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LIFE > Life in the World > Drinkers of Wine > An Introduction


Viticulture cannot be divorced from the Middle East and, therefore, from Biblical history; nor can the Old and New Testament Scriptures be understood apart from a knowledge of the vine and its fruit. The word “viticulture” comes from the Latin words, vitis, meaning “vine,” “vineyard,” or “grapevine,” and cultura, meaning “tilling” or “tillage.” So, “viticulture” speaks of “the cultivation or culture of the grapevine.” It includes all aspects of the vineyard, from the planning and developing of the vineyard to the growing, harvesting, and use of the grapes. Prominent indeed in the life of the people was the vine and its wine.

A vineyard exhibited a commitment to the land and the determination by the individual to be a long-time resident in the land. Vineyards could be anywhere, from southern hillsides, which made plenty of sunshine possible, to the plains and valleys. Many families, who had no vineyard, had one or more vines around their homes, for the climate was well suited for viticulture.

Once a vineyard was planned the work began. The soil was dug, and all of the large rocks were first removed, with some of the rocks placed along the perimeter, forming an enclosure. Some were used to build supports to keep the dirt of the newly constructed terraces in place for the vineyards planted on the hillsides. Terraces were usually five to fifteen feet wide with the support wall being two to six feet high leading up to the level of the next terrace. Removing the stones was a difficult task, but the stones were plentiful for Israel is a land of stones.

Whether the vineyard was on a hill or in the valley, a booth or watchtower was built in a prominent area and used during the growing season as a place of observation by the owner of the vineyard, or a hired watchman, who protected the valuable fruit from animals and thieves. In a larger vineyard several watchtowers would be constructed. Sometimes the tower was a permanent structure made of stones and sometimes made of wood, built on four poles with boards attached halfway up the poles to form a platform. The booth was then covered with a temporary covering of branches and leaves.

To further protect the vineyard, a wall of thorny hedges or stones was erected to encircle the vineyard to keep out people, usually thieves, and animals, such as jackals, foxes, or wild boars that would prey on the fruit or haphazardly injure the vineyard.

In the vineyard the vines were planted, usually in eight-foot rows, with the vines approximately twelve feet apart. The early growth was rapid, but the young plants were cut back and not allowed to bear fruit for three years. The fruit of the fourth year was “holy, a praise to the Lord” (Lev. 19:24); and the fruit of the fifth year belonged to the owner to use as he saw fit. Usual restrictions applied every seventh year and every fiftieth year.

The growing season would last from spring to early fall. As the sap would rise, buds appeared in the spring along with tender leaves, which gave way to the fragrant blossoms and finally the young grapes. Pruning was then done with a sharp curved blade to cut away the new, extra growth so that all the nutrients would go to the fruit instead of supporting non-necessary growth. The pruned branches were gathered and burned, for the wood was good for nothing but burning.

During the summer the grapes grew and developed, with the vine displaying luxuriant foliage. The vines would run along the ground or climb a tree or object of support. Finally, in September the grapes would become fully ripe. The grapes were then gathered, not individually, but in clusters, and carried in baskets to the winepress. Some were eaten fresh; and some were made into raisins, formed when the grapes were allowed to dry, after which they were sprinkled with olive oil. When the raisins had dried they would be pressed together forming raisin cakes. But most of the grapes were used for wine.

The winepress (and many have been found in the land of the Bible) was usually a carved-out rock, two to three feet deep. A channel from the upper winepress connected to a larger lower vat into which the juice flowed. Into the winepress the grapes were placed, and the best juice and most cherished juice was that which came out simply from the pressure of the weight of the grapes. This was carefully collected and kept, for it produced the best wine.

Then the people would get into the winepress and press the juice out of the grapes, treading the grapes with their feet. Their legs and garments would be dyed red with the juice forced from the grapes. As the people would tread the grapes they would clap their hands, sing, and shout; it was a time of joy. Celebration and happiness, dancing and feasting characterized the entire harvest period, as the people anticipated enjoying the wine for the coming year. Often the family or families would live at the vineyard in booths or in tents until the harvest was complete.

Fermentation was initiated by yeast which was naturally on the grapes. As the pressed juice flowed into the lower vat the yeast cells on the skins of the grapes immediately began their work on the juice. The yeast began to consume the sugar in the grape juice, converting it to ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. This fermenting action was violent, with the mixture bubbling and foaming as the carbon dioxide rose to the surface and escaped.

There was no method known in ancient times for keeping the unfermented grape juice in its natural state. The process could not be stopped or hindered. Wine was not invented; it is natural. Juice from the grapes will not remain juice; it cannot remain juice. In fermentation grape juice becomes wine.

As the fermentation subsided, the juice was collected from the vat and placed in large clay pots, called amphorae, or wineskins for further fermentation, storage, or shipment. New skins were always used, for the old stretched skins could not stand the expansion caused by the action of the new wine. If old wine skins were used, they would burst and the wine would be lost. The skins were usually the skins of goats, with all the openings tied securely shut except one, which served as a bent for the carbon dioxide to escape. In the skins and pots the fermenting action continued but was less violent. Water was added to the leftover pulp of grape skins and stalks remaining in the vat and allowed to ferment, resulting in a low quality wine that was drunk by the poor.

For further fermentation and aging the wine was carried to a cave, a hewn cistern, or some type of cellar. The fermentation would continue until all the sugar was consumed or the alcohol level reached around fourteen percent, which would terminate the process. So the wine referred to in the Bible was always less than fifteen percent alcohol, usually significantly less, estimated to be from nine to twelve percent. When the fermentation was completed, generally in three to four days, the opening for the release was closed; and the wine was stored.

Usually within three years the wine was consumed, or it would ruin or turn to vinegar. Before the wine was served, it was poured through a cloth to strain any sediments or foreign matter that had accumulated in the wine during fermentation and aging. It was usually drunk from metal or clay cups. Sometimes, spices or honey were added to enhance or sweeten the wine.

The Mishnah, a Jewish commentary on the meaning of the Law, speaks of wine aged forty days, two years, and three years. The old wine was considered the best. To have a good vintage was a reason for joyous thanksgiving; to have a poor harvest or for there to be no harvest was a bitter experience.

The Scriptures, especially the Old Testament, are filled with references that reveal how much the vine was a part of the daily life of the nation. Writers mention all of the various aspects of the viticulture presented above as they discuss the personal, agricultural, religious, and commercial affairs of the people. The vine was intricately woven into the fabric of the Hebrew life, as much as olive oil, grain, lambs, and sacrifices. To miss this is to fail to appreciate many references and incidents that are recorded in the Scriptures. To understand it is to have a new comprehension of the people and, especially, the message of God to the people through the prophets.

Rain makes the vines grow,
the vines make the wine flow,
Oh Lord! Let it rain!

Back of this wine is the vintner,
and back through the years his skill,
and back of it all are the vines in the sun and the rain
and the Master’s Will.
Vintner’s Ode

August makes the grapes, and September makes the wine.
French Saying

Beer is made by men, wine by God.
Martin Luther

For quotes and sayings related to wine, see: Quotes - Wine

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