Winemaking in First-Century Israel

You don't have to read for long to discover wine is a big thing in the Bible. After the flood, Noah is described as planting a vineyard. Jesus' first miracle was turning water into wine. Vineyards feature in parables, stories, history, prophecy, and poetry throughout the whole Bible. From ancient days until now, wine has been a part of the human experience.


Historians believe winemaking was invented in the country of Georgia (though it wasn't called Georgia at the time!) From there, it moved south through ancient Canaan and down to Egypt. Later, winemaking was taken up by the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans, who spread wine across Europe. Wine was one of the major trade products of the ancient world. Biblical rulers like Solomon traded wine for other goods they needed. (2 Chronicles 2:10)


How was wine made? How was wine stored? Do we know what wine tasted like in the time of Jesus? Read on to learn more!

How was wine made in ancient Israel?

Egyptian art from 1401-1391 BC depicts men trampling grapes beneath their feet in a vat to extract the juice. Human feet are excellent for squishing grapes without crushing the seeds, which would add a bitter taste to the grape juice. The juice was then held in containers or pits and left to ferment.

Archaeological evidence for wine-making and storage has been found, like this 2,600 year old winepress in Lebanon. The differences in the various discoveries show that the basic process of winemaking could be implemented in various ways and on different scales. There is no one single way that all wine was made, but there are similarities across the board.


The basic set-up would start with a vat near a vineyard. This vat would have been cut from limestone, made from wood, or created from hardened clay. Over the vat was a wooden structure to give shade, and which also provided a place for those treading the grapes to hold handles to keep from slipping.

The grapes were picked from the nearby vines in late summer, but sometimes vintners chose to dry the grapes in the sun before pressing them to enhance the sweetness of the wine. Red wine was the most popular, made from dark grapes, but there were also lighter-colored wines made from white grapes, though white wines were certainly not as clear and pale as the wines we have today. The grapes were brought in from the vineyard in baskets and laid in the vat for pressing.

One scripture talks about those who shout in the vineyard and while treading wine, which likely refers to the workers joyfully encouraging each other to keep at the hard work. (Isaiah 16:10) As the juice was extracted beneath their feet, it would flow out from a low point of the vat through a simple filter. This filter might have been as rudimentary as a twisted bunch of thorns to catch seeds, stems, and other debris.

After passing through the filter, the juice would flow into a large jar or a pit that was dug into the ground to keep temperatures consistent. For large productions, there might be several pits where the wine could be diverted by channels cut in the rock.

Once the juice was in the cistern or basin, the wine would be covered and left to ferment. The yeast that occurs naturally on grape skins was all that was necessary to provide the chemical reaction. The wine would bubble as it fermented, and the fermenting process took three to five days to complete.

The vintner might then choose to add spices or sweeten the fermented wine or apply any of their secret recipes. The wine was then either diverteted to an even lower pit where it was poured into jars, or drawn out with a long handled ladel. The wine was perhaps filtered one more time through a linen cloth as it was poured into its storage containers.

How was wine stored in the first century?

Wine needs to be stored in the most air-tight way possible to preserve the quality and the flavor. The storage containers of ancient wine were varied in both design and size in the first-century world.


Amphorae


Canaanite jars, known better by their Greek name amphorae, were a popular choice. Invented in Egypt, amphorae were usually made of inexpensive clay pottery, sometimes coated with wax from pine or bees. They came in various sizes, some of which are similar to wine bottles we use today.


Amphorae had long, narrow necks to reduce the amount of exposure of oxygen to the wine. They had handles, often two on the neck, to help hold the amphora or to hang it by a rope. The amphorae were round and had pointed bases which allowed them to travel safer in ships, propped close together with their pointed bottoms dug into a base of sand. The pointed bottoms also allowed sediment to settle at the smallest point rather than mixing with the wine.


These jars were sealed with clay or wax stoppers and often with resin either in the seal, or mixed with the wine itself, forming an oily coating on the surface to slow oxidization.


Filled amphorae were then painted with the vintner's mark, and sometimes a description of the wine. They were stored in a cellar or displayed for sale either by laying them on their side, hanging them by their handles, or propped on a stand.

Amphorae were so cheap to make that they were usually thrown away after each use. As evidence, there is a huge man-made hill called Monte Testaccio made of about 53 million broken olive oil amphorae collected over a period of 150-300 years!


Pithos

Pithos is the general name for huge, ancient jars found in the Mediterranean region. They are about the height of a man with curved sides, a sturdy base, and a lid that could be sealed. These held great quantities of wine, which would then have to be doled out into smaller jars or served at large celebrations.


