When Jesus performed his first miracle, he didn't multiply the loaves and fishes to feed 5000 hungry people. He didn't heal the sick or raise a man from the dead.
Jesus was at a wedding feast in Cana where the hosts ran out of wine. The guests must have been buzzed, as they'd consumed all the wine in the house already. Jesus could have just gone home and let the party break up. Instead, he transformed water into wine, and not just any old plonk, but excellent wine. "It was of such high quality that the sommelier responsible for wine at that that party commented to the groom about its quality -- completely astonished by it," writes Gisela H. Kreglinger, in her new book "The Spirituality of Wine."
Kreglinger returns repeatedly to the story of the feast of Cana in her thoughtful book, which I, an unbeliever, guzzled like a man thirsting for meaning. Kreglinger, a native of Germany's Franconia wine region, was raised in a family of vintners, holds a PhD in historical theology and taught Christian spirituality for four years. Her book weaves together many issues of the modern wine world, debates you will recognize, with the wisdom of the past.
I began reading it to learn more about wine in the Bible, but I ended up feeling inspired, thirsty for a glass of wine that represents a vintner's commitment to the land. (I slaked that with one of Grant Burge's single-vineyard Shirazes from Barossa Valley, proving that God does work in mysterious ways.)
What the miracle of Cana teaches us is the Bible's most important lesson about wine, yet one that too many American Christian sects have forgotten: wine is supposed to make us joyful. It is God's gift for our happiness. Kreglinger writes, "Wine is a gift from God and enhances our festive play before God. The accusation that Christians have no joy is a terrible one because joy should lie at the heart of the Christian life."
In fact, Jesus liked wine so much that his fellow Jews accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard. Kreglinger writes of the many warnings in the Bible against drinking to excess which have been seized on out of context to justify abstinence and even Prohibition. But these miss the overriding point. Wine was a part of daily life in the time of Christ, an important source of nutrition and medicine as well as joy, and Jesus wanted his followers to drink wine, to feast and be merry.
Kreglinger interviews some thoughtful lapsed Christian winemakers: Siduri's Adam Lee, Jason Lett of the Eyrie Vineyard in Oregon, Mike Officer of Sonoma County's Carlisle Wine Cellars. She writes, "When I first approached Jason Lett about the spirituality of wine, he was hesitant because he did not think he had anything to contribute to this subject matter. Little did he know.
"Jason Lett has stopped taking notes when he tastes wine. It is hard to put into words what one experiences when one drinks a well-crafted wine. But there is one thing that Jason knows when he tastes a good bottle of Pinot Noir: the energy of a conversation will improve with a good bottle of wine, and it will enhance the conversation. Jason believes a wine picks up and reflects the attitude of the people who craft it, and the wine can transmit that attitude to those who drink it. It is a form of communication, and it works much like music. Music evokes an emotional response without depicting anything directly emotional. Wine does it in the same way."
Many have written on the topics of natural yeast and biodynamic viticulture and of making wines that express what nature gives us, rather than standardized beverages made in a factory. With her historical knowledge, Kreglinger recognizes the importance of technology in making good wine. Even a curved harvest knife was once a technological advance. In an era of zealot wine writers, this theologian has a nuanced view. She's pro-technology, but also pro-terroir, and only objects when the former tramples on the latter.
Technology, she writes, "is profoundly linked to human creativity ... Very few drinks in the world have the capacity to mirror the beauty hidden in creation as does one small glass of wine. This capacity is why Robert Louis Stevenson called wine 'bottled poetry.' Wine, when crafted well, is like a poem that praises the bounties of God's goodness hidden in Earth, wind, rain, sun, and the vine. The vintner has a profoundly sacred vocation: to reveal to us the splendor and bounty that God placed into his creation for us to discover and enjoy. In light of this belief, vintners should use technology with discernment, self-restraint and creativity to discover the bounties in the places they call home."
I could write more about this book: how Jesus called himself a grapevine, how the importance of wine as medicine survived even in early Islamic culture, and how the film "Babette's Feast" shows the transformation of a devout yet miserable community through the festive consumption of delicious wine. But I suggest you discover it for yourself.