Explainer
Creed
9 min read

What wine teaches us about the big things in life

Wine connects us to the soil and each other, writes Mark Scarlata, as he unpacks what oenology – the study of wine, can teach us about ontology – the study of being.

Mark is a lecturer and priest. He’s the author of several books and his latest, Wine, Soil and Salvation, explores the use of wine throughout the Old and New Testament. 

Evening sun sets glowing light across vines in a vinyard.
Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

I remember one of the first wine tastings that I went to. I happened to be placed at a table of people who really knew what they were talking about when it came to wine. I watched as they expertly swirled their glasses yet when I swirled mine the wine almost flew out all over the table. Then we all sniffed and were asked to say what smells came to mind. Dark red currants, blackberry, plum, leather, tobacco and all sorts of other things were mentioned. I kept my mouth shut because the only thing I could think of was, ‘This smells like wine to me.’ But that didn’t sound very sophisticated. 

Years later, I’ve come to appreciate wine in a completely different way. Not because my palate has been refined or because I’ve taken wine courses on how to pick out scents such as truffles or crushed gravel, but because I study the Bible. Surprisingly enough, the Bible has a lot to say about wine and how it relates to our lives together, our relationship to the earth and our relationship to God. 

In the ancient world, from the very earliest civilizations, wine was an important part of everyday life and religion. Whether in Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece or Rome, wine was a critical fixture in worship and making offerings to the gods. Stories of wine gods such as Dionysus or Bacchus reveal a drink that was created to please both the gods and humanity. Tales are told of wild bacchanals or orgiastic feasts that likely ended with bad hangovers and much worse. In many of these ancient cultures wine was seen as a gift from the gods so that human beings could enjoy themselves and it was offered back to the gods in all types of religious rituals that often involved drunken exploits. In the Bible, however, we find a very different story. It’s a story that goes back to the very beginnings of creation in the garden of Eden. 

Here, in the garden, the moral world is bound up with a material world. 

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, begins with a God who creates the heavens and the earth. This is not some distant, aloof god who is separated from his creation. God is depicted as a gardener who is not afraid to get his hands dirty in the soil. God forms the first human from the dust of the earth and then breathes into him the breath of life. We usually call this person ‘Adam’, as if it’s a personal name, but it’s not. ‘Adam’ is a wordplay on the Hebrew word for soil adamah. You can see and hear the similarity between the two. The reason for the wordplay is to emphasize humanity’s connection to the soil. We, as human beings, are inextricably bound to the life of the land. Our nourishment, our sustenance and our very existence is reliant on the earth beneath our feet. 

Beyond our physical connection to the land, the story of Genesis (and the rest of the Bible) also assumes our spiritual connection to the land. When the first garden dwellers disobey God’s command and eat the forbidden fruit, the land becomes cursed. We witness a breakdown in what was originally meant to be a harmonious relationship between Adam and adamah. Adam will now experience toil when he works the land and it will produce thorns and thistles. Here, in the garden, the moral world is bound up with a material world. Human disobedience to God’s command results in a broken relationship with God, with one another and with the land. So what does this have to do with wine? We’ll discover, as the story continues, that wine is a gift that comes from the renewed earth through the character of Noah to provide relief for humanity. 

Most people are familiar with the story of Noah’s Ark, whether from children’s books about the ark or memories of stuffed animals packed in a boat with Noah and his wife, Mrs. Noah (we’re never told her name which seems slightly unfair considering all the work she presumably had to do taking care of the animals). What we don’t often recall, however, is the prediction made by his father, Lamech, when Noah was born. Lamech says, ‘Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands’. If the curse upon the earth and toil came through Adam, then relief from that toil would come through Noah. The key phrase here is ‘out of the ground’ because something will spring up from the soil in the renewed creation after the flood that will bring relief which is the advent of the vine. 

Back to the story of the Ark. After the flood retreats, Noah leaves the ship and worships God. In very short order we’re told: 

‘Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent’.  

Now if you’ve ever planted grapevines (Vitis vinifera), you’ll know that it takes at least three years to get your first harvest of grapes. The biblical story, however, jumps quickly ahead to Noah finally having produced his first vintage.  

He waited for the grapes to ferment after being crushed. He stored them in a cool place and when the time was right, he was able to drink his first cup of wine. It seems, however, that he probably had more than one cup since he was soon lying passed out in his tent. There’s no specific judgement of Noah here. After all that he had been through we might imagine a cup of wine was just what he needed. Drunkenness, however, is later explicitly condemned by the biblical authors. One rabbinic commentator, however, in defence of Noah, argued that because he hadn’t drunk wine previously, he only had a sip which made him pass out. 

Despite Noah’s first encounters with wine, a more significant story is being told. The flood acts as a type of cleansing and renewal of creation in Genesis as part of God’s judgment so that humanity could once again live in relationship with God and the land. After the flood, the earth is in need of renewal and only Noah can achieve this. We are told that Noah found favour in the eyes of God, that he was righteous and blameless and that he walked with God. Unlike almost any other character in the Bible, Noah is distinctly set apart because of his moral purity. And it’s through his purity that humanity’s relationship to the land is restored and the gift of the vine springs forth to bring relief from our toil. 

