Oxford Town Wines

John JuergensWWJD: What would Jesus drink?

One of the most popular stories of the Bible is the Wedding Feast at Cana, where Jesus turned water into fine wine.

As a wine lover, every time this gospel turns up in the liturgical calendar, I can't help speculating on just what kind of wine Jesus made. I have been ruminating on this for years, and finally decided to toss out some ideas. (Don't worry, this won't be irreverent.)

A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to spend some time in the southernmost part of Italy where, according to some local historians, many people still make wine in the tradition of the ancient Greeks and Romans who inhabited the region before and around the time of Christ.

The preeminent expert in ancient wine matters in the area is Professor Orlando Sculli, who is the curator of Archeologia del Vino e Testimonianze di Cultura Materiale in the area of Calabria in southern Italy. He took me on a tour of the vineyards he manages in which he propagates more than 200 varieties of grapes known to exist throughout the Mediterranean in ancient times.

Of course, out of politeness to my hosts, I was forced to taste many samples of wines currently made in that region to get a sense of the culture and terroir, and to study the style. And from those arduous tastings I think I got a handle on what happened at Cana.

As you might expect, many people in Italy make their own wines, and the country is dotted with thousands of small commercial wineries that make wine for local consumption. These are simple but tasty wines to go with every day meals and cost the equivalent of about $2 or $3 a liter. They are meant to be consumed as soon as they are bottled, and have absolutely no aging potential.

But here is the rub: A lot of those wines are light in body and have a bit of oxidized character. The reason is that the homemade wines and many of the local commercially produce wines are made at ambient temperatures, which frequently go over 100 during the summer and continue in the 90s in September. These high temperatures will cause some oxidation in the juice even before the fermentation process, which saps the juice of a lot of its fruit flavors. And after that most wine makers allow the juice to ferment at these high temperatures, so by the time the wines are bottled they already have a brownish tint and a cooked character.

Few people make their own white wines because they oxidize so quickly without any preservatives. But even some of those made by the commercial wineries will have some noticeable oxidation. It is not uncommon to see in the supermarket white wines from the same winery of the same year with colors that vary from clear to light brown. I found this a bit disconcerting, but for the locals it is not a problem because that is the kind of wine they grew up with and are used to drinking.

Back in the time of Christ, the wines most likely were similar in style because they were made in "wineries" that were simply a series of large, open-air pits carved out of stone. So the juice and wine was exposed to the sun and all of the other elements that promote oxidation. Then the wine was stored in stone jars that were subject to wide temperature fluctuations. In addition, I think we can be fairly certain that grape production in that region was just as susceptible to the climate as it is today, so there were good, excellent, and bad years, and the wine produced in the better years was of limited supply and cost more, just as it is today.

So here is what I think might have happened at Cana. The groom probably bought the best wine he could afford, which probably was fairly ordinary and typical for the region. It probably was red because white wine was too unstable.

The wine Jesus made also would have been red, but it would have had the characteristics of one of the best vintages. I think a key factor was that because He made wine on the spot it was fresh and had lively fruit flavors, which would have really set it apart from the normally oxidized plonk of the day. But it would not have been too far removed from what was "normal" for that time and region so that it wouldn't have seemed foreign and strange to the guests.

This was the reaction I observed in the locals at a fabulous outdoor dinner on my trip to Italy. Many guests brought jugs of their homemade wine to share, but more for me to taste because my hosts had advertised me as some great wine expert from America. Every one of the wines had the typical over-ripe, oxidized character.

But when I brought out a big, fruit-forward California wine, everyone at the table was just sort of stunned and things got very quiet. Most had never tasted a wine like that and they didn't know what to make of it. So I don't think Jesus would have made something resembling our new world wines. It might have approximated a nice Cotes du Rhone wine such as the one I am drinking as I write this. But I would love to hear other theories on this topic.

There is something intuitively attractive and hopeful about the idea of turning ordinary water into fine wine. But the really scary proposition is what will happen when the Antichrist comes? According to Scripture, this will be a person or group of persons and organizations that will give false prophesy to deceive and stifle the faithful, sort of like the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Given that this embodiment is supposed to be the opposite of Christ in all respects, do we have to be worried that he or they will turn all wine back into water? Now that would be a time of anguish and great tribulation! We had better keep a sharp eye on those tricky anti-alcohol people. But for now ...

Cheers!

March 2008

To contact John Juergens, write him at wineguyvt@bellsouth.net

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