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Articles - A History of Israel’s Wine Culture
 

Wine making in Israel is once again big business. But it hasn’t always been that way.

• Find out why the industry went from being a major commercial activity in biblical times but then ground to an abrupt halt.

• Discover how the wine industry in Israel is once again burgeoning and gaining a reputation with wine buffs.

• Learn about ancient usages and artifacts connected to wine in Israel.

Wine making is a fascinating topic and one that is well suited to documentaries, travelogues and historical dramas.

Background

Israel has two ancient and traditional wine growing regions; the Shomron (Samaria region) and Samson (located between the Judean Hills and Coastal Plain). Today many more areas have successfully introduced winemaking and the Israeli market is gaining an international reputation for quality.

Wine making in Israel is recorded as being prevalent during ancient times but came to an abrupt halt with the destruction of Jewish vineyards by the Roman and Muslim conquests. Its recent reintroduction has been the cause of much celebration.

The history and resurgence of wine making in Israel would make an interesting topic for a documentary, filmed in Israel. It touches on many themes; biblical, historical, archaeological, sociological, scientific and idealistic.

An Ancient Tradition

The bible is positively flowing with wine and the Talmud mentions more than twelve different varieties.

Genesis 20:21 records that the first task Noah performed following disembarking the ark was to plant a vineyard. Gen:20, “And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard.”

There are passages in the Bible that record Jesus’ drinking of wine, the most famous of which is at The Last Supper on the Jewish festival of Passover.

The vineyards of Galilee and Judea are mentioned in various ancient texts and during King David’s reign wine stores were so substantial that they necessitated a court official whose sole responsibility was to oversee them.

Wine produced in ancient times was different from that of today. It was often flavored with a variety of fruits and spices and did not have a wonderful reputation. Some say that the wine drunk in the bible is akin to grape juice. It was consumed in enormous quantities and often accompanied meals. It was a cheap beverage, at half the cost of olive oil.

Winemaking in ancient Israel reached its climax during Second Temple times when it played a major part in the economy.

Following the Roman conquest in 70CE, many vineyards were destroyed. Later, in 636 CE, the Muslim conquest lead to further destruction of ancient vines and the consequence was a cessation of wine production in Israel for 1,200 years.

Archaeological Finds

Archaeological excavations have uncovered ancient wine presses and storage vessels that indicate the existence of a successful wine industry spanning from Mount Hermon in the North to the Negev in the South. There is evidence of wine making in Jericho, Lachish and Arad dating back to between 3500 and 3000 BCE.

Photo credit: www.wine-tasting-reviews.com

An Israeli wine press dating back to100 - 400 CE

Gibeon was the main wine producing area in ancient Israel and wine cellars have been discovered there from 700 CE.

In addition to the discovery of wine making equipment; grapes and vines were a popular illustrations on coins, jars and other artifacts uncovered from ancient civilizations.

An Integral Part of Jewish Celebration

Wine for the Sabbath and as part of the Wedding Ceremony

The blessing of wine, called ‘Kiddush’, literally means sanctification. It is practiced before the Sabbath and all festival meals.

Wine is an integral part of the Jewish wedding ceremony. The couple drink from one cup following the recital of their betrothal blessings. A second cup of wine is used for the Seven Blessings or ‘Sheva Brochos’, which are used to mark the unification of two souls into one and to extol happiness upon them.

At the end of the service, a wine glass is broken to signify the fall of the Temple, reminding all present that despite our happy celebrations, Jews always retain a reverence to G-d and mourn the loss of their holy Temple.

Just as ‘kiddush’ is the sanctification of the Sabbath, the wedding ceremony is referred to as ‘kiddushin’ and literally translates as the sanctification of the bride and groom to each other.

Wine - a Fundamental Part of Festivals

Wine is especially integrated into two important festivals. The Passover ‘seder’ (service) takes place within the home and fulfils the requirement to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, thus ensuring each new generation understands their transition from slavery to freedom. During the service there is an obligation to drink four cups of wine which mark the four expressions of deliverance promised by G-d, “I will bring out”, “I will deliver”, “I will redeem” and “I will take”.

