The Religion of Wine

Wine has always been considered a gift from God. It requires no human intervention unlike beer or distillates where the grains have to be cultivated and then, usually though the process of cooking, converted into fermentable sugars. A grape ripens on the vine, then, whether tread by the foot of a motivated libation-seeker, or naturally by simply falling from the vine, juice is released from its membrane, then the juice reacts with the natural yeast living on the grapes skin, and creates CO2, and more importantly, alcohol. Grapes become wine whether we want it to or not, and, as several millennia of wine lovers can attest, we most certainly want it to.

There are several references to wine in the bible. In fact, after The Great Flood, Noah lands on Mt Ararat and decides there is only one logical thing to do as his first act on land: plant a vineyard. To be more specific, he plants a vineyard, makes wine out of the grapes he harvests, gets real drunk, and passes out naked in his tent. He did just save two of every creature on earth. He earned it.

Noah got lost in the sauce, but he was nowhere near the only person in the bible to have an affinity for wine. Jesus, in the gospel of John, reduces his entire existence into a wine metaphor: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

Not only did Jesus compare the relationship between him and man to that of grape vines and branches, he chose to perform a miracle centered on wine as his first act of divinity. While attending the Wedding at Cana, Jesus’ mother informs him that the guests of the wedding had run out of wine. To solve this problem, Jesus instructs a waiter at the celebration to fill several pitchers with water. Jesus then takes these pitchers and converts the contents into wine. This wasn’t any Two Buck Chuck, either. According to the Steward of the feast, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

Whether you believe these stories in the bible or not, the first known examples of what we could call modern wine are traced to areas along the Caucases Mountains: Turkey (where, coincidentally, Mt Ararat resides), Northern Iran, and the Republic of Georgia. Researches have uncovered wine presses and jars containing traces of wine made with Vitis Vinefera grapes (the same species that your favorite modern wines come from) that are 6,000 years old. It is here that modern winemaking occurred: harvesting grapes specifically for wine, treading them by foot, pressing them, and storing them in vessels with tops specifically meant to prevent spoilage. It is from these areas that wine later traveled through Mesopotamia and became popularized and spread throughout Europe by the Greeks and Romans.

The Greeks and Romans. Now we can really get into the relationship between wine and God (or, in this case, The Gods.) The most famous of Greek wine gods is Dionysus. Dionysus, later, and more famously, called Bacchus by the Romans, is a resurrection God, often compared to Jesus. His mother was a mortal woman named Sernele and his father was Zeus. The notoriously philandering Zeus actually impregnated Sernele without the knowledge of his wife Hera. Hera, obviously scorned, convinces Sernele to call upon Zeus one day, and Zeus, appearing before mortals (a big no-no) comes to earth in a shower of thunderbolts that kills Sernele. A heartbroken Zeus rescues baby Dionysus from his mothers womb and sews him into his thigh where he matures and is eventually reborn. A child born to a virgin mother, who is later resurrected and has an affinity for miracles and wine. Sounds familiar.

In the 12th century, as the Latin Church was continuing to mount a war against Islamic control of the Holy Land, wine became a significant plot element in The Crusades. Richard the Lionheart, then King of England, hearing news of a shipwreck that left his sister and fiancé captives of Isaac Komnenos on the Island of Cyprus, mounted a campaign to free them from their captor, inadvertently discovering fine wine in the process.

After his victory, Richard decided to marry his fiancé there on the island of Cyprus. It was during this lavish ceremony that Richard was served the local Cypriot dessert wine that led him to proclaim that the wine he had just been served was “ The wine of kings and the King of wines.” The wine, Commandaria, was a fortified wine made with sun-dried Xynisteri and Mavro grapes. The wine, which is still produced today, must have been a huge improvement to the sea-faring wines of the day which were usually mixed with copious amount of honey, seawater, or resin to act as preservatives on sea voyages.

The original recipe for Commandaria, in a poem by Hesiod, makes reference again to the wine God Bacchus:

Forget not next the ripen’d Grapes to lay, Ten Nights in Air, nor take them in by Day; Five more remember, e’re the Wine is made, To let them ly, to mellow in the Shade; And in the sixth briskly yourself employ, To cask the Gift of Bacchus, Sire of Joy.

A few hundred years later, monks (first the Benedictine, then later the Cistercian) became pivotal in shaping the wine industry in Burgundy, arguably the greatest wine producing region in the world. It was the Cistercians who essentially formulated the concept that we now refer to as “terroir”, classifying and ranking all the sections of the vineyards they owned, eventually becoming integral in developing the Cru system that is still used today.

In 1305, the papacy was moved from Rome to the city of Avignon, a city in the heart of the Rhone Valley. The move, spearheaded by Pope Clement V, left a Theocratic mark on the nearby wine growing areas, including its most famous, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which translates to new home of the pope.

Petrarch, the legendary Italian Humanist, was in Avignon during Pope Urban V’s reign, and wrote to him asking to return to Rome. The letter contained the caveat that the only downside to returning to Italy was that he would no longer be able to enjoy the fine wines from Burgundy and the Rhone as the French wine of the time could not survive the journey south of the Alps.

Why was wine so sacred to ancient peoples? Was it the fact that red wine, or the mix of red and white grapes that the first winemakers most likely blended, looks so similar to blood? In catholic tradition, followers are asked to drink the blood of Christ during Communion, which is symbolized by wine. In this case, you are drinking a beverage which is depicted as the blood of a savior, then depending on the amount drunk, could lead to supernatural events: ecstasy, revelry, hallucination, etc. Before the science of fermentation and alcohol was comprehended, this all must have seemed magical. Take some grapes, put them in a clay pot, then a few weeks later, you have a liquid that makes you more social, funnier, less inhibited — more fun. This, at its essence, is alchemy.

So, too, are the roots mystical. Grapevines begin to flourish during the spring solstice, blooming, representing fertility and the harvest to come, only to die and return to the earth each winter. It’s a cyclical process, echoing the rotation of the moon around the earth; the earth around the sun; the human lifecycle — we are born to great joy, live, reproduce, only to eventually wither and die. It’s all very poetic and beautiful, and it would still happen if we never existed. That’s the true magic of wine.

Wines to Enhance the Story:

Chateau Pape Clement, Pessac-Leognan, Bordeaux

Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe, “La Crau”, Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Domaine Leroy, Clos de Vougeot, Burgundy

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