Wine cellaring runs deep in our Judeo-Christian DNA

Columnist April 3

“This could be the Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, Canaanite style.”

The quip refers to one of the District’s oldest wine shops, and to the broken wine jars excavated in July 2013 in an archaeological dig at Tel Kabri, Israel, located near the Lebanon border and the Mediterranean. It was delivered by Eric H. Cline, co-director of the project and chairman of the classical and Near Eastern languages and civilizations department at the George Washington University.

Dave McIntyre is a wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com. View Archive

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The 75-acre site is considered to house one of the world’s earliest wine cellars: specifically, a palace storage room dating to the Middle Bronze Age, about 1700 B.C. Tests on residue inside 32 of the vessels revealed tartaric acid — proof that the jars held wine. There was also evidence of spices, herbs and honey, used to flavor wine in ancient times, as well as resins to help preserve the wine.

Wine appears throughout Judeo-Christian writings, including descriptions of the Passover Seder and the Last Supper. The word “wine” appears 280 times in the Old and New Testaments, “vine” 49 times, “vineyard” 72 times and “winepress” at least 15 times, according to Joel Butler and Randall Heskett in “Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail From Genesis to the Modern Age.” Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of wine cultivation from at least as far back as 7500 B.E.

“There are still two rooms we haven’t uncovered, so we may be looking at 40 or 80 more jars,” Cline told me in a recent interview. The 40 jars they found would have held a total of 2,000 liters, or about 3,000 of our standard bottles of wine. If the other rooms also held wine, “we’d be talking about up to 6,000 liters. And that suggests distribution,” he said.

The professor said the wine was not necessarily local; although Canaan was well known for its wine and exported some to Egypt, the ingredients discovered in these jars are consistent with wine residues from Mesopotamia and other ancient sites. Plus, Tel Kabri is considerably west of where wine grapes were, and still are, cultivated in Galilee.

Wine distribution would make sense. The Canaanites were known for their wine and exported it to Egypt and elsewhere. Earlier digs have uncovered Minoan paintings, evidence that the residents of Tel Kabri traded with Crete.

What more can we tell about these people and their wine? The residue in the jars was uniform, suggesting that the wine came from a single vintage. That could support the distribution hypothesis, or it could be that residents of the palace at Tel Kabri stocked up with enough wine to last them until the next vintage. Of the 32 jars tested, all but four contained evidence of syringic acid, a phenolic compound common to red wine. That suggests that the other four jars may have contained white wine, Cline says. 

Cline, co-director Assaf Yasur-Landau of the University of Haifa and associate director Andrew Koh of Brandeis University have traveled to Tel Kabri every other year since 2005; their next visit will be in 2015. Until then, they will continue to puzzle over the mysteries of their Canaanite wine cellar and the two yet to be unearthed.

Cline says he prefers to drink beer “but can fake my way through an evening of wine.” Last fall, he enlisted local wine writer Scott Greenberg to organize a small wine tasting to help raise money to fund continued research on the jars. “We figure it will cost about $50,000 to $60,000 in time and labor to put all the jars back together,” he says. “The question is, do we need to put all 40 together, or do we do five and say we have the idea.”

We don’t know what happened to Tel Kabri. There’s no evidence of fire or weaponry to suggest a military defeat. No other settlement was ever built on the site. One theory is holds that it was destroyed by a devastating earthquake, but Cline, citing the overall good condition of the ruins, suspects that the city’s residents simply left — victims, perhaps, of economic competition from a wealthier city nearby.

Maybe they spent too much money on wine.

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.

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