by Ryan Hasty
Wine in the Bible is spoken of as a blessing in its unfermented state and as an intoxicant in its fermented state. Many do not realize that those living in biblical days were able to keep their wine from fermenting and in fact did so regularly. How did they accomplish this in an age without refrigerators? There were three primary methods:
First, they boiled their wine down to thick syrup. Boiling grape juice causes the water to evaporate leaving behind a concentrate with such a high level of sugar that fermentation was impossible. Syrup in this state could be preserved for years. Whenever they wanted to drink this unfermented wine, they would mix a small amount of this syrup with water much as we do with our Kool-Aid. Different ratios were used depending on the type of grape, the age of the syrup, the temperature of the water, and even the season.
“Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn out her seven pillars; she has prepared her food, she has mixed her wine; she has also set her table; she has sent out her maidens, she calls from the tops of the heights of the city: ‘Whoever is naive, let him turn in here!’ To him who lacks understanding she says, ‘Come, eat of my food and drink of the wine I have mixed’” (Proverbs 9:1-5).
The above verse refers to the mixing of wine as “wisdom” whereas Proverbs 20:1 refers to a person intoxicated by wine as not being wise. The contrast is clear. Boiling grape juice to prevent it from fermenting and then mixing it with water to enjoy as a beverage is incumbent of wisdom and was a blessing from God.
“The wine of Arcadia was so thick that it was necessary to scrape it from the skin bottles in which it was contained and to dissolve the scrapings in water” [Aristotle].
“There is no wine sweeter to drink than that of Lesbos; it was like nectar . . . and would not produce intoxication” [Horace].
Second, those living in biblical times had developed methods to filter wine and remove its strength. While pressing out the grape, they would use a bag called a “sacco” that captured the fermentable substances, allowed the juice from the pulp to flow through, and then collected it in a vase below the bag. Several historians mention this method as in use during biblical times as well as the fact that one of the primary reasons they did this is because unfermented wine tastes better.
“The most useful wine has all its force or strength broken by the filter” [Pliny The Younger].
“Wine is rendered feeble in strength when it is frequently filtered. The strength or spirit thus being excluded, the wine neither inflames the brain nor infests the mind and passions, and is much more pleasant to drink” [Plutarch].
This is the testimony of two non-Christian Gentiles confirming that filtration causes wine to taste better because its strength is removed. But they are merely confirming what we already know. Beverages like grape juice begin fermenting when they are going bad, not when they are getting better. Alcoholic beverages are an “acquired taste” purely for the effects produced in the body by the alcohol and not because it tastes good.
Third, they were able to refrigerate and seal wine. Grape juice kept at 45° or less cannot ferment. If it is kept cool long enough, the yeast settles at the bottom and the juice can be skimmed off of the top where it can never ferment even if warmed. We know from archeology that they stored this kind of wine in caves, underwater, and in the ground where it was cooler. So even without refrigerators, they still had the means to keep wine cool. They also kept their containers air-tight by corking the bottle and then sealing it with pitch. The Jews also poured olive oil on top to seal the juice from the air. In the 1960s, a sunken ship was discovered at the bottom of the Mediterranean that had containers of wine dating back to the Roman Empire. The containers were sealed so well that water from the sea had not penetrated them.
With multiple ways of preventing fermentation, this is further proof that wine of biblical times was not necessarily alcoholic, but could easily be preserved and enjoyed as a refreshing alternative to water and a blessing from God that provided joy and not intoxication.