Winemaking in Ancient Israel

posted Jan 9, 2013, 4:22 PM by Pilgrim Akl   [ updated Jan 28, 2013, 1:37 PM by ]

Winemaking in Ancient Israel
By Garrett Peck.

Winemaking in ancient Israel dates back at least 2,000 years before the Romans occupied the region – and possibly several thousand years before then. The Israelites probably picked up the craft from the neighboring Canaanites and Phoenicians, and winemaking abounded throughout the Mediterranean. Hundreds of ancient winepresses have been uncovered and excavated throughout modern Israel. Yet wine was much more than a staple of life to Jews: it was a symbol of their freedom from bondage and a necessity in every Jewish religious ceremony. Haim Gan, Israel’s Grape Man in Old Jaffa, remarked, “Wine is at the heart of the Jewish tradition.” 

Two terms for wine are used throughout the Bible. In the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament), the Hebrew word is yayin, while the Christian New Testament, written in Greek, used the word oinos, from which we get our word “wine.” Both meant the same thing: fermented wine. There is no word for unfermented wine in Scripture. Wine is wine. It was always fermented.  

Ancient Israel was an agrarian society. Most people farmed. They grew wheat, olives, tended orchards, herded goats, sheep and cattle, and grew grapes. References to winemaking abound in the Hebrew Scriptures. Grape growing, festivals, drunkenness, and thanksgiving for wine – they’re all there. It really shows that wine was part of everyday Jewish culture. Only the Book of Jonah has no reference to either wine or the vine. 

The ancients didn’t understand microbes and gastrointestinal disease, but they knew that drinking water led to sickness and sometimes death. The water supply was often contaminated, particularly around settlements that had no sanitation, or even in short supply during droughts. So they drank wine but diluted it with water, both to quench the thirst and to dilute the effects of such strong drink. This kept them healthy.  In fact, the phrase “strong drink” in the Bible may refer to undiluted wine.  

When I attended the Israwinexpo 2008, a biannual event in Tel Aviv to draw international attention to Israeli wine, I learned just how scarce water can be in Israel. A winemaker rinsed my wineglass with wine instead of water, swirled it around, then dumped it out. He joked, “In Israel, we have more wine than water” as he refilled it with another wine sample to taste. 

The first reference to wine in the Bible is comical. Everyone knows the story of Noah, and how after the rain ended he sent out a dove that returned with an olive branch.  After his family left the ark, he planted a vineyard, got drunk, and passed out. (Genesis 9:20-21) 

As Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, he sent spies into the Promised Land to scout it out. Like Noah’s dove, they returned bearing a gift: a great cluster of grapes that signified the land’s bounty. (Numbers 13:23-25) 

Ecclesiastes offered praise for wine several times. The writer, possibly King Solomon, understood that wine brought joy to life and that was something to celebrate.  “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do.” (Ecclesiastes 9:7) And later he wrote, “A feast is made for laughter, and wine makes life merry.” (Ecclesiastes 10:19) 

One of the most beautiful of all the Psalms, Psalm 104, celebrates the natural wonder of the world and praises God for the sustenance that fed his people.  

                            He makes grass grow for the cattle, 
                            and plants for man to cultivate – 
                            bringing forth food from the earth:
                            Wine that gladdens the heart of man,
                            oil to make his face shine,
                            and bread that sustains his heart. 
                                        (Psalm 104:14-15) 

This Psalm celebrates the basics of the Jewish diet: cattle for milk and occasionally meat, olive oil, bread, and wine. Wine brings us joy – and that is a wonderful thing. It made every meal into an enjoyable experience. Wine eased the pain and hardship of manual labor on the farm. 

These passages from the Hebrew Scriptures indicate an acceptance of wine as part of their culture, and consistent with their faith. People drank wine everyday in ancient Israel and throughout the Mediterranean. This legacy continues today in modern Israel, as well as Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and other Mediterranean countries that have drank wine for millennia. 

Viticulture in Ancient Israel 

Israel is about the size of New Jersey. The climate is semi-arid, much better for grapes than barley (thus the Israelites and the Phoenicians to the north in Lebanon made wine, while the Egyptians and Babylonians brewed beer). Grape vines grow best on rocky hills with poor soil, allowing the Israelites to use the valleys for growing grain. The slopes ensured good drainage and captured the sunlight, while breezes cooled the vines. Grapes were grown all over Israel: from Galilee in the north to the Judeaan Hills around Jerusalem. 

