similar to that between a standard and a "vegetarian" hamburger. However, Kosher simply means that the product in question was made in adherence to the dietary laws of Judaism.
There are two types of Kosher wine: non-Mevushal, the basic form of Kosher, and Mevushal. There is a list of specific rules in the preparation of non-Mevushal wine. First, the equipment used to make wine must be Kosher, and must only be used for the production of Kosher products. As the wine goes from grape to bottle, it may only be handled by Sabbath-observant Jews. Only other Kosher products may be used to process the wine: artificial preservatives and colors and animal products may not be added.
Wines that are Mevushal are subject to an additional step. The wine is heated through flash pasteurization. This makes 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 the wine he drank was alcoholic are hot topics in many historical and religious debates. Some people insist that Jesus drank wine, others insist that he didn’t; of course, a few Bill Clinton fans insist that he drank, but didn’t inhale.
Hardly anybody argues that Jesus consumed large amounts of wine. Instead, people argue over whether the Bible condemns alcohol or whether it condones its use in moderation.
Depending on which side a person favours, there are countless references in the Bible supporting both arguments. Some people assert that the “wine” referenced in the Bible was non-alcoholic grape juice. Those who take an opposing stance claim there are too many Biblical references warning against the excessive use of wine; if it was just grape juice or had virtually no alcohol, there would be no need for precautions.
Though there are several examples of passages in the Bible that mention Jesus drinking wine - most famously the Last Supper - the Bible also includes innumerable references to wine consumption that does not necessarily involve Christ.
There are approximately 256 references to wine in the pages of the Good Book. From these references, readers learn that wine was made from grapes, figs, dates and pomegranates. It was consumed as part of the every day diet as well as at times of celebration, like weddings. It was used as a gift and an offering, and as a symbol of blessing. In some passages, it was even used as medicine.
The Strength of Biblical Wine
A frequent question regarding wine in relation to Christ and the Bible touches on its alcoholic strength. If the wine was not merely grape juice, it obviously had some sort of alcohol content. However, we can reasonably speculate the wine consumed in the Biblical era was much weaker than modern wine.
One reason for this was the traditional watering-down wine was subject to before consumption. Another reason is that naturally fermented wine (which lacks additives) was the only wine available during this time. Because sugar and yeast were not yet added to wine to boost fermentation, its alcohol content remained lower than modern vintages.
There is a great deal of speculation about whether or not Jesus drank wine, and whether or not the Bible condones or condemns it. As with many items of debate, people often use passages in the Bible to prove their point of view, even when the passages they cite are laden with ambiguity. Some people may swear Jesus drank, while others insist he didn’t. However, we will probably never know the truth, and honestly we 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.