The vineyard and the vines
A recent sermon about Jesus as the true vine included an illustration meant to be humorous (it was), but got me thinking about the process of wine-making. Having lived 12 years in Sonoma County among the wineries, the illustration brought back memories of wine country seasons, the crush, the fairs, and the competitions for the gold ratings. The full sermon from Fellowship Bible Church in Roswell, GA is here, but the particular illustration that got my thinking was William Rainey’s poking fun at his habit of making faces when trying new foods and made a connection to the way people look at wine tastings as they discern the notes and flavors in each sniff, swirl, and sip. Having seen a few of those, I knew exactly what he meant and I giggled.
I started thinking, professionals in the wine industry don’t often need a full sniff, swirl, and sip to determine whether a wine is worth drinking. They can identify any issues with a wine and can often identify where the issue began, even as far back as the health of the vine, the soil, the nutrition, and the caretaking of the vineyard.
In the beginning was the appellation. Or appellations. Depending on the kind of wine you want to make, you need to find just the right combination of temperature, humidity, soil, climate and microclimate, space, drainage, and light. I lived in Sonoma County, the home of 18 different American Viticultural Areas (AVA or appellations.) There are 252 AVAs in the US, and thousands worldwide (although the definitions of appellations vary in Europe.) Each appellation is ideal for producing a limited type of wine. The Sonoma County wine country includes hot inland valleys, perfect for Zinfandel, a long lazy river carrying Pacific fog for miles, ideal for Pinot Noir, volcanic ash enriched soil that nurtures Chardonnay, and the Mayacamas Mountain range where higher elevations are home to some of the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the region. All the conditions for each varietal must be perfect for a vineyard to survive. What makes the wine country of Northern California unique is the number of soils types in the size of the region; there are at least 60 different soils from rocky to clay and each one has attributes that provide the right conditions for a particular kind of wine.
Vineyards are not generally planted as seeds, but as cuttings from established vines grafted onto disease-resistant rootstocks. The vigneron (the person who cultivates grapes for wine ) chooses his cuttings and rootstocks carefully, selecting those elements that are best suited to the appellation in which he is planting his vineyard. When we accept the gift of salvation offered by the Father in Jesus, we are grafted into the central vine from the rootstock of the Almighty (Romans 11:17-24). This is the beginning of our growing in Christ, a literal union with Him as we separate from what we once were and join to Him, sustained and nurtured by the root of the Word.
As the new graft grows, it takes on a woody base; the stronger the base, the healthier the branches that bear the fruit. It might take five years for a grower to develop a satisfactory base by cutting away any growth that might detract from the establishment of a secure network of roots to anchor the plant when it is ready to produce fruit. To the casual observer, it may not look like any kind of growth is happening, but just below the surface of the soil, the roots grow deeper and spread wider, creating a network that will support not just one vine, but the whole vineyard. As believers, we shouldn’t feel rushed to jump headlong into ministry, especially as we are learning who we are in Christ. We might find ourselves in Peter’s predicament when he jumps off the boat to walk on the water. Everything was fine until he looked down and realized he was human, and humans sink. He had to remember to look to Jesus to save him (Matthew 14: 22-31). Not long after, Peter found his faith, his role, and his voice to become the first of the apostles to preach the gospel at Pentecost. By then, his roots were secure, and he was trained in the way.
Training is part of the vine-cultivator’s job. In order for the roots to support the branches well, the branches must be trained so that their weight is balanced. There are many ways to train a grapevine, and the vintner chooses the one that best suits the type of grape, the location, the climate, and his plan for harvesting the fruit when the time comes. The Lord trains us similarly. Each one of us has a role in the Kingdom, and the Father prepares us according to His plan and by our characteristics. He doesn’t force us into a common mold, but rather carefully shifts our inborn traits to function best within His vine. Like grapevines, He may twist us into shapes we don’t expect, but whatever He does is for our good and His glory.
Pruning a vine takes years to master. Once a grapevine is established, the canes (branches) must be cut off, even the ones that bore the best fruit. Then the pruner must decide where to leave enough of a bud so that new shoots can form to become next season’s canes.
It is in this dormant time that the vine-grower makes decisions that will affect the entire season ahead. Dormancy is hard for humans. We feel guilty when our branches are bare, and we may be judged by others because they don’t see any visible growth. But God is at work during our dormant times. He is cutting away the things that may interfere with what is yet to come. He prunes away things that will never bear fruit, and He cuts back even the things that we think are good or beneficial. The Father is not planning for good fruit; He is pruning for the best that is possible to come from us.
Budding begins in early spring, and buds break out all over the new vines. A careful vigneron will continue to prune away any buds and flowers that might hinder growth of the best grapes. The overall yield may be lower, but the quality of what is left behind is better than it might have been if left to grow freely on its own.
Similarly, when we spend time in the Word, we may follow interesting lines of thought or intriguing stories. These ideas are not necessarily bad, in fact, many of them are good and profitable in the right context and time. But if we are studying a specific book or passage or precept, we need to be mindful of wandering like an errant vine tendril until God shows us the connection between our meanderings and His purpose. We also need to be careful to use Scripture to understand Scripture. There are commentaries and sermons and studies that might be helpful, but the Bible and the Holy Spirit are all we actually need to know the Father. Grape flowers are considered perfect because they self-pollinate. The Word of God is actually perfect, as the Psalmist wrote: (Psalm 19).
Coming in Part Two: Berries, Vérasion, and Harvest
Clay, M. H. (n.d.). How does a vineyard actually work? Sonoma Ranches and Vineyard Land.
Day, K. (2020, December 3). The great debate: What is the future of appellations? with Andrew Jefford and Robert Joseph. Wine Scholar Guild.
Fodor’s (2021). Grape growing: The basics. Fodor’s Travel.
McKirdy, T. (2018, April 26). Pruning and grape vine training: The basics of wine grape growing. Wine Frog.
Mercedes, H. (2020, May 15). Discover the lifecycle of a wine grapevine. Wine Folly.
Vaughan, B. (2019, February 1). American Viticultural areas of Sonoma County. Sonoma County Tourism.