Wineskins


Mentioned in Homer's Odyssey and in one of Jesus' famous parables, wineskins were a way to take your wine on the go. These were made from leather sewn together into a bag, often a goatskin, and the seams were sealed with resin. Wineskins came in various sizes, would be tied shut at the neck, and usually they would have a strap to hang the bag for storage or on the shoulder for travel. When empty, the leather would dry and harden. It would need to be softened by soaking and then treating it with oil to prepare it to hold wine again.


Barrels

Barrels were growing in popularity in Rome during the first century, and would fully take over by the third century. But barrels were not as feasible in ancient Israel. Barrels are best made of flexible wood like oak or fir, which was plentiful in Europe, but not in the land where Jesus walked. Barrels were first used for convenience due to their lightness and durability and were favored by the army. The discovery that wine often tasted better after being stored in oak barrels for shipping introduced another step in the wine-making process.


Cellars and Storerooms


It was important that wine stay cool to preserve it, warm temperatures make wine age faster. The wine was kept in cellars, buried in the ground, or kept in cool stone buildings. From there it was transferred to a storeroom, pantry, or shop. King David employed one man to have charge of his vineyards, and another to be in charge of his wine cellars. (1 Chronicles 27:27) For some, badly stored wine could mean waiting until the next year to enjoy a cup of wine at supper.

What did wine taste like in Jesus' day?

Wine was rarely kept for years in the first century, though it was believed that properly aged wine was better. The ancient people that lived in what is now the country of Georgia were able to store wine for fifty years in jars that were buried in the ground and sealed with stone! (1) But this was not the norm. Only the very rich or the skilled could buy or create a wine that lasted for three years or more. Usually, wine was consumed the year it was made. Aged wine was often merely two years old, and really old wine was only three years old. (2)

Wine was not filtered as it is today, so there would be sediment in your cup, as well as the flavor of the tree resin that sealed your wine from oxygen. Some wine experts today say that the resin used to stop oxidization added a turpentine or cough syrup taste to the wine. That sounds disgusting, but there are suggestions that when wine began to be matured in barrels instead of sealed with resin, some people complained about missing the flavour. So the resin was added back in! You can still drink resinated wine today, the Greek retsina wine which has been made for over 2000 years.


Wine didn't always taste great on its own. If you could afford it, your wine could be sweetened with honey (from bees or a date syrup "honey") and flavored with herbs, or spices like cinnamon, or mixed with seawater. It could be cooked or boiled down to syrup. If fermented with barley, you could make wine vinegar. Wine was also made from other fruit, like pomegranates (Song of Solomon 8:2) and apples.


The importance of watered wine in the first century

Most people drank their wine watered, with more water than wine. Ancient writers like Plato spoke derisively of barbarians drinking their wine undiluted. Some say a 50/50 ratio of water to wine was considered strong, and more watered down ratios of 20/1 or 8/1 or 3/1 were suggested by various ancient writers.

Water was rarely clean and tasty, so the bacteria fighting properties of alchohol helped make water safer to drink. (However, I don't recommend you try this purification method on your next camping trip!)


On top of this, adding water meant you could drink more wine without becoming drunk. In most first-century societies, including Jewish ones, drunkenness was frowned upon. The Bible warns against the pitfalls of being a drunk.


The wine and water mixture was usually decided by the host, and then mixed in a large jar, like the Greek krater, before being doled out to the guests. The better conversation you hoped for, the more you would dilute your wine. Proverbs 9:2 might be referencing this practice.

The cup you drank from was determined by your host's wealth. The common man had simple pottery cups or bowls. The rich had cups of gold, silver, and glass.


Other uses for wine in the first century

Besides drinking wine, you could use wine to disinfect wounds (Luke 10:34) and dye clothes. Wine, like bread, salt, and oil, was considered one of the basic foods necessary for a good life, and part of the commanded offerings to the Lord at the temple in Jerusalem. (Numbers 28:14)

If you enjoyed this post, you'll want to read these next!


How in the World Do I Understand Biblical Sacrifices?

How to be a Housewife in First-Century Israel

Wages, Food Prices, and Shopping for the Family in First-Century Israel


1. National Geographic 2. Jewish Encylopedia

3. New Scientist

About the Author

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I'm Katrina, and I'm a wife, mom, and a Christian Historical Fiction Author. 

I love words. I love digging into hard questions. I'm passionate about writing stories of faith.

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