Dr. Carey Ellen Walsh wrote her doctoral dissertation on winemaking in ancient Israel while studying at Harvard University; she now teaches at Walsh University in Ohio. She published Fruit of the Vine: Viticulture in Ancient Israel (2000), providing a detailed study of ancient viticulture. Walsh goes through the prophet Isaiah’s “Song of the Vineyard,” showing how each step in the winemaking process was based on real experience (Isaiah 5:1-7). Isaiah chose the vineyard as a metaphor, since most Israelites farmed, and people would identify with it.  

                            The Song of the Vineyard 

                            I will sing for the one I love
                            a song about his vineyard: 
                            My loved one had a vineyard 
                            On a fertile hillside. 
                            He dug it up and cleared it of stones
                            and planted it with the choicest of vines.  
                            He built a watchtower in it
                            and cut out a winepress as well.  
                            Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, 
                            but it yielded only bad fruit.  
                                         (Isaiah 5:1-7) 

Walsh points out that farming was an annual cycle in ancient Israel. There were three main activities that kept the farmer busy: growing grain (barley and wheat) in winter during the rainy months; animal husbandry year round; and tending fruit trees, olives, and grapes during the heat of summer. This was an agrarian culture: almost everyone farmed, and their practices were labor-intensive. A family ate and drank together from what they produced. The farming triad created diversity, protecting the family against famine. In years of bounty, they had a surplus to trade.  

Farming families put enormous labor into harvesting their vines, crushing the grapes and fermenting them. The loss of crops to a host of enemies – famine, drought, insects, war – meant the family would starve, as they were subsistence farmers. New wine was the best: a year after the harvest, as the family drank down their annual supply, the remaining wine would turn into vinegar. 

The twentieth century American winemaker, Ernest Gallo, recalled the homemade wine that people made during Prohibition. He told a group of enologists, “Some of you may remember what homemade wine was – something like grape juice in December and something like vinegar in June.”  

The Art of Making Wine 

Archaeological digs have uncovered hundreds of ancient winepresses throughout Israel, known as Gat in Hebrew. The country is largely a land of limestone rock and thin soil. Winepresses were carved out of the limestone bedrock near the vineyards so the farmers could crush the grapes as soon as they were picked. It was a simple operation: they crushed the grapes in a shallow, flat crush pad with their feet, and the juice flowed downhill into a fermentation pit. 

Winemaker Shivi Druri cleans an ancient winepress at Gvaot Winery in Israel’s Shiloh Mountains. Photo courtesy of Shivi Druri. 

Fermentation was done in the open air for up to a week, during which dust and dirt could mix in with the wine, giving new meaning to terroir. The juice bubbled and frothed in the fermentation pit. The ancient Jews didn’t understand scientifically what was happening, but they did know that wine was being made. It wasn’t until the 1860s that French scientist Louis Pasteur observed fermentation under the microscope. The moment the grape is crushed, he realized, fermentation begins as the juice comes in contact with the natural yeasts on the grape skin. The yeasts convert the sugar in the grapes to alcohol, and release carbon dioxide as a by-product. Fermentation preserves the juice, allowing it to be stored for long periods without spoiling.  

Shivi Druri stands next to a newly-cleaned ancient winepress at Gvaot. The crush pad is the notched limestone to the right, and the juice flowed directly into the large fermentation pit. Note as well the press’s location atop the mountain: it was close to the vineyards. Photo courtesy of Shivi Druri. 

Once the juice stopped bubbling, the farmers simply scooped the fermented wine into goatskins directly from the fermentation pit. The nuclear family – perhaps even an entire village – worked together to harvest the grapes and crush them. During harvest, people built temporary huts right in the vineyards. Even small farmers owned a winepress.  

“We have hundreds of these old wine presses around my winery,” said Shivi Drori, owner and winemaker at the Gvaot Winery in Israel’s Shomron region north of Jerusalem. He added, “We see the winery as a link in the chain of wine production in this area starting 3,500 years ago.” 

The ancient winepress at Gvaot Winery. Freshly cleaned of dirt, we can see the large fermentation pit to the right, as well as additional pits next to it. Photo courtesy of Shivi Druri. 

Winepresses at Kibbutz Tzuba 

Tzuba is a kibbutz, or collective farm, in the Judean Hills just west of Jerusalem at about 720 meters (nearly 2,400 feet) above sea level. Wine was made there in King David’s time if not before, when it was known as Suba. People grew grapes and made wine continually for more than 1,600 years before the Muslims conquered the area in the 7th Century CE and ripped out the vines. Consequently, Israel’s indigenous vines are thought to be extinct. 

In 1848, Rabbi Schorr founded the first recorded winery in what is now Israel. French winemaker Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux, invested heavily in replanting vines in Palestine in the 1880s. Today Israel largely grows European varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Syrah. Kibbutz Tzuba started growing wine grapes in 1996, and began making its own wine in 2005. 

