'You can’t be a Jew without drinking wine regularly'

Two thousand years ago, wine was likely as complex and flavorful as today

Roman wines ‘may even have rivaled the fine wines of today,’ archaeologist says; Israeli wine expert opines that Jewish wine during the Roman period was likely ‘very great’

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Illustrative photo of grapes ready for harvest in the Golan. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of grapes ready for harvest in the Golan. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

The four cups of wine imbibed during a traditional Passover Seder is a well-known part of the ancient Jewish holiday ritual, and many households make a point of selecting special wines to complement the meal.

Jews celebrating the holiday during the Roman period likely also had a nice selection of delicious wines, according to a study released earlier this year, which asserts that the wine produced around the Mediterranean during the Roman era may have been just as complex and flavorful as wine produced today, in contrast to what is commonly assumed.

The study, “Making wine in earthenware vessels: a comparative approach to Roman vinification,” published in January in Antiquity, a Cambridge University Press peer-reviewed journal, examined Roman-era wine-making techniques and compared them to traditional winemaking in Georgia, where winemaking is thought to have originated and is still practiced in the ancient manner by some.

In the Roman world, grapes were crushed, and then aged in large, specially constructed clay vessels called dolia. These vessels, which were usually half-buried to regulate temperature, have been found in great quantities throughout the Roman world, including in Israel.

The porous nature of these ceramic dolia, and their shape, were ideal for fermenting wine, which was an important part of both Roman and Jewish society. It would be centuries before the widespread usage of wooden barrels to age wine, which imparts flavors from the wood considered essential today.

“The wine Romans drank is often seen as an inconsistent, poorly made and thoroughly unpleasant beverage. It is alleged that Roman winemakers had to mask their products’ flaws by adding spices, herbs and other ingredients to the freshly pressed grape juice,” wrote Dr. Dimitri Van Limbergen, an archaeologist at Ghent University in Belgium and the main author of the study, in an April article explaining the research.

Dolia storage area found in situ which had been buried during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, at the Villa Regina in Boscoreale, Italy, on September 22, 2022. (Carla Brain/CC-BY-SA-4.0/Wikipedia)

Van Limbergen noted that their study of “earthenware vessels used in wine fermentation – both ancient and contemporary – has challenged traditional views on the taste and quality of Roman wine, some of which may even have rivaled the fine wines of today.”

Besides a detailed archaeological and technical analysis of ancient winemaking, Van Limbergen’s research noted that ancient wines, instead of falling along the red-white continuum we have today, would have had a variety of colors and tastes, depending on the location and techniques used.

The authors mention, among other ancient sites, a winery discovered at the Herodium, King Herod’s winter palace south of Jerusalem. They noted that Herod’s winery, “a large storage room filled with buried dolia (likely imported from Italy),” contained the only confirmed “direct bioarchaeological evidence” from the Roman period of a winemaking process called maceration. This process, in which bits of grape matter and skins are left in the wine during the aging process, leads to a darker color and affects the flavor.

Herodion National Park in the West Bank, on January 9, 2023. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

An Israeli view

Wine from two thousand years ago was certainly interesting and delicious, explains wine expert Amichai Lourie by phone to The Times of Israel. Lourie, the winemaker and CEO of the Shiloh Winery, has devoted his career to making wine in Israel and understanding the Jewish ritual connection to the beverage.

“Why are we surprised that a recipe of any kind from thousands of years ago is really good? You think people back then didn’t like to eat and drink?” Lourie said rhetorically when asked about the Roman wine study.

“They took really good grapes, they were very smart, they wanted to eat high-quality food, so I am sure they tested all the time… I am sure their wine was very great.”

“It doesn’t matter how far back you go, there is no doubt that people grew grapes and made wine in very large quantities all over Israel,” Lourie noted, adding that besides the extensive archaeological evidence, there is “overwhelming and important” evidence from Jewish textual sources, especially in the Talmud, which shows that “wine was a major part of Jewish life.”

Winemaker Amichai Lourie of the Shiloh Winery. (Eyal Keren/Courtesy)

“You can’t be a Jew without drinking wine regularly,” he said simply, and stressed that wine was and still is used ritually at various points throughout Shabbat and during every holiday and celebration, including of course Passover.

The recent study of Roman clay vessel techniques is in line with various text sources as well, he went on, and paraphrased a well-known Talmudic story (Ta’anit 7a) which describes an interaction around wine between R. Yehoshua ben Hananya, who was considered very unattractive, and the Roman emperor and his daughter.

“This guy used to speak and learn together with the emperor. There was a lot of interaction then between Jewish and Roman scholars. So she [the daughter] said to him, ‘How can it be that such a smart person like you is in such an ugly vessel?’ He answered, ‘Well, tell me something, why is all your father’s amazing wine in ugly clay vessels? Why don’t you transfer all your wine into gold vessels? You are rich, and gold is beautiful,’” Lourie said.

“She put all the wine into gold vessels, but when you put wine into gold, it spoils,” Lourie explained.

The story ends with the rabbi explaining to the emperor that he did this to demonstrate that fine material can be found inside something ugly.

Besides the spiritual lesson, this example shows that “the proper place for wine is in clay… they knew that wine should be in a vessel that breathes. They understood the science behind storing wine thousands of years ago,” Lourie added.

The main difference between Roman and Jewish wine would have been in connection to Jewish law, which contains a host of prohibitions specific to wine to ensure that it remains pure for Jewish ritual use and not tainted by Roman idolatry, he added.

“Wine and grapes connect people, but halacha [Jewish law] separates. Not just ritual wine, but even regular wine, they couldn’t drink together,” an effort, not always successful, to keep Jews and non-Jews from interacting and carousing, Lourie said. He noted that as time went on, more and more restrictions around kosher wine, such as “double capping,” were introduced.

So despite the story of R. Yehoshua and the Emperor’s daughter, it’s unlikely that the rabbi, who presumably was a staunch observer of Jewish law, drank a cup with his noble non-Jewish students at the end of the lesson.

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