Purim is celebrated by reading the Scroll of Esther, the ‘Megillah’, and in most chapters there is reference to heavy drinking. It concludes with Mordecai's instruction to the entire Jewish people to celebrate these days as "days of drinking and rejoicing" (Esther 9:22). On Purim it is therefore considered a ‘mitzvah’ (good deed) to become so drunk that one cannot distinguish between the names of two of the characters in the Purim story; Haman (the Jew’s enemy) and Mordechai (their leader).

Filming Jewish celebrations and rituals involving wine

It is forbidden to film on the Sabbath but it is possible to reconstruct the ‘kiddush’ prayers to demonstrate the weekly ceremonial usage of wine within Sabbath celebrations. This would make great footage, providing classic Judaic symbolism; involving the famous plaited ‘challah’ bread, a goblet of wine and the Shabbat candles. It is a Jewish ritual that has continued despite the dispersion of Jews across the Diaspora; acting as a common thread that binds the Jewish nation together as they celebrate Shabbat in diverse communities around the globe.

Another memorable image would be the use of wine within the wedding ceremony. Here wine is used as a symbol of life and joy. Two cups of wine are used within the ceremony and a wine glass is ceremoniously broken at the end of proceedings. These rituals are ancient and would make wonderful footage, demonstrating the continued importance wine has within religious celebrations.

Filming Purim celebrations is a particularly colorful (and noisy) affair. The kids (and some adults) get dressed up in costumes and have a host of ‘gragers’ (noisy rattles and other loud instruments) that are used to ‘blot out the name of Haman’ whenever it is read from the Megillah. The wine is consumed at a Purim feast, which is traditionally shared among friends and family.

The Modern Wine Revolution

The biggest injection of investment into wine production in Israel came from Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who funded vineyards for the early Zionists to tend.

The industry was built up through kibbutzim, moshavim and other agricultural communities and the country today is divided into five areas of wine growing:

• Galil (Galilee)
• Judean Hills
• Shimshon (Samson)
• Negev
• Sharon plain
• Golan Heights

Israel is world renowned in the fields of agriculture, science and technology and using these three specialisms, Israeli wine growers have mastered irrigation, soil deficiencies and other challenges, in order to improve the quality of Israeli wine beyond recognition.

Since the dawn of the second millennium, there has been a growth of ‘boutique wineries’ throughout Israel, many of which are in the Judean Hills and Galilee regions.

Note to Film Makers

Documenting the ancient roots and ultimate destruction of the wine industry in Israel could make for an interesting film topic. It could be married up with a description of the current resurgence of Israeli wineries, perhaps looking into the scientific and technological developments that enabled this to happen. The new trend for boutique wineries is also said by some to be due to a desire to work the land in traditional ways, rekindling old ways of life. This would also give any documentary a personal and emotive touch.

Capturing Vineyards and Wine Tours on Film

The whole process of winemaking can be captured on film. Many vineyards offer wine tours and below are just two:

Kibbutz Tzora is located in the biblical area of Samson, which spans from the Judean Hills and coastal plains. It is a traditional wine making area and the Kibbutz has an established vineyard and winery. Each year on November 29 they have an event to celebrate the release of the season’s new wines. There are lectures and tours, which include grape picking in the early hours of the morning (in harvest season), as well as a fun wine making workshop for the kids, including stomping the grapes.

Mony Winery is owned by an Arab-Christian family and is located in Dir-Rif’at. Close by is a beautiful church which has the word ‘peace’ written on the ceiling in 340 languages. The area is spectacular, offering a panoramic view of the Mony vineyard and olive groves.

Wine is a theme that stems from the bible but continues to flow through modern Jewish rituals and celebrations. Capturing the story of wine making in Israel and visiting picturesque rural vineyards and archaeological sites would really bring the subject to life and document a story that, through scientific effort and idealistic verve, has the happy ending of a vibrant wine industry returned to the Holy Land.