When, exactly, was the beginning of viniculture as we know it? Obviously, wild grapevines have been growing on earth as long as there has been vegetation on the planet; but when, exactly, did humans start cultivating grapes to make wine?
This question is fiercely debated by scholars who are schooled way beyond my level of knowledge on the subject, but I am looking for a simple explanation to share with you. We must first agree on a timeline for the existence of the planet. What does all this earth talk even mean for the science (and art) of viniculture? Generally speaking, there are two main schools of thought. There are those who are more scientifically-minded who believe that the earth is millions of years old, and those of the Judeo-Christian persuasion who believe that the earth was created in a literal (or figurative) seven days only a mere thousands of years ago. This article is not a debate on the origins of earth itself, but simply a recounting of one explanation of the oft-debated origins of winemaking.
For the sake of this particular post, I have decided to use the Biblical timeline of the earth, and provide you with a little bit of ancient wine history based on some Bible verses around the subject. This seems like an easy way to quantify the amount of time that wine has been a part of our written record, at least for those who subscribe to the idea that the earth is young.
The first mention of viniculture in the Old Testament comes as part of the story of Noah and the Great Flood. For those of you who need a refresher on the story: Noah, “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time,” (Genesis 6:9) was appointed by God to build a massive ark in order to save civilization from the washout of the planet. Unfortunately for humans at the time, God was pissed at man and planning to flood the earth as punishment. The Almighty wanted to spare Noah’s family and seven pairs of each kind of (clean) animal (and some unclean ones too) so that the world could begin again after the floodwaters had receded. Therefore, He instructed Noah to build the vessel to house all of these animals (and possibly grape seedlings or rootings?) while the wrath of God bore down on the earth by way of massive raindrops for 40 days and 40 nights.
When searching for the place of the beginnings of viniculture by using the Bible as a written historical reference, we are safe in placing those physical origins in modern-day Turkey around Mount Ararat, where the ark came to rest after the flood (Genesis 8:4). This was where Noah and his family were able to get off the ark and start a new life—pop tents. As early as Genesis 9:20, we see that “Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard.” (New International Version)
According to the book, Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture, by Patrick E. McGovern, we are not entirely sure, or the Bible is not specific enough, as to whether these first mentioned vineyards were planted using seedlings or rootings (pg. 17). Either way, we know that Noah was able to make decent wine from these vineyards, because the next verse in Genesis (9: 21) mentions Noah becoming drunk off of the wine and he “lay uncovered inside his tent.” In other words, he passed the eff out. (Who can blame the man? He must have been exhausted.)
** Interesting note: It takes grapevines about seven years on average to mature and produce grapes suitable for winemaking. However, the verses about Noah planting a vineyard and getting drunk are one verse apart. Leading to the conclusion that a. Noah already had wine available to drink (perhaps from previous vineyard plantings?) Or b. The Bible should not be taken literally because these two events actually happened years apart. (You decide.)
There you have it: the origins of viniculture according to the Bible. Of course, this is a very simplified version of events, and nowhere near encompassing all angles of the debate on where, in fact, the DNA of the first cultivated grapes came from. However, I think it is a decent reference point for those of you looking to increase your knowledge of the history of viniculture. If you would like a more detailed explanation of the origins of viniculture from different perspectives and time periods, I recommend the book, Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture, by Patrick E. McGovern.