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Toasting the role of the Jews in the history of wine

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This blog is generally religion-free, but I read this article yesterday in the Jewish Journal and, with the High Holidays coming up (Rosh Hashana and Yom  Kippur) I find myself thinking of how my Jewish ancestors really, in a way, invented wine, or at least our modern understanding of it.

That there are scores if not hundreds of references to wine in the Old Testament is well known. Of course they were not entirely positive: some people got drunk. But overall, wine was such an integral part of ancient Jewish (and even pre-Jewish, Semitic life; don’t forget Noah’s grapevine) that we don’t even know how far back it goes in the mists of pre-history. What is clear was that it was considered very important.

In my own family, wine wasn’t a big presence. Neither for that matter were beer or spirits; my family weren’t drinkers. Mom liked a Bloody Mary at a restaurant, and I can’t remember anymore what Dad drank, but it wasn’t very much. They were water drinkers.

The first wine I ever tried was given to me by my Uncle Teddy, at a Passover seder. I must have been around five. He gave me a glass of Manischevitz and, when I gagged and spat it out, everyone around the table laughed. (Torturing the kids was considered fun in our family.) It’s a wonder I ever tried wine again after that.

Notwithstanding the absence of booze in the household, I was raised to have a neutral to positive feeling about it. Certainly no one in my family ever expressed anything negative about alcohol or wine. I personally knew next to nothing about wine until I was in my early 30s; but when I began studying it, I was proud to discover the role the Jews had played. Later, Greeks and Romans spread viticulture throughout the river valleys of Europe, leading down the millennia and across the seas to our present day. Somehow, the two cultures that were so different in so many different ways–Jewish and Greco/Roman–found commonaility in their embrace of wine. Both cultures recognized its essential goodness and holiness, even though both were aware of its dangers in excess.

Anyway, if you’re of the Jewish persuasion, let me wish you a good Rosh Hashanah (which this year is Sept. 5-6, in the Jewish year 5774). Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the year, follows a week later. I am not particularly observant, myself, but I have set photos of my late mother and father in a central place in the livingroom, where I will do my best, in my inadequate way, to remember them. I cannot promise that the wine I toast them with will be kosher. I can, however, promise that it will be very good.

  1. I also count Manishewitz as my first wine. L’Chaim!

  2. My father escaped the Holocaust but never his appreciation for wines, especially German whites. My first wine was probably a Mosel. I guess we had Manishewitz around for Passover seders, but for drinking it was German whites and French reds. They probably weren’t great wines, but they were drinkable and I was always allowed a sip or two in a glass. We learned respect for alcohol at an early age.

  3. Nice, very nice. Bless us all for the cheer the Jewish faith brought to us all.

  4. Bob Henry says:

    STEVE,

    ADDING SOME “PRE-HISTORY” TO YOUR BLOG ENTRY:

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times (Section Unknown)
    (January 11, 2011, Page Unknown):

    “Ancient winery found in Armenia;
    The 6,000-year-old winery in a cave in Armenia had all the necessary equipment, including a grape press, fermentation vats and storage jars. A UCLA-led research team believes the site produced wine for religious ceremonies associated with burials.”

    [Link: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jan/11/science/la-sci-ancient-winery-20110111

    By Thomas H. Maugh II
    Times Staff Writer

    A UCLA-led team reported Monday that it had discovered a 6,000-year-old facility in an Armenian cave that contained everything necessary to produce wine from grapes, including a grape press, fermentation vats, storage jars, wine-soaked pottery shards and even a cup and drinking bowl.

    The ancient winery is at least 1,000 years older than any similar installation previously known, and it was found in the same cave where researchers in June announced the discovery of the world’s oldest leather shoe.

    . . .

    — AND —

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (Saturday, December 11, 2004, Page A28):

    “Hints of 9,000-Year-Old Wine is Unearthed in China”

    [Link: http://articles.latimes.com/2004/dec/11/science/sci-wine11

    From Reuters News Service

    Neolithic people in China may have been the first in the world to make wine, according to scientists who have found the earliest evidence of winemaking from pottery shards dating from 7000 BC in northern China.

    Previously, the oldest evidence of fermented beverages dated from 5400 BC and was found at the Neolithic site of Hajji Firuz Tepe in Iran.

    But in a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania said laboratory tests on pottery jars from the village of Jiahu in Henan province had shown traces of a mixed fermented drink of rice, honey and either grapes or hawthorn fruit.

    “This evidence appears to suggest that the Chinese developed fermented beverages even earlier than the Middle East, or perhaps at the same time,” McGovern told Reuters. “Maybe there were some indirect ties between the Middle East and Central Asia at that time in ancient civilization.”

    . . .

    ~~ BOB

  5. Ha! That was my exact reaction to trying Manischewitz too. I still won’t touch the stuff. A lot of people are surprised when I tell them how important wine is to the Jews. I was actually just thinking today when I forgot that liquor stores are closed on Sundays that it should be my religious freedom for them to be open. I rested all day yesterday, it’s time to buy more wine! Have a happy new year!

  6. Marlene Rossman says:

    May those of you who are celebrating Rosh Hashonah have a happy, healthy year. If you are going to a dinner, surprise the Concord grape wine drinkers with a bottle of Covenant, Hagafen, Domaine du Castel, Yarden.

    Although I am not kosher, in 1975, I found a bottle of French wine (in NY) that was kosher. I brought it to a kosher dinner and everyone was so shocked that they had to read the label. It was genuinely kosher, but back in those days, no one had ever tasted something wonderful from the kosher wine world.

  7. Marlene Rossman says:

    May those of you who are celebrating Rosh Hashonah have a happy, healthy year. If you are going to a dinner, surprise the Concord grape wine drinkers with a bottle of Covenant, Hagafen, Domaine du Castel, Yarden, etc.

    Although I am not kosher, in 1975, I found a bottle of French wine (in NY) that was kosher. I brought it to a kosher dinner and everyone was so shocked that they had to read the label. It was genuinely kosher, but back in those days, no one had ever tasted something wonderful from the kosher wine world.

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