Drink of the Gods: Wine in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean

AncientphoenicianportTyreA symbol of fertility, immortality, and divinity, wine was the favored drink of choice across the ancient Near East and Mediterranean. Wine is mentioned frequently in biblical scriptures, and was used for everyday purposes in cooking and medicine. In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Mr. Joel Butler, co-author of Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age, about the religious, cultural, and social importance of wine across the centuries.

JW: Mr. Joel Butler, it gives me great pleasure in welcoming you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, and I thank you for speaking to us about your recent publication: Divine Vintage.

Co-authoring a book on the origins and prominence of wine in the biblical Near East seems daunting, given the polarity between historical record and biblical exegesis. What led you to write this book, and what lessons can we learn from ancient viticulture and viniculture?

JB: Divine Vintage originated from an idea my co-author — Dr. Randall Heskett — had long pondered. My own interest in classical history, archaeology, and ancient wine complemented his interest in analyzing how biblical texts considered wine and vineyards from spiritual and sociocultural perspectives.

DionysosPortraitMosaicZeugma2to3rdCCEAs we write in the Preface, the Bible is not “historical,” but it can be viewed as a metaphorical commentary on the real issues that confronted its writers and their society. And from Randall’s strong interpretations of the texts, we certainly gained some insight into how wine was grown in ancient Palestine and elsewhere, mainly from certain passages that hint at training of the vines, when the grapes were harvested, and also, certainly, which wines were considered “kosher” for the Temple priests.

We were also very interested in an exploration of biblical stories — like Noah’s — as a path to understanding how, where, and when the evolution of human culture developed from the earliest beginnings along the Fertile Crescent. It is our contention, and certainly we are not alone, that domesticating the wild vitis species and making wine from cultivated vines was a key event that spurred a distinctive path in the cultural evolution of humanity. That the ancient writers who wrote down the stories of the Bible were keenly aware of where wine came from, and the ‘magical’ importance it had for various reasons, is reflected in the way wine was interwoven into the texts. Moreover, one observes a definite relationship to the real timeline of wine’s spread from its original domain throughout the Levant first, then Egypt, westwards towards Greece, and ultimately the New Testament lands of the Roman Empire.

JW: The countless references specifically mentioning wine in the Bible are fascinating. Wine would appear to be a major link between the greatest figures from the Old and New Testament– Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Isaiah, and Jesus.

Mr. Butler, aside from its use in religious ritual and its association with “mystical powers,” I was wondering if you could also comment on how wine was used for everyday purposes in the ancient eastern Mediterranean. If I am not mistaken, there is much historical and ample archaeological evidence here. Do we use wine today in similar ways?

AvdatNegevNabateanByzantinewinepressJB: You are correct that there is ample historical, archaeological, and written evidence for wine’s importance across the ancient Mediterranean. Certainly, it was primarily drunk at first by the wealthier classes, but by the Roman period, it was cheap enough for almost everyone to afford it (even if it was not particularly high quality). The main purposes then, were its healthful, hygienic aspects, since most water was contaminated. Relative to that, the easiest way to make water potable was to add wine to it. Diluting wine with water perhaps in a 4:1 ratio not only made water drinkable, but diluted the alcohol strength of the wine while not changing the caloric count. Interestingly, wine was not diluted by the ancient Israelites since it was considered critical for religious purposes — especially for Temple rituals – that wine be pure and unadulterated, except with certain natural flavors, such as honey, which the Mishnah says was permitted for religious Jews on the Sabbath. Only with the increased Hellenization of the population of Judea-Samaria and other parts of the Levant, in the second to third centuries BCE, did the habit of diluting wine with water and adding other substances to the wine become a cultural constant.

