Taste and see: Part three

The wine

John 15:1-8; Psalm 34:8; Galatians 5:22; 1 John 4:7-17 ; Hosea 9:3-5; Exodus 29:40; Romans 11:11-24

A quick recap

The focus of John 15 is the role of the vine to the branches, and thereby to the fruit. The vine grows from the rootstock and is vital to the life of the plant. The vine connects the root to the branches and it is through the fruit-bearing branches that the vitality of the root and vine are revealed. The root and vine do not need the branches to live, but the branches are quick to die without the sustenance provided by the root through the vine. Additionally, branches from one varietal may be grafted onto a stronger vine and rootstock to avoid disease and strengthen the health of the vineyard.

A good winemaker knows which branches will bear good fruit, and the lesser branches are cut away and destroyed. Remaining branches are trained and tied so that the fruit has every opportunity to develop depth of flavor. There are times when good fruit is cut away to promote production of the best fruit. Every cut is for the benefit of the vineyard and the quality of the wine it will produce.

As the branches grow heavy with grapes, the time for harvest and the winemaking process begins.

Transformation

Making wine is both science and art, with multiple steps and decisions that will affect the quality and flavor of the wine produced. An excellent breakdown of the process is here. From harvest to fermentation to bottle is a labor of love for the winemaker, whose primary goal is not necessarily to make money (there are far more predictable ways to do that), but rather to “bring pleasure to those who drink it” (Anson, 2018).

The transformation beings at the harvest. When and how to harvest are decisions made partly by science (wind, temperature, weather events) and partly by instinct. Mechanical harvesting is quicker, but hand harvesting allows the grower to be selective. Grapes are then sorted and unwanted elements (damaged grapes, insects, leaves, etc.) removed before destemming and crushing. Again, crushing can be mechanical or done by human feet. The first crush produces the highest quality juice and subsequent crushing and pressing separates all the liquid from the solids.

Crushed and pressed

No winemaker can expect the finest wine to come from grapes that are improperly planted, growth, nurtured, harvested, and pressed. Similarly, we who are believers must not expect our faith to be mature and our obedience to the Lord to be perfected without His nurture and His pressing. Good fruit comes from meticulous care. Good wine comes with a change from one form (grapes) to another (juice). Grapes left on pruned branches rot and decay; they are not changed, but rather are rendered useless. In the metaphorical sense, believers are pressed like the grapes, not to destroy us, but rather to extract from our lives the best part of what the Father has called us to be and to do. Paul wrote,

“Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing through us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

(2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Suffering often feels like destruction to us because we have finite minds. We make decisions based on what we see, but the winemaker makes decisions based on what he knows will be. God allows us to be pressed and squeezed and drained, not to harm us, but that His perfect will might be revealed through us. The best wine is impossible without the crushing of the grapes.

Fermented, changed, and waiting

Image by RonalddeBruijn from Pixabay

Crushing and pressing are active processes, but good wine also requires waiting. Fermentation takes time as the natural sugars are converted to alcohols with a number of antioxidants, digestive enzymes, and probiotics. Fermentation takes the juice pressed from the fruit and changes its chemistry. Wine is not the same as juice, even though both come from the same fruit. Juice is full of sugar, calories, and is highly perishable. There are arguments about the virtues of wine, but it is the most common drink mentioned in the Bible, and the Lord chose wine for a drink offering as far back as Exodus 29. Jesus, Himself, used wine as a metaphor for the blood he would shed on the cross (Luke 22:14-20.) If the metaphor is good enough for the Savior, it is sufficient for illustration of how God uses the liminal spaces of our lives to change His children.

Waiting is hard. Change is hard. Suffering is hard. But Paul reminds us that the promise of what is to be and what is to come is worth the trials of life. In fact, God requires us to persevere through difficulties for a number of reasons: to develop character, to trust His plan, and ultimately to be part of His glory revealed. This life, with all its challenges and hardships conforms us to the image of Jesus. Paul wrote, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed in us”(Romans 8:18). And James wrote that we are to “count it all joy” when faced with trials because the tests make us steadfast (shelf-stable) and complete (James 1:2-4).

Once wine is fermented, it is traditionally placed in oak barrels to evolve and develop complex and balanced flavor. The wood infuses the wine with flavor, aroma, and texture over time. Both the size and age of the barrels affect the wine, and the length of time in the barrel depends on the taste the winemaker wants to achieve. A small barrel will produce a flavor extraction faster than a large barrel, but a large barrel will afford a larger quantity of a consistent flavor over time. Time in contact with the wood is critical to fully develop the character of the wine.

Similarly, time in contact with the Word of God develops Christian character over time. Trials and suffering speed to process by bringing believers face to face with their inability to rescue themselves from their nature and stripping away anything that interferes with their relationship to God. But there are times, too, where growth doesn’t require hardship. There are times when God allows His children time to rest in His arms, to dwell in His Word, and to simply go about the work He provides. Not every moment of life is dramatic. There are more days we might consider mundane than any other kind of day. But God speaks to us in the ordinary when we are faithfully in the Word, working out our daily tasks, however unremarkable we might think they are. In waiting, we are transforming. Elisabeth Elliot wrote, “I do know that waiting on God requires the willingness to bear uncertainty, to carry within oneself the unanswered question, lifting the heart to God about it…” (2002). Like the wine in the barrels, we are transformed in the quiet times as we absorb the nature of what (or Who) holds and contains us.

Coming next: bottling, pouring, and tasting.

References

Images, unless otherwise noted, are public domain

Anson, J. (2018). Anson: What drives people to make wine? Decanter. https://www.decanter.com/magazine/anson-why-make-wine-392180/

Caperso, A. ( n.d.) The wine-making process in 15 steps-part 1. Wine and other stories [Blog]. https://wineandotherstories.com/the-winemaking-process-in-15-steps-part-1-infographic/

Elliot, E. (2002). Passion and purity: Learning to bring your love life under Christ’s control. Revell.

Evans, T. (2019) Tony Evans Bible Commentary. Holman Bible Publishers.

ESV Reformation Study Bible (2015) R.C. Sproul (Ed.). Ligonier Ministries.

Hanson, D.K. (2021). Wine vs grape juice: Which is better for health and long life? Alcohol problems and solutions [blog] https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/wine-vs-grape-juice-which-is-better-for-health/

MasterClass Staff (2020). What is fermentation? Learn about the three different types of fermentation and six tips for homemade fermentation. MasterClass [blog]. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-fermentation-learn-about-the-3-different-types-of-fermentation-and-6-tips-for-homemade-fermentation#what-is-fermentation.

New Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. NRSV (2019). J.H. Walton and C.S. Keener (Eds.) Zondervan.

Redhead Blogger (n.d.) How to age wine in oak barrels. Red head Barrels [blog]. https://redheadoakbarrels.com/how-to-age-wine-in-oak-barrels/.

Taste and see: Part one

The vineyard and the vines

John 15:1-8; Psalm 34:8; Galatians 5:22; 1 John 4:7-17

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.

vine-lifecycle-winter-pruning
Wine Folly has the best illustrations and excellent explanations.

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.

vine-lifecycle-spring-flowering

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).

The law of the Lord is perfect,

    reviving the soul;

the testimony of the Lord is sure,

    making wise the simple;

 the precepts of the Lord are right,

    rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the Lord is pure,

    enlightening the eyes;

the fear of the Lord is clean,

    enduring forever;

the rules of the Lord are true,

    and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold,

    even much fine gold;

sweeter also than honey

    and drippings of the honeycomb.

Psalm 19: 7-10

Coming in Part Two: Berries, VĂ©rasion, and Harvest

References

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.