Wine is increasingly becoming part of our modern dining culture, a drink to be enjoyed regularly and not just on special occasions. That’s to be applauded from a wine writer’s perspective; after all, I’m recommending five or six wines every week. But with Passover and Easter this weekend, it’s fitting to remember the special significance wine enjoys in Judeo-Christian culture and ritual.
Wine’s symbolic significance is strongest in the Passover Seder, the ritual dinner observed in Jewish households around the world. The Passover holiday begins this year on Friday night. During a Seder, each adult diner drinks four cups of wine, representing the redemption of the Israelites from slavery under the Egyptians. A fifth cup is reserved for the prophet Elijah in hopes he will visit during the celebration; representing future redemption, it is left unconsumed.
For observant Jews, the Passover wine must be kosher. That means it was produced under the supervision of observant rabbis and is acceptable for use in religious ceremonies. A wine’s kosher status is typically denoted by the letter U or K in a circle, with a P in superscript. It doesn’t have any significance in the actual production of the wine, except for “mevushal” wines, which are flash-pasteurized so they can be handled by non-observant folks and remain kosher.
Wine’s connection to Easter comes from the Last Supper, which may or may not have been a Seder, depending on which Gospel or which historical authority you prefer. Wine’s significance is clear, however, as representing the blood of Christ and therefore echoing the redemptive qualities of the Seder wines. The Last Supper is re-enacted in the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
“Easter is the high point of our spiritual year, but every single Sunday is a mini-Easter, a reflection of that significance,” says Monsignor Bill Parent, pastor of Saint Peter’s Church in Waldorf and an oenophile who admits to perusing Wine Spectator when he tires of his ecclesiastical texts. (Yes, people still call him “Father Parent.” I asked.)
“Wine is integral to the Eucharist,” he says. “We believe the Eucharist is the presence of Jesus in our midst, so wine is absolutely essential to Catholic worship.”
That was news to me, having been raised Methodist, a radical, abstemious sect of Protestantism that substituted Welch’s grape juice for wine in the Holy Communion — and even that was rationed by the thimbleful.
But I had to wonder whether wine’s significance at Easter hadn’t waned over the two millenniums since the Last Supper. When I asked local wine distributors to propose appropriate vino for Passover and Easter, I received several suggestions for kosher wines, including a very nice sauvignon blanc from New Zealand with an Irish name. There was also a lovely red from Israel’s Ella Valley Vineyards, which according to the label is located in the area where David defeated Goliath. Not exactly a Passover story, but hard to beat.
What Easter suggestions did I get? Wines with “Rabbit” in their names.
Well, maybe humor is part of the joy of celebration. “Easter dinner is our happiest, most joyful meal of the year, as we emerge from the dark days of Lent,” Monsignor Parent advises. “We should enjoy it with our favorite beverage. The symbolism of wine is that it is a joyful drink.” Then he added, “In addition to it being the blood of Christ.”