Those calories probably accounted for a lot more of the energy people obtained daily at the time than they do today, which is a major difference. During our research, it became very clear that the quantity of wine drunk by the first century BCE to the first century CE among populations in the region was quite high, probably forming a larger proportion of their daily caloric intake relative to that of their food-derived intake. Wine gave people calories, potable water, and helped hydrate them for the heavy labor most undertook. The huge wine trade throughout the Mediterranean — originally from the Levant and trafficked via Egyptian, Phoenician, and Greek traders — is clearly supported by the huge amount of amphorae discovered in sites on land and underwater shipwrecks. If people were not heavily reliant on wine as a key part of their diet, this trade would not have existed or have been so widespread.

HittiteBeakWinejug2ndMillBCEingrapeclustershapeWine was also a solid vehicle for medicinal purposes, by itself or as a delivery system for common medicines, often derived from plants. The Egyptians were likely the first to develop a pharmacopeia that used wine, and this was passed down through time to the Hebrews and ultimately to the Greeks and Romans. Since much of the oldest wine made in the ancient Levant was probably sweet — boiled down to a syrup and then added back into a very dilute wine — it is no wonder that certain medicinal ingredients like myrrh, pine resin, and other substances contained anti-bacterial or even antiseptic properties. As we note, new research on ancient containers that contain wine residues reveal that there were a number of ingredients the Egyptians and later others added to provide an oral medicine. We may not use wine anymore to do this, but it is interesting to consider how many modern cough medicines contain a fair amount of alcohol and are administered for the same reasons!

Finally, we should also consider wine’s preservative aspects that ancient cultures took advantage of, including the use of wine vinegar as a preservative and flavoring agent for all sorts of foodstuffs. Cooking with wine, then, not only added flavor but probably helped deter some sickness or disease given the inherent lack of sanitation. Given that so much ancient wine had added ingredients (to cover up the bad taste of the wine in many cases, no doubt augmenting both flavor and medicinal purposes) we can assume that wine was used as a pickling agent, particularly among the elite.

“Current archaeological and genetic research increasingly points to southeastern Turkey as a “ground zero” (or one of a few) for the earliest domestication of the vitis species, perhaps as far back as the seventh millennium BCE.”

JW: The ancient Hittites were oenophiles, spreading viticulture into what is present-day Turkey, but it was the Phoenicians who did the most to spread viticulture across the Mediterranean Sea. Nevertheless, ancient Greek drinking habits coupled with Roman prosperity transformed the production and demand of wine in the ancient world.

Many of these changes in custom and production were revolutionary, and I wondered if you might contextualize the importance of Greco-Roman viticulture for our audience?

JB: Beginning in the fifth century BCE, the Greeks began to expand the production of wines by using dedicated vineyards and different methods of growing grapes, including what we now call bush vines, and not just the usual mix plantations. Some of these ideas were adapted from the Phoenicians, but much of it developed in the Greek cities of Asia Minor.

HerculaneumAmphoraeinwinesellershopDry wines and white wines became more common due to Greek influence, especially those from islands like Cyprus. While some Greeks did not like dry wines (the Athenians!), many were highly prized. The Greeks also introduced larger wine production sites, where there were multiple basins for treading grapes. The ancient Greeks were thus able to make more than one style of wine at a time. Large beam presses were introduced by the third century BCE as well, which not only were more efficient, but could handle larger loads of grapes. Moreover, the Greeks pioneered the development of winemaking in large clay jars — dolia — which could be buried in the ground. This made wine growing and production less site dependent. The Romans later took this concept and expanded the size of the jars that could be manufactured, thus allowing for very large production sites.

The growth in wine distribution due to Greek traders, who increasingly developed distinctive amphorae of manageable sizes that could transport wine by sea around the Mediterranean, is of immense importance. Centers of production like Rhodes or Chios had their own amphora shapes, which indicate to archaeologists where the wine inside likely came from. The Greeks recognized the “marketing” value of stamping amphorae with the name of the producer, vineyard, year, and wine style.

Another unique innovation, though I do not think we can say how prevalent it was, was the likely first use of cork stoppers, in amphorae, from the fifth century BCE; an example of this has been found in the Athenian Agora. There is no doubt that the idea of aging wine in amphorae, not just using them for transport, was due to rising Greek appreciation for better quality wines. The Romans really took this notion to a higher level by the first century BCE (though the cork stoppers coated with resin to retard oxidation functioned effectively as a preservative).