Everywhere in the Judean Hills, there are agricultural terraces from ancient days scattered over the hillsides and valleys below. In the photo below of a vineyard at Kibbutz Tzuba, you clearly see the terraces on the hillside beyond. People scratched out a living for thousands of years among the rocks and thin soil. The semi-arid region gets little rain except in winter. Today the hills are being reforested, and Israel has made the desert bloom with drip irrigation. 

Vineyard at Kibbutz Tzuba. The terraced hill in the background was an Israeli strongpoint during the War of Independence in 1948. Photo by Garrett Peck.

Kibbutz Tzuba has eight ancient winepresses on its land, and several of them have been excavated. One of the largest, near the kibbutz’s entrance, is unusual for its size. It’s a double winepress, indicating it was a larger production. Yael Kerem of the kibbutz believes there are three or four additional, unexcavated winepresses immediately adjacent to the ones uncovered. The process started with a broad, shallow crush pad or treading floor lined with plaster that was perhaps 6 inches / 15 centimeters deep. A wooden pressing beam was probably used to crush the grapes, rather than foot power. The juice flowed downhill through a narrow channel (special leaves were placed in the channel to filter the wine) and into the fermentation pit. 

Winepress at Kibbutz Tzuba. Note the two shallow crush pads in the lower half of the photo. The juice flowed downhill into the two fermentation pits, and after fermentation was complete, the wine was siphoned into the bottling pit at the top. Photo by Garrett Peck. 

The winepress at Tzuba is an exception: the fermented wine was channeled or siphoned into a special “bottling pit” (an improper term, of course, as wine bottles weren’t invented yet). Winemakers would filter the wine and pour it into an amphora (a long ceramic vase with two handles) for shipment to market. They would place several drops of olive oil at the top of the amphora to prevent oxidation and spoilage of the wine. 

In the winepress at Tzuba, steps were carved into the bottling pit, allowing workers easier access to fill their amphorae (see picture below – the steps are the indention at the lower-left corner). Because of the unusually large size of this winepress, the kibbutz believes this site made wine for the priests at the Temple in Jerusalem. This was indeed a professional operation. 

Bottling pit at the Tzuba winepress. The author is in the center, long-sleeve blue shirt, taking notes. Photo by Oren Shalev. 

Grapes are perishable. Their skins are thin. Lacking refrigeration, they rot quickly once harvested in a hot climate. Grapes were not an item that could be easily transported, at least not until they were turned into wine or raisins. Jewish farmers did the sensible thing: they crushed their grapes immediately after harvest and fermented the juice into wine to preserve it. 

Jesus of Nazareth, the messiah to Christians, was himself a Jew. In one of his most famous parables, Jesus related how new wineskins, made from goat hides, were like his teachings. 

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.  No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.  (Matthew 9:16-17; see also Mark 2:21-22 and Luke 5:36-38) 

Jesus drew a metaphor that every Israelite farmer understood: they knew that wineskins expand when new wine is poured in – either because the first fermentation wasn’t quite complete, or from the second (malolactic) fermentation. They didn’t understand that the expansion was from carbon dioxide (a byproduct of fermentation), but they knew that a new wineskin was flexible and could expand. An old wineskin was already stretched, so pouring in new wine caused it to burst as the juice fermented. Jesus clearly knew a thing or two about wine.  

Harvest and Pilgrimages 

The ancient Israelites grew their crops year-round, rather than in just one growing season, and they had three major harvests. Barley and wheat were planted in the fall to take advantage of the winter rains; barley was then harvested in March or April, and wheat about a month later.  The country gets virtually no rain during the summer, and that’s when the olives, fruit trees and vines ripen. These are picked in August and September. 

Every harvest culminated in a weeklong pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Much of the Jewish nation converged on the city for offerings at the Temple and to celebrate. The three harvest pilgrimage festivals were Passover (Pesach), Pentecost (Shavuot), and Tabernacles (Sukkot). 

Passover marks the weeklong Feast of Unleavened Bread. It celebrates the escape of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt. They left Egypt so quickly that they didn’t have time to let their bread dough rise, and thus rose the tradition of unleavened bread (matzah). But its origins are as a harvest festival, one that Abraham celebrated long before the captivity in Egypt. 

After the Passover celebration in Jerusalem, the farmers returned home, where they had about a month before they harvested their winter wheat in April or May. They then made another pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Pentecost, fifty days after Passover.  

