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Wine and religion

wine chalice
Museum of Contemporary Art

We are nearing two of the greatest religious commemorations of the Western world: Easter and Passover. Although celebrated differently by Christians and Jews, both commemorate the victory of God and the salvation of mankind; and for both, wine is an integral part. In fact, wine has been linked with religious rituals for so long -- be they pagan homage to many gods or the more modern Monotheistic ones -- that the exact time of this convergence in unknown.

The practice of fermenting grape juice into wine goes back at least to 5,000 B.C. although some sources put the date at some three thousand years earlier. And while the Old Testament is among the most often-used sources of wine-related quotes, religious allusions which pre-date even this ancient text can be found. For instance, according to Edward Hyams in Dionysus (MacMillan), "one of the oldest of the Sumerian divinities was a wine-goddess called either Gestin or Ama-Gestin, which apparently means "Mother Vine-stock'". Written mention of this old oral legend dates back to 2,700 B.C. (less than a thousand years later, she was downgraded to Nina, the "Water Goddess", no doubt giving ammunition to Prohibitionist revisors of the Bible who tried to substitute "grape-juice" for "wine" wherever possible).

Another Biblical reference, this one in the New Testament, is the transformation by Jesus of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana. To those of us who could never understand why anyone would serve the best stuff last at such events -- by their end, many could not appreciate the difference between good wine or bad -- here is Biblical proof that Jesus and his friends knew the value of moderate drinking.

The references to wine in the Bible are many, from the commonsense appeal by Paul --"...use a little wine for thy stomach's sake..." (I Timothy 5)-- to the miraculous transformation of wine into Christ's blood at the Last Supper. But quotes alone were not enough to keep wine itself from going the way of the dodo. After the western Roman Empire had grown too weak to defend against the barbarian invaders from the east, civilization as it had been known up to that time was shattered. The knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and agricultural practices that had been won over the last thousand years was nearly lost to the Dark Ages. Human beings went back to a very basic existence, one where mere survival was a daily question. But only nearly because it was the young Church, and specifically monks and other holy and/or disciplined men and women, that maintained the old practices including those of vinegrowing and winemaking.

Protected from the invaders by the latters' fear of the monks' unearthly powers, or by their living in remote or isolated areas, these men and women carried on, and often improved upon, the old systems. Wines from their vineyards throughout Europe were made and sold and, in the process, they developed great reputations. Were it not for the monks and their disciples, the world might not have had great Burgundy, Champagne (of Benedictine monk -- Dom Pérignon -- fame) or the great German wines. Without Franciscan friars planting, tending and vinifying the "Mission" grape up and down southern California, Americans might still be drinking more "hard liquor" than wine. And were it not for the ability of American wineries to produce exempted "special" wines--for Christian and Jewish services--during Prohibition, it is unlikely that this country's wine industry could have survived to become the world-respected one it is.


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