SantorinivydsPyrgosslopestowardsOiaWhat did the Romans bring to the table? I believe the Pax Romana allowed for wide expansion of trade under relatively safe conditions. This allowed for the development of empire-wide wine production and sales which could supply a large population of very thirsty customers, whether rich or poor.  The concept of “industrial” wine production began with Roman development of huge vineyard areas in Campania, leading eventually to large wine latifundia across North Africa, Spain, and France.

While wealthier Romans considered Greek wines to be the best, they nonetheless began to make high quality wines in Italy on their own estates, whose reputations grew in time and became noted by many Roman writers  — from poets like Martial (c. 40-103 CE) to historians like Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE). The modern concept of a “cru” system of classifying wines or vineyards can be directly traced to Roman writers of the first and second centuries CE. It was the Roman appreciation of first Greek wines, then their own vintages, that created the first type of wine “connoisseurship” in an ancient society, leading to the identification of key vineyards or areas as producing the best wine. Indeed, Roman writers espoused the modern concept of “terroir” over 2,000 years ago. Columella (c. 4-70 CE) understood the idea of lower yield and higher quality fruit, and conversely, if a vine was a high yielding one, then it was more suited to a lesser site and should be made in larger quantity and sold more cheaply for “everyday” drinking.LittlePetrawinepress1stC

We also comment further that it was the Romans who started the first use of wood barrels for transporting wine — if not making wine — in more northerly provinces beginning in the first century CE or somewhat earlier, according to sources like Pliny. Romans encouraged more rationalization of vineyards too, creating various systems for training vines including planting in rows or pergola-style arbors. Roman writers made the first real studies of viticulture and wine making and clearly grasped critical concepts, such as making sure there was a small hole at the top of an amphora that could allow newly made wine’s carbon dioxide gas to escape so as not to ruin the wine or explode the contents. Columella’s texts provide clear lessons that make sense even today regarding viticulture and winemaking. I could go on, but I think you understand how profound the changes made by the Greeks and Romans were, notwithstanding their other lasting contribution, the idea of the symposion and convivium, which combined the appreciation of good wines (often to excess) with conversation and philosophy.

JW: The second half of Divine Vintage is an enjoyable “wine-travelogue,” which traces the revival of the wine industry along the Apostle Paul’s third missionary journey (52-57 CE) across modern-day Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt. You personally visited every winery listed in the book, sharing tasting notes of your favorite wines from each winery.

In 2009, Turkey ranked sixth worldwide in grape production, yielding 3.85 million tons of grapes on 1.2 million acres (486,000 ha). While Israel and Greece have been very successful in marketing their wines abroad in recent years, the sheer scale of grape production in Turkey astonished me! Is Turkey a country to watch for those interested in ancient or exotic varietals?

Kefraya2JB: Yes, Turkey, while still producing only a small amount of wine (most of the grapes produced are for the table), shows enormous promise, provided the government does not continue to create arbitrary and punitive new anti-alcohol laws. Turkey’s ancient wine production was large and widely praised by the Greeks and Romans in antiquity. There is a fine heritage to exploit. Importantly, Turkey is home to a large number of indigenous wine-grape varieties and thus a great genetic pool of wine varieties that we are only just beginning to explore and enjoy. Current archaeological and genetic research increasingly points to southeastern Turkey as a “ground zero” (or one of a few) for the earliest domestication of the vitis species, perhaps as far back as the seventh millennium BCE.

For me, this hypothesis generates real excitement in trying wines made in those areas especially, as it is possible they are the descendants of those ancient cultivars and wines described by writers thousands of years ago. And it is also likely that over the next few years, further research by DNA analyses will demonstrate the link between modern western European grapes and their genetic origins in Turkey, Georgia, or perhaps Armenia.

