The Jewish History of Wine

Jews may have one of the oldest recorded relationships with wine. Wine features very prominently throughout the Bible, going as far back as Noah, the first recorded vine grower. When the Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, Noah planted his vineyard there. When the spies returned to Moses after scouting out the Promised Land, they carried back with them a large bunch of grapes on a pole between two people. Until today, this image is the logo of the Israel Tourist Board and of Carmel Winery. King David had two wine officials, one to manage his vineyard, and the other to manage his cellars. 

The Talmud describes 60 types of wines. Some were diluted with water, while others would have flavors added to improve the taste and act as a preservative. Salt, seawater, herbs and spices such as cinnamon were added to wines, while raisins or date honey were used as sweeteners. These flavored wines were forerunners of the punches or vermouths of today. Smoked wine was cooked wine. This was not the forerunner of Mevushal wine, but was done to concentrate the wine into a syrup, rather than for kashrut reasons. Even in those days they knew about drying grapes on mats in order to concentrate the sweetness. This is similar to Vino Santo produced today in Italy.

Archaeological evidence shows that wine was produced throughout ancient Israel, and until the period of the Roman occupation, there was a thriving wine industry in the Holy Land. The reminder of this period of Israeli winemaking can be found in the many winepresses that exist throughout Israel. Israeli wines were so highly prized back then, that they were shipped to Roman outposts throughout Europe and North Africa, as well as to nobles in Rome itself. Then, when Jews were scattered throughout the world after the onset of the Diaspora two thousand years ago, winemaking became extremely difficult to pursue. Many of the countries in which Jews settled did not have favorable soil or climate conditions for growing grapes. And in other cases, even where conditions were optimal, Jews were forbidden to own land and therefore could not raise or cultivate grapes.

It has been one of history’s cruel ironies that blood libels – accusations against Jews using the blood of murdered non-Jewish children for the making of wine and matzot – became the false pretext for numerous pogroms. And due to this danger, those who lived in places where blood libels occurred were halachically exempt from using kosher red wine, which could be used as evidence against them.

Since wine was required for sacramental purposes, winemakers used whatever tools were available to them to make kosher wine, in some cases, using only dried raisins. It became virtually impossible to produce high quality kosher wine without access to a supply of fine grapes. By the time Jews had begun to settle in America, the Concord grape had become popular among Jewish immigrants because of its sweetness, but the wine produced from this grape was far from a fine wine. Over time, sweet wines became associated with kosher wine, and the better wines produced long ago were forgotten. Even in Europe, the situation was almost the same as America, with better wines no longer being produced for the kosher consumer. Even today, in nearly every country with a Jewish population, many continue to drink wine only for sacramental purposes. The perceived tradition was that wines used for sacramental purposes needed to be red, syrupy, and sweet.

Beginning in the 1980s, the increased popularity of better wine created the trend which laid the groundwork for many state-of-the-art wineries to once again get involved in the production of fine kosher wines, from a large assortment of noble grape varieties. Premium kosher wines are now grown and produced throughout the world, including France, Italy, Spain, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America, and the United States.