Drinking wine has often been likened to a spiritual experience. To taste a well-crafted wine is to drink in the sun, the rain, the wind, the soil and all the blessings of the earth. 

When we look at other ancient myths concerning wine, we discover something far different in the biblical vision. The Bible offers a picture of a world where the material and the spiritual are bound together within the intricate web of creation. The earthly and the heavenly are united. Though we are made from the soil and tethered to the land, we are also spiritual creatures who share in the breath of God. We have the capacity to experience God’s spiritual blessings, but we also experience his gifts through our senses, through our physical engagements in the world and through the gift of wine. 

This is why drinking wine has often been likened to a spiritual experience. To taste a well-crafted wine is to drink in the sun, the rain, the wind, the soil and all the blessings of the earth. When we are attentive to the wine we’re able to savour its complex flavours and aromas. We come to appreciate its multifaceted character and the reflections it offers on the land where it was grown and harvested. Wine, unlike any other food or drink, brings out the qualities and identity of a particular place.  

There is a French word, terroir, that is often used to describe this connection to place that gives a wine its character and flavour. Wine experts understand that even the slightest change in weather, soil content, drainage or the lay of the land can have dramatic effects on the final product. I don’t doubt that the biblical authors understood the same. Yet they also understood that the gift of wine, the blessing of relief that came through Noah, was also connected to our moral lives, to how we love God and neighbour and to how we care for his creation. 

Wine is a gift that eases our toil and makes our hearts glad. Wine reminds us of our deep connections to the soil and how we play our part within the community of creation. 

The story of wine in the Bible is one that reminds us that we do not live in this world as autonomous creatures completely disconnected from the land around us. In the beginning, human beings were instructed by God to care and keep the land as an act of service and partnership with the hope of encouraging fertility, abundance and life. American conservationist, Aldo Leopold, sums this up when he writes about a having a ‘land ethic’ that should govern how we live in the world. He argues that our ethical behaviour should take into account things like soils, water, plants and animals. He goes on to say that this, ‘changes the role of Homo sapiens from conquerer of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.’ 

We live in an age where humanity is driven by the pursuit of power and control over the environment rather than creatively working with, and caring for, the natural world. Advances in technology and the idea of limitless freedom have led to what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls an ‘economy of extraction’. This is a system that strips the land without concern as if our resources are unlimited and are ours to do with as we please. Such practices not only destroy the ecology and biodiversity of the land, but they can also deprive local economies and create greater gaps between rich and poor. Pope Francis addresses this in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato si’, where he calls for an integrated ecology that takes into consideration our use of natural resources to improve the common good and to alleviate the suffering of those who have been hurt the most by this economy of extraction. 

The beginnings of wine in the Bible tell a story that involves the whole of creation. It’s a story that emphasises our relationship to the land, to God and to one another. How we care for and keep the soil is a reflection of how we care for one another. Other stories in in the Bible imagine a world full of justice and mercy where there is peace and concern for the common good. In such a world the biblical authors also see the earth respond with its own fertility—fields that produce bumper crops, trees that bear abundant fruit and a hills bursting with grapes and wine. Fertility, life and wine are all interconnected in the biblical world, but they have sadly been disconnected in the modern world.  

Wine is not just a drink in the Bible. It’s a sign and symbol of salvation, of life, joy, abundance and fertility. Wine is a gift that eases our toil and makes our hearts glad. Wine reminds us of our deep connections to the soil and how we play our part within the community of creation. Wine awakens our senses and leads us to praise the God who is the giver of all good gifts. So, as we lift our glasses to celebrate in our homes, at meals, at weddings, or wherever we are, we might offer a prayer of thanks. Thanksgiving for the gift God gives that eases the toil and gladdens the heart. We might even recite the Jewish prayer which is prayed on the eve of the Sabbath and on other occasions. 

‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, creator of the universe who creates the fruit of the vine.’ 

  

Podcast
Creed
Podcasts
1 min read

Johannes Hartl: the sign of the times

The philosopher and theologian on meaning, connectedness, beauty and faith. A GodPod bonus episode.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two people sit on a stage in a relaxed manner, having a converation.
Johannes Hartl and Graham Tomlin.
Mark Tatton.

This episode is a little bit special.

Recorded live as a part of HTB’s 2024 Leadership Conference, GodPod’s Graham Tomlin interviews Dr Johannes Hartl. Johannes is a philosopher, theologian, spiritual leader, musician and author, dealing in topics of meaning, connectedness, beauty and faith. He is also the founder of the House of Prayer in Augsburg and, more recently, Eden Culture.

Graham and Joahnnes, joined by a live audience, speak of the self, language, how the transcendent is understood in our cultural moment and the power and beauty of prayer. This conversation is diverse and rich, and absolutely not to be missed. 

For more from Johannes visit his web site.

Find Johannes’ main stage talk at the Leadership Conference main stage (along with other curated highlights for the event).

For more about St Mellitus visit its web site.