JW: With the increasing visibility of wines from Greece, Israel, and Lebanon, do you believe that it will soon be common for us to differentiate between “Old World,” “New World,” and “Ancient World” wines?MiddleMinoan1600BCEwinewaterptcherPhylakopiIII

JB: I would like to think this sort of differentiation will happen. We really should be thinking along these lines since the eastern Mediterranean wine countries are the oldest growing regions, often have truly unique varieties, and there is a “renaissance of interest” in their wine cultures. They really can tell a different tale!

JW: In the last pages of your book, you ponder the wines Jesus would have drunk in Roman Palestine. I promise that I will not give anything way in this interview, but I am curious if a follow-up to this book is in the works?

JB:  I am seriously considering a follow-up book. While I am certainly intrigued by the questions we raised and attempted to answer, I would prefer to contribute to the modern appreciation for wines in the biblical lands by expanding our coverage of the top producers today. Doing this, I hope, will give wine-drinkers around the world an opportunity to truly appreciate a whole new and “original” world of wines.

JW: Mr. Butler, thank you so much for sharing your time and expertise with us. Cheers!

JB: Thank you very much for the opportunity to talk about subjects that I am quite enthusiastic about: wine and history!

Photo Credits:

  1. Ruins of the ancient Phoenician port of Tyre, located in modern-day Lebanon. Photo: Courtesy of Mr. Joel Butler.
  2. Mosaic depicting the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, at Zeugma, Turkey. It is believed that this mosaic was created c. 100-250 CE. Photo: Courtesy of Mr. Joel Butler.
  3. Ruins of an ancient wine press, used by the Nabataeans and Byzantines, in Avdat, Israel (located in the Negev Desert). Photo: Courtesy of Mr. Joel Butler.
  4. A Hittite wine jug shaped as a cluster of grapes. Photo: Courtesy of Mr. Joel Butler.
  5. Amphorae in an ancient wine shop from the Roman ruins of Herculaneum, located outside of Naples, Italy. Photo: Courtesy of Mr. Joel Butler.
  6. Modern vineyards on the Greek island of Santorini. Fine wines have been produced here for several millennia. Photo: Courtesy of Mr. Joel Butler.
  7. A Nabataean wine press among the ruins of Petra, located in modern-day Jordan. This wine press is believed to date from c. 100 CE. Photo: Courtesy of Mr. Joel Butler.
  8. A view of vineyards from Kefraya, Lebanon. Delicious wine and arak — an anise-flavored liqueur made mainly from grapes — have been produced here for thousands of years. Photo: Courtesy of Mr. Joel Butler.
  9. A Greek wine pitcher dating from the Middle Minoan Period (c. 1600 BCE). Photo: Courtesy of Mr. Joel Butler.

JoelRandallinToronto112212Joel Butler (pictured to the left with co-author Dr. Randall Heskett) is a council member of the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) and one of the first two resident Masters of Wine in North America. Butler has worked in the wine industry for 40 years in many different capacities, including making wine, importing, writing, and as a wine educator. A highly regarded wine judge for decades, he most recently served as a Senior Judge at the International Wine Challenge and Decanter World Wine Awards in London, UK. Butler has written about wine for International Wine Cellar, The Sunday TimesThe Independent, The I-Wine Review, and numerous other wine publications. He lives in Seattle, Washington USA, where he is the co-owner of WineKnow LLC. Bulter co-authored Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age, which won the Gourmand Wine Books prize for ‘Best Drinks Writing Book’ in the UK.

James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All images featured in this interview have been attributed to their respective owners. Images lent to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, by Mr. Joel Butler, have been done so as a courtesy for the purposes of this interview and are copyrighted. The profile picture is copyrighted by Mr. Evan Boudreau, Catholic Register. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited. Special thanks is  extended to Ms. Karen Barrett-Wilt and Dr. Randall Heskett for their assistance. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013. Please contact us for rights to republication.

James Wiener
About the Author
James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist and Latin Americanist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), international traveler, and fan of ice hockey.