The third annual pilgrimage, Sukkot, was the Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrated the fall harvest of grapes, olives and fruits. During the harvest, people slept in temporary huts in the vineyards. Once the harvest was in, the wine fermented and the olives pressed into oil, they made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem once again – this time commemorating their ancestors' journey from Egypt to Canaan, the land of plenty. Then they returned home, sowed their winter barley and wheat, and started the annual farming cycle over. (Another week-long festival was added in the 2nd century BCE: Hannukah, celebrating the successful Maccabean Revolt against the Syrians. That is considered to be a minor holiday compared to the big three.) 

Passover was the first and most important of the three harvest festivals, and it’s worth examining. This will give us significant clues into Jewish attitudes about alcohol, as well as enlighten us on the Christian Holy Week. The two events – Passover and Jesus’s crucifixion – are inextricably linked. 

Passover is about freedom from bondage. Hundreds of thousands of people – much of the nation of Israel – would make the trek to Jerusalem. There wasn’t nearly enough room within the small city to accommodate this many people, so they camped around Jerusalem, particularly on the Mount of Olives just to the east. Imagine Jerusalem during these festivals!  The streets were crowded with people, everyone joyful and in a celebratory mood. It must have been like the Fourth of July, only without the fireworks. 

View of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives. Here pilgrims could see the holiest of holies from their campground. The green Kidron Valley is below, and the Garden of Gethsemane is in the valley to the right, beyond the photo. Photo by Oren Shalev. 

Pilgrims brought the staples of their diet for their sacrificial offerings: goatskins full of wine, olive oil, matzah and a new-born lamb to sacrifice and then grill. The Paschal lamb itself was a powerful symbol: while they were held captive in Egypt, the Israelites had painted lambs’ blood on the doors of their houses on the eve of the first Passover. The Angel of Death passed over Egypt to kill all first-born except for those houses marked with lambs’ blood. 

The Romans destroyed the Second Temple when they sacked Jerusalem in 70 CE during the First Jewish War, severing the Israelites from their annual traditions. One of the few surviving sections is the Western Wall, part of the retaining wall that King Herod built around the massive complex. The Temple Mount is a holy place to Jews, Muslim and Christians alike. Israel captured East Jerusalem and the Western Wall during the Six Day War in 1967. While Passover pilgrimages no longer take place there, everyone can pray at the Western Wall, regardless of faith. 


The Western Wall (men’s side). The larger stones are from King Herod’s time; the smaller stones above are from the time of the Muslim caliphate. Photo by Garrett Peck 

The loss of the Temple was an enormous blow: it was the very center of Jewish faith. Remarkably, rabbis over the next century reassessed Judaism and found a new center for the religion around the local community and synagogue. They wrote down these new teachings in subsequent centuries known as the Talmud. These rabbinical teachings kept Judaism alive, even after the nation was forcibly scattered throughout the Roman Empire in the Diaspora following the Bar Kochba Rebellion in 132-135 CE. Rome renamed the region Syria Palaestina, better known as Palestine. 

Ever since, Passover has been a family celebration as opposed to a national pilgrimage. It is now a time for Jewish families to gather together and give thanks, much like how modern Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. It is still a weeklong celebration, culminating in the Passover dinner that recounts the escape of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.  

Passover customs as we know them today are a reflection of post-Diaspora Judaism. They evolved during the Middle Ages and include the Haggadah, a book of Passover readings penned in the thirteenth century. At Passover, every participant must drink four glasses of wine, one glass for each promise that God made to the people of Israel in Exodus 6:6-7: 

I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians [first glass]. I will free you from being                    slaves to them [second glass], and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment [third                         glass]. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God [fourth glass]. 

A fifth glass of wine is filled for the prophet Elijah, the door is left open to invite him in, and a space left him for him at the table, as he is to be the herald for the messiah. The Haggadah is read to recall the ten plagues that afflicted Egypt while the Hebrews were slaves. My friend Paul Rothstein explained, “Upon the reading of each plague each person is supposed to dip their pinky into the glass of wine and remove a drop of wine. The explanation is that you should never celebrate the imposition of pain even on your enemies; by removing the drop of wine you are lessening your joy on the holiday.” The Seder ends with the saying, “Next year in Jerusalem!” both to celebrate freedom from bondage, and to recall the ancient pilgrimages to the Temple.  

Passover wine must be kosher – that is, properly made according to Jewish dietary laws. Interestingly, no leavened foods are allowed at Passover, though alcoholic wine is. The ancient Jews had no understanding that leavened bread and wine are linked through yeasts. The difference is that leavening must be added to bread for it to rise; for wine, natural yeasts are already on the grape skins, and these start fermenting when the grape is crushed. 

