Facts That Figure: Wine

Facts That Figure: Wine

By: C.G. Hoffman

נכנס יין יצא סוד When wine enters, out go the secrets! Here are some unearthed secrets about Chodesh Adar’s most important drink: wine!

The earliest traces of wine, besides for Noach’s attempt at winemaking that ended in disaster, have been found in modern day Georgia and Persia. In 2020 a 2,600 year old Phoenician wine press was found in Lebanon. The ancient Egyptians pressed the juice out of grapes by stamping on them, a process used in much of the world even today. Before you  say “ugh!” know that human feet are an excellent wine making tool; they squish the grapes without crushing the seeds, which would make the wine bitter!

Although wine plays an important role in Jewish life, drinking to excess was always abhorred. Drunks played a starring role in the Purim story, as Achashverosh made some of his most pivotal decisions when drunk! (Not that anyone is mourning Vashti’s fate!)

Wine was so important in Eretz Yisroel in the times of the second Bais Hamikdash, that the average Jewish family consumed 350 liters of wine per year. That’s more than 260 bottles of wine! By comparison, in France, considered to be the biggest wine consuming country today, the average family only consumes about 60 liters! A massive winemaking complex was unearthed by archaeologists near Yavneh, dating back some 1,500 years. The facility was estimated to be capable of producing over 520,000 gallons of wine per year.

In medieval times, water wasn’t always safe to drink. So what did everyone drink? Well, if you could afford it: wine! Even children drank wine, slightly watered down. Peasants made do with ale or beer. Many of the early Rishonim, such as Rashi, were vintners, some of them becoming quite wealthy. As a matter of fact, Jewish produced wine was coveted as it was considered superior. Naturally, the Church tried to forbid non-Jews from buying wine from Jews. It didn’t do much good; the non-Jews bought it anyway.

The stories of Moshke selling bronfen out of a rented kretshma from the poritz aren’t just nice stories. Polish Jews weren’t allowed to farm or become big landowners. Polish landowners, who owned huge swathes of farmland in Poland, realized that they could earn much more money turning grain into alcohol rather than selling it for food, and that’s where the Jews took over. Jews were considered to be good at business. Moreover, a Jew usually wasn’t a shikker, so they didn’t have to fear that he would drink up all the profits. By the middle of the 1800’s, about 85% of all Polish taverns were under Jewish management.

If you are a wine connoisseur of any sort, you’ve surely heard of the term terroir. This is a term that describes everything about the regional environment that grapes grow in, from its soil, to its climate, to its elevation. The terroir of France was considered the best in the world for winemaking, and for centuries they proudly kept that distinction. Wines from anywhere else were considered, just, meh. This was all until the Judgment of Paris, a 1976 blind test-tasting event in Paris. To the shock and everlasting trauma of the French, the awards for the best Chardonnays and Bordeaux went to California wines, unseating the previously unbeatable French incumbents. Interestingly, various regions of Eretz Yisroel have been praised for the quality of their grapes, where the variety of climates and elevations contribute to a unique terroir that can compare to France’s finest wine growing regions.

January 16, 1920 heralded the dawn of the most unpopular law in US history: Prohibition. In an attempt to control the vice of drunkenness, alcohol was forbidden. What were Jews to do? A special religious dispensation was made for wine that was used for “sacramental purposes.” Jews were allowed 10 gallons of wine per year, ample enough for a healthy side business through the back door, leading to the arrest of one San Francisco rabbi.

Recent research has indicated that a glass of red wine a day can be good for you. The antioxidants found in wine can lower blood pressure, and help reduce plaque buildup in the arteries, making it good for the heart. The French certainly agree! No meal in France is complete without a bottle of wine, even lunchtime. Lunchtime in France can take on sacred proportions, with the average (mandatory) lunchbreak lasting two hours, compared to the average 30 minutes to an hour in the U.S. From 12 to 2 pm shops and businesses in France shut down, and most Frenchmen down a three course meal, followed by a glass or two of wine.

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