Monday, September 30, 2013

A Brief History Of the Awesomeness of Wine

I am crazy about wine. There should be no confusion about that. My blog header is not there because it is pretty or because the Bible talks about wine, though it is and it does, but because clusters of ripe grapes that will be crushed, fermented, and bottled makes my heart exult. My dream of living in wine country may have failed but my passion for wine has not. I love learning about wine, I love talking about wine, I love smelling wine, I love tasting wine, I love looking at the bottles in my wine refrigerator, I love finding the perfect pairing between food and wine, I love introducing people to wines they haven't tried.

If I never drank another glass of wine, I can honestly tell you that my passion would not change. Wine, for me, is not about the consumption of alcohol. The effect that it has on my body is insignificant in comparison to the meaning and the depth that it brings to my life. Wine has become a ruby, or straw, colored window into the past, into a rich and diverse history of men and women who looked into their wine glasses and found romance and poetry and beauty and God. It has become a pilgrimage companion, accompanying me to places in the world where vines are not just plants but sources of life, where place is not just where you are standing but who you are. It has become a looking glass into the future, as I have come to envision heaven not as an ethereal realm but a vast table where the wine will flow freely and the nations will laugh openly.

The thing about wine is that it was not made nor conceived of by humans. It was discovered. Probably around 10,000 years ago, a woman left a bunch of grapes in an open container for a few days, and the grapes on the bottom started to release their juice. When she returned, she noticed that the grapes had changed. They smelled different, they tasted different, and they made her feel different. What she did not know was that when the grapes were crushed and exposed to oxygen, the yeasts swirling in the hot wind could do their work and convert the sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide. What she did know was that the partially crushed grapes tasted so much better than usual.

To the ancients, then, wine was considered a miracle of God and thus used in sacred rituals and meals. The biblical tradition is not shy about its passion for wine. The Psalmist sings that the Lord gave “wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart,” inspiring northern Italian chefs for millennia to come. When Moses dreams of a Promised Land he proclaims that God “will love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock, in the land that he swore to your ancestors to give you.” Wine, it seems, is a fruit of God’s blessing, a silky symbol of his lovingkindness. A Promised Land is not truly promising unless it produces a harvest of ripe grapes that make a full-bodied wine.

Centuries later the apostle Paul would scold his protégée Timothy for only drinking water and direct him to “take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” Wine in the ancient world was prized for its healing effects, because the combination of alcohol, acidity, and healthy bacteria were an antidote to the untrustworthy elements of their diet and the impurities of their water supply. Today, the antioxidants and other elements that are present particularly in red wines are considered to be components of a healthy diet, when taken in moderation.  

For all its sober cautions against overindulgence, the Bible regularly chooses images of wine and grapes and vineyards to represent the covenant relationship between God and his people. The fruitfulness of the people and the faithfulness of their God, or conversely, the withering of the people and the judgment of God are embodied in vineyards and harvests and wine presses. The covenant reaches its climax in the events of one evening, in which a man, hours before he is betrayed, puts a cup of wine into the hands of his friends and says "This is my blood."

Jesus had already demonstrated himself to be a master vintner without equal in John 2, in which he managed to produce the best wine the guests have ever tasted without aging it. In identifying his death with wine, Jesus ensured that wine would be in the centerpiece of Christian theology and practice for all generations to follow. We not only look back to that sacramental cup but we look forward to celebrating God’s victory at the end of the ages, because Jesus vowed that he would not drink “of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom." I’m relieved to know that at the eschatological banquet, the feast of the Lamb, we won’t be toasting with water. It's bad luck, you know. That is gonna be some damn good wine.

Wine's sacramental qualities set the stage for generations of his followers to cultivate the wine grape, both for sacred and pragmatic purposes. If your community is planning to continually re-enact the Last Supper, you're going to need plenty of wine. Thus began a long, rich tradition of monasteries cultivating grapevines on their property, refining viticultural processes and finding spiritual meaning in the difficult, back-bending labor. Dom Perignon, 17th century monastic vintner in Epernay in northern France, toiled for years to achieve the secondary fermentation that produces the now legendary streaming Champagne bubbles. One day he tasted his work, and cried out to his Benedictine brothers: “Come quickly! I am drinking the stars!

Just this past weekend, I visited the mission at San Juan Capistrano, where the father of the California missions, Junipero Serra, was based for a time. The mission proclaims itself as "the birthplace of the California wine industry," and as the Franciscans moved northward to establish new missions, one of the first things they would do is plant vines so they could celebrate the sacrament and also sell grapes to fund their missionary endeavors.

 As a pastor and unabashed oenophile, I fantasize about presiding at the Lord’s table one Sunday and saying “This morning the body of our Lord Jesus will be accompanied by a spicy little Syrah from the Rhone Valley of France. You’ll notice a bursting bouquet of blackberries and blackcurrants, along with hints of earth and smoke.”  Even though I'm pretty sure I would get the Ananias and Sapphira treatment, with my last breath I would mouth the words, "Wooorrth iiit..."

Ultimately I believe that wine has embedded itself so deeply into ancient and modern cultures not because of its smell or taste, which can border on profound, but because mystics and theologians and romantics throughout history have found deeper meaning in the life cycle of wine. The story of wine is one of transformation. In it we are given clues about what God is able to do with the ordinary, earthy elements of life. The story of wine is about the transformation of the commonplace into the sacred, or perhaps about the revelation that the sacred has been there all along. Grapes are converted into transcendent flavors and aromas, dirt is transformed into holy ground, wine becomes sacrament, average meals are elevated into sacred offerings, and everyday labors are raised into vocation.