Wine is also required at other Jewish ceremonies besides Passover: for example, at least two glasses are drunk at weddings, and one glass at a circumcision. Every Friday evening Sabbath (Shabbat) meal starts with a Kiddush, or prayer, over the wine. Morris Chafetz, M.D., a Jewish psychiatrist in Washington, DC who founded the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), remarked, “I had my first drink when I was a week old. When Jewish boys are circumcised, they are given a little bit of wine mixed with water. It’s part of the ceremony.” It is socially acceptable to get a little tipsy at a Passover Seder, but since this is a family celebration, things don’t get out of hand. At the raucous holiday of Purim, Jews are expected to drink to an inebriated state. “Once a year you have to get drunk,” said Israel’s Grape Man, Haim Gan. “You have to drink until you’re not yourself.” 

Jesus in Jerusalem

Much of the four Christian Gospels focus on Jesus’s last week, which he spent in Jerusalem, known to Christians as Holy Week and ending in Easter. But why did he come to the city in the first place? We know that he did – he was executed there – but why did he come there at all, when most of his ministry was centered around Galilee, itself one of the main winemaking regions in northern Israel? 

The answer was the annual Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem in early spring. 

During Passover in 30 CE, Jerusalem was mobbed with thousands of pilgrims, some of whom were Jesus’s followers. Roman governor Pontius Pilate normally ruled in Caesarea, but during the Jewish pilgrimages, he moved his headquarters to Jerusalem’s Antonia Fortress where he’d be on hand in case trouble broke out. When Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers in the Temple, he probably signed his death warrant. Pilate executed him to decapitate the movement and restore order among his rebellious subjects. 

We know from the Christian Gospels that Jesus went to Jerusalem at least twice for Passover – and it’s likely that he went many more times than that. The Gospel of John describes numerous pilgrimages to Jerusalem, though the timeline is jumbled, unlike the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Jesus was a Jew, after all, and Jews went to Jerusalem three times each year. Because Israel was a small country, one could make it to Jerusalem, sacrifice at the Temple, and make it back home on foot all within a week or so. 

What Christians refer to as the Last Supper was actually a Passover Seder – the food served specifically mentions bread and wine (though strangely, there is no mention of a lamb). Red wine looks like blood, and Jesus drew the connection. “Then [Jesus] took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to [the twelve Disciples], and they all drank from it. ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,’ he said to them. ‘I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.’” (Mark 14:23-25. The story is told similarly in Matthew 26:27-29, and Luke 22:20.) Wine took on a mystical quality representing Jesus’s blood. According to the Catholic Church, the wine literally becomes the blood of Christ during the Eucharist, an event called Transubstantiation. 

For those who still insist that Jesus’s wine at the Last Supper was somehow unfermented, consider this: the grape harvest was six months earlier. There was no possible way for grape juice to be available at Passover without fermentation getting in the way, as fresh grapes won’t last that long. (Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch didn’t invent the pasteurization process to create “unfermented wine” until 1869. That’s when Welch’s Grape Juice was born, and he did it specifically so Protestants could have grape juice at communion.) Jesus’s wine was fermented wine. 

Either before or during his crucifixion (the three Synoptic Gospels are slightly contradictory here), the Roman soldiers offered Jesus sour wine or vinegar. They did this in mockery, and he refused. The vinegar mixed with myrrh would act as a sedative to ease the pain. (Matthew 27:34, Mark 15:23, and Luke 23:36-37) According to John, Jesus did accept some, and the soldiers fed it to him on a sponge just before he died. (John 19:28-30) 

Haim Gan noted that Roman soldiers were given a ration of about a liter of wine per day. Wine exposed to air turns to vinegar (acetic acid) while retaining its alcohol. You can try this at home: open a bottle of red wine, then leave it on the counter for several days, then take a sip. Yuck! The wine the soldiers offered Jesus was from the previous harvest, six or seven months before, or possibly from an earlier year. By offering Jesus vinegar, they were offering him their own army rations – the wine they used to kill the pain when they themselves were wounded in combat. As cruel as the Roman soldiers were who mocked and tortured Jesus, there must have been at least one who took pity by offering him this basic painkiller. 

Wine was at the very heart of the Jewish tradition. It was used in everyday life in ancient Israel, and it was likewise included in every religious ceremony, whether at home or in the harvest pilgrimages to Jerusalem. From shipwrecks carrying hundreds of amphorae, to public records and the Bible, to excavated winepresses, we know that wine was an important staple of life for people in ancient Israel and throughout the Mediterranean.  


Winemaking then and now. The ancient press at Kibbutz Tzuba (left), and a modern destemmer at Galil Mountain Winery. Photos by Oren Shalev. 


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