Jesus turned water into wine. In this Sunday’s Gospel, we hear John describe the first miracle of Jesus (Jn 2:1-11).
Have you ever wondered what that wine tasted like?
We know there was a lot of it. John tells us Jesus told the waiters to fill six stone jars, each able to hold “20 to 30 gallons.” That means Jesus made about 150 gallons of wine that day.
There were various types of wine in Jesus’ time — not Zinfandels or Merlots. However, we do know there were different types of wine because at least three Hebrew words commonly used in the Scriptures and Jewish writings for wine:
- Yayin, which generally meant “to boil up” or “ferment,” referred to alcoholic liquid in ancient Palestine. (Beer is not referred to in Bible.) There were, according to rabbinic literature, two types of yayin — one that was drunk as is and one that was cut with water.
- Tirosh referred to “sweet wine” or the season’s new wine. (This was wine that came right after the grape harvest of late summer or early fall.) Yayin, by contrast, had to be aged for at least several months.
- Shemarim was the dregs (the oldest wine), which were sometimes added to other wine to give it flavor.
- There was a form of wine that was not really alcoholic and was made from “must” (the fresh juice from crushed grapes). This has a high sugar content and, while it was not meant to ferment, must can ferment on its own because of its sugar content. This is why must was often stored underground to be kept cool.
If you travel to Israel today and visit Cana, you may be able to purchase “Cana wine.” It is thick, sweet and deep red. The sweetness may be a lot for some palates and you might understand why some Jews of Jesus’ day had adopted the Greek habit of cutting wine with water. More than having a heavy sweetness, though, a lot of wine in Jesus’ day was not very good. Adding water made it more palatable. This was especially true as the year went on and older wine would spoil or turn vinegary.
Wine was a major export in ancient Palestine. Winemaking may have been invented in the Middle East — though some sources say China or even Armenia — and the region around Galilee was a major grape producer.
Archaeologist Patrick McGovern (University of Pennsylvania Museum) said wine of that time could have had such a bad taste that a variety of things were added to it: tree resin, peppers and capers among them. (This was true in Egypt and the Mediterranean regions also.) Other additives included saltwater, herbs, spices such as cinnamon and even myrrh. Raisins and dates were used as sweeteners. And leftover grape skins and juice were allowed to turn to sweet syrup that could be added to wine.
However, we know Jesus’ wine at Cana was not inferior, vinegary or mixed with additives. We have the word of the dispassionate headwaiter who called it the best wine of the feast.
While the wine of ancient Palestine was not as varied as ours today, there were at least two colors: red and white. The red was preferable, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia which noted that “the red wine was better and stronger” (citing Psalm 75). It also noted that Lebanon produced a white wine.
Wine in Jesus’ time was made much the way we might visualize: with grapes harvested in the fields and brought to nearby wine presses to be stomped or “treaded.” Men did that job, in open stone vats. The juice would flow into a lower vat — often passing through filters made of twigs or branches.
The grapes were pressed several times, since the wine produced at the harvest had to last the whole year. Wine was collected in clay jars and kept underground to prevent evaporation and to slow the fermentation process. Unlike must, newly pressed wine ferments quickly. However, when any wine reaches 14 to 18 percent alcohol, fermentation naturally stops. If one wasn’t careful, by the end of the year, all the wine could have stopped fermenting and started to sour.
Wine was used often in Jesus’ day. This was because clean water was not readily available and Israel is a naturally arid climate. Wine was not just consumed, it was also used in Jewish ceremonial life, at the Temple and even as medicine, as we know from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.
The Bible’s first vintner was Noah, who planted a vineyard when the ark landed on Mount Ararat (Gn 9:20). Unfortunately, he also immediately became drunk on his wine (Gn. 9:21).
Still, most biblical references to wine speak of joy, such as the reading we heard during the first week of Advent: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines” (Is 25:6), speaking of the coming of the Lord. Jesus also used wine to describe the Kingdom of God and promised that he would drink wine “new with you in the kingdom” (Mt. 26:29) as he prepared for his Passion and death.
Jesus seemed to enjoy life, starting, his public ministry with making wine for a wedding feast and drinking it at the Last Supper. He also ended his earthly ministry with wine, according to John: “So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth. When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, ‘It is finished’” (Jn 19:29-30).
That wine, reserved for the condemned, had to be bitter — since only the worst wine was given to criminals. Not so, however, with the wedding wine of Cana.
While no one described it, one could wonder if Cana’s wine tasted like manna — another miracle that God supplied in great abundance. The Book of Wisdom describes manna as containing “every delight, to satisfy every taste. … conforming to the taste of whoever ate it, it transformed itself into what each eater wished” (16:20-23).
Maybe that’s why the headwaiter called Can’s wine “the best.”
Sources; The Jewish Encyclopedia; biblestudytools.com; jewishanswers.org; The Collegeville Biblical Commentary; “All things Considered” at npr.com; bible.org; The Jerusalem Post at jpost.com; doctrineanddevotion.com; Smith’s Bible Dictionary; Easton’s Bible Dictionary; Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon