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Thursday
May052016

Some Introductory Musings on The Spirituality of Wine

I grew up on a small family winery in Franconia, Germany, a region that only recently became part of Bavaria, about two hundred years ago during the Napoleonic Wars. Before that time it had a long independent history, and though the Romans seem to have brought vines here first, it was Benedictine nuns who developed viticulture in our region around 600 AD. 

The winery was in bad shape after the Second World War, and my grandparents, together with my parents, worked very hard to rebuild the ruins and plant vineyards. My mother and a wonderful group of women from the village were the workers in the vineyard. I spent the first three years of my life in a playpen at the bottom of the vineyard because my mother could not stay home to take care of us. The views from our vineyards upon the Main Valley are stunning. Friederike, an orphaned child, shared the playpen with me. One of our workers had taken her in and raised her. My father and the apprentices he trained performed the most physically strenuous work on the winery.  

On rainy days I had to stay with my grandfather in the office. He was a gentle soul and did all the administrative work for us. I do not think that he enjoyed the distraction of small children crying and whining, but on a small family winery, everyone had to chip in to make it work. There were four of us children, all girls, and my father must have worried about who would take over the winery one day. When I was born, my grandmother could not resist pointing out that my mother had given birth to yet another girl (number three), and on top of that I had red hair.

Life on the winery was very different for us girls. When we were in school, my mother often felt sorry for us because as soon as we would come home, my grandmother had a long list of chores that needed to be done on the winery. We worked a lot even as children. Our friends did not like to play on the winery. Sooner or later we would all get sucked into the never-ending hustle and bustle that makes up life on a family winery. I remember vividly having to crawl into the small opening of our wine vats and scrub them clean from the inside. It was dark, wet, and cold inside, and I could not wait to get out again. It was one of my least favorite chores. 

The smell of fermenting grape juice and other fruits such as pears, plums, and apples are some of the most powerful memories of my childhood. Dad not only made wine but also distilled spirits from the fruit of our orchards. I vividly remember my father shoveling the pressed and dried grape skins from a large pan on a wagon that was then taken to a large compost heap. Sometimes we children were allowed to hold a small tasting glass under the winepress and sample the freshly pressed juice. The sweetest and most delicious grape juice danced on our taste buds and made us feel more alive. When the grape juice began fermenting, it had a lovely buzz to it. I had always wondered and marveled how such intense and concentrated sweetness could come to be in such tiny grapes. It was wonderful to be involved in something so beautiful, and all the hard work was forgotten for a moment. 

The other vivid memory I have of growing up on a winery is the regular wine tastings we had in our rustic tasting room. Crowds of people would come to the winery and spend an evening tasting wine and listening to my father talk about our wines, the soil, the weather, and other things I did not quite understand. What struck me most is the transformation that took place during the wine tasting. In the beginning the group would be quiet, reserved, and quite serious. As the tasting went on, however, the group would get livelier, faces would open up, and smiles would come more easily. The conversations became more engaging, and there was lots of laughter. There seemed to be a lot of joy when people tasted wine together. It was lovely to watch, and I was always amazed that this transformation would happen over and over again with each group that came. I felt that our wine tastings did something important. They gave people a joyful evening. They seemed more alive by the end of it. 

Bavaria is mostly Catholic, but Franconia had an important role to play in the Reformation, and our village embraced the teachings of Martin Luther in the early seventeenth century. My family to this day is deeply rooted in the Lutheran faith and the rich traditions that come with it. Though we all worked incredibly hard and had very little time to ourselves as a family, we knew how to celebrate. Eating and drinking around the table was and still is the ritual that keeps us bonded not only to one another but also to the family winery and the land that we cultivate. Life on the winery is very special, and I still consider it home though I left many years ago. 

I learned early that somehow our lives, the work that we do on the winery, and our lives of faith belong together. In the autumn my mother would always cut the most beautiful branches with thick ripe grape clusters from the vines and decorate the church altar for our annual Harvest Thanksgiving service. It was only at my confirmation at the age of fourteen, however, that I began to glimpse something about the life of faith that would haunt me to this day. Like baptisms and weddings, confirmations are very important in our family, and we celebrate them in grand style. We invited all of our relatives to witness me affirm my faith and celebrate with us as a family. I had spent two years in confirmation classes, memorized the Ten Commandments, The Lord’s Prayer, and Psalm 23, and received my very own Bible verse to accompany me through life. Pastor Walz taught us about The Lord’s Supper, the sacrament that we would receive for the first time. I was nervous because I had to speak in front of the whole church, endure a question and answer session, and then partake for the first time in my life in The Lord’s Supper. 

Pastor Walz taught us when we take The Lord’s Supper we remember and receive the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins. I concluded from what I had learned that this was between God and me. But when the chalice came and I took a sip from the wine, it suddenly struck me that what I was drinking was the wine my family had made. The smell of the wine was so familiar and the taste so fresh and crisp. It smelled and tasted like home. I remembered how much had gone into crafting this wine. I thought about all the people who worked for us; their lives and their sorrows and our lives and our sorrows. I thought about the fields and vineyards, the sun and the rain and our daily listening to the weather forecast. During meal times my parents would always talk about the weather and how it would affect our lives on the winery. Would there be late spring frost that would freeze the buds on the vines? Would there be enough sun and rain? What if it hailed in the autumn and destroyed the grape clusters? When should we begin the harvest? I thought about all the family fights and generational tensions between my grandmother and my parents and between my parents and us children. Life is so full and complex, so beautiful and yet so hard. 

I had a little revelation as I took my first sip from the chalice. Could it be that God wanted to redeem not only my life but also all the hustle and bustle that life on the winery brings? We work so hard to make a living from growing vines and crafting wine. Could it be that God cared about it and perhaps was even involved in it? This idea is not quite what I had learned in my confirmation classes over the last two years.  But was it not true? Had Jesus not made wine as well? My questions about who God is and how He might or might not be involved in our lives is something that never left me. When I told my father that I wanted to study theology he was not pleased. He called it “breadless art” (German: brotlose Kunst) and was concerned about my future. I did pursue theology, became a theologian, and in this book I explore the spirituality of wine from a Christian perspective. 

Let the reader beware, however, that this not a comprehensive exploration of Christian spirituality. The focus of the book is on wine, a theme that will take us into the heart of Christian spirituality and the importance of it for our everyday lives. Wine features prominently in the Bible, in the history of Church, and has been of immense cultural value. In light of this background I shall explore the theological and spiritual significance of wine for the life of the Church and seek a meaningful dialogue between the world of wine and Christian spirituality.

As part of this project and in my effort to create a thoughtful and informed dialogue, I interviewed thirty vintners from the Old Wine world and the New Wine world. I interviewed vintners from the Rheingau and Franconia in Germany and Burgundy in France, representatives of the Old Wine world. Interviews with vintners from Napa and Sonoma Valley in California and the Willamette Valley in Oregon are representative of the New Wine world.1 Most of the vintners I interviewed have small wineries and oversee the whole process from growing vines to the work in the cellar to engaging customers in their search for a wine worth drinking. I use the term “vintner” to speak of those who seek to craft wines that reflect a particular place and particular vintages. I call companies “winemakers” when their primary goal is to mass-produce wine without concern for particular places and vintages. Their primary aim is to produce a stable and predictable product at an affordable price, and their use of modern technology is often highly invasive. 

My hope is that my book will not just be read by lay Christians, pastors, priests, and theologians, but also by those outside of the Church who are interested in a spirituality of wine, including vintners and wine lovers. The book and each chapter within it should not be understood as definite and final statements on the spirituality of wine. The book is of an introductory nature. Given the relative neglect of this important subject matter, my hope is that this book will open up a conversation that will enrich our understanding of Christian spirituality and the world of wine for many vintages to come.

You might be surprised to learn that wine, viticulture (the art of cultivating vines and grapes), and viniculture (the art of crafting wine) feature prominently in the Bible. Few realize how frequent this theme really is and how important it is for recovering a much more robust creation spirituality for our time. There are eighty-eight Hebrew terms with over 810 occurrences in the Old Testament and thirty-six Greek terms with 169 occurrences in the New Testament. The subject matter is vast and fascinating and it has been a great joy to explore this theme in the Bible in some detail. 

One of the most moving passages in the Old Testament about the spirituality of wine can be found in the prophets. One way the prophets speak about God’s redemption is that God will allow His people to return from exile into the Promised Land where they will be able to cultivate their land once more and grow vines and craft wine. What is so powerful about this vision is that the prophets speak of the Israelites turning their spears (weapons of war) into pruning hooks (a device to tend to, prune, and cultivate vines). It is a vision of a peaceable kingdom where working the land and enjoying its fruit is a sign of God's redemption. This is only one of many beautiful passages in the Bible where growing vines and drinking wine is understood as a sign of God’s blessing and redemption. It is wonderful to explore how this theme evolves in Scripture and how life-giving and affirming this vision of wine in the Bible is.

Throughout the history of the Church, theologians have not only affirmed wine as a gift from God and a sign of redemption but also defended the enjoyment of wine against voices that wanted to forbid the drinking of wine. John Calvin, in his Institutes, argued well when he said that we have never been forbidden to laugh or to delight in musical harmony, or to drink wine. In another place he argued that God not only created food as a necessity but also for our delight and good cheer. If this were not true, Calvin argued, the prophets would not have reckoned them among the benefits of God that gladden the heart of humanity. Calvin cites Psalm 104:15 in particular, a very important text for understanding why wine is so important to our spiritual lives. It is wonderful to explore the theme of wine in the history of the Church and discover what an important and constructive role it had for so many centuries. Most people have also forgotten that wine was a primary medicine in the Ancient world including the biblical world and continued to be used widely as medicine until well into the nineteenth century. 

The prevalence of the theme of wine in the Bible begs the question of how important wine actually is in rituals like The Lord’s Supper or wedding feasts such as the wedding of Cana. The Jewish background to The Lord’s Supper is the lavish Passover celebration where four cups of wine were consumed over the span of an evening. Most of us have forgotten this background or think it is not important. We don’t usually thinking of feasting as a spiritual practice. If you read through Scripture carefully, however, you will find that feasts and celebrations were important ways by which believers cultivated their spiritual lives. I believe we rob ourselves of great joy when we neglect the importance of festive celebrations for our spiritual lives.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche uttered one of the most terrible accusations against Christians when he said they had not joy. I believe we must recover the importance of joy and the art of cultivating joy in our midst. If the ultimate goal of the Christian life is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever” (Westminster Catechism) why is there so little joy in the world and especially in the life of the Church? It seems that exhaustion, anxiety, fear, and loneliness have become specters with which many of us are all too familiar. Joy seems hard to come by. The accusation that Christians have no joy is indeed a terrible one. In my book I contribute to a renewed understanding of joy, why it is important, and how we can cultivate once more a sense of gratitude and joy in our midst. 

Joyful feasting was and still is very important on the family winery I grew up on. Though our lives were and still are fraught with tensions and challenges, we have not lost the art of celebrating and joyful feasting sometimes despite and in the midst of suffering and great disappointment. In addition, customers come daily to our tasting room and many of them want to learn to enjoy wine. They realize that wine is a wonderful gift that enriches their meals and family celebrations. To have a winery close by that crafts good wine is easily taken for granted. It seems that it takes small businesses to preserve and protect the craftsmanship that our ancestors have entrusted to us. Our local butcher closed its shop only a few years ago. The bakery shut down decades ago. We don’t have a grocer in our village anymore and we now have to travel to the next town to do our shopping. It amazes me that small family-owned wineries have been able to survive the onslaught of large supermarket chains and hold up the flag for small and unique family businesses. 

It is such an encouraging development in the United States to see all the farmer’s markets spring up all over country, the micro-brewery movement is nowhere stronger than in the U.S., and small independent coffee shops and bakeries have become once more popular at least in some neighborhoods. We are part of a small revolution that values creation, craftsmanship, and the local. We must learn to gather our neighbors and practice love of the neighbor in more tangible and economic ways such as supporting our local wine shop, bakery, brewery, butcher, grocer, and winery if you are blessed to have them close by.


Concluding Reflections


Life on my family’s winery has changed. My parents passed on the winery to my sister Gertrud and my brother-in-law Herbert. Two of their children are now training to become vintners. They have to learn the ways of craftsmanship just like my father, my sister, and brother-in-law did. It takes many vintages and decades of experience to gain the wisdom and knowledge one needs to tend to the vines and craft wines well. The younger generation can draw from the knowledge and wisdom of the older generation. And yet, the younger generation have different ideas about what a well-crafted wine might be. They bring in new ideas and perhaps recover some old ones. Some things change and others do not. The family home, rebuilt during the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth century, still stands and silently gives witness to the generations that come and go. My mother, who so loved being in the vineyard and in the garden, has gone home to her Creator. As a family we have to find new ways and new rhythms of gathering the larger family around the table to share meals and celebrate. The memories linger, but the life of the winery hurries along as the hustle and bustle continues. 

The life of faith also continues. The younger generation have to discover for themselves the life of faith and learn the ways of God. We still attend the little Lutheran St. Martin’s church in our village where our ancestors have worshipped for many generations. Our rich Lutheran rituals and traditions still provide the rhythms in which we learn to live life in light of our beliefs and our understanding of God as our Creator and Redeemer. 

But all is not well. Many vintners of the younger generation in Franconia find it hard to connect their lives and their work in the vineyard with the Christian faith of their ancestors. The wisdom of the past, and the understanding of how our Christian faith can inform our work in the vineyard, seem to be getting lost. We have seen that the insights of the vintners do shed light on and deepen our understanding of the spirituality of wine. These vintners also help us grasp more fully the potent scriptural metaphors for the Christian life from the world of wine. The dialogue between Christian spirituality and the world of wine is an important one. We must not forget the rich insights that the vintners can offer, and must trust that Scripture and the Christian tradition can still be meaningful and life-giving to those involved in crafting wine for the delight and enjoyment of humanity. 

* * *

Jesus’ very first miracle at the wedding of Cana challenges modern sentiments. When Jesus turned water into wine, He interrupted the natural flow of creation. This miracle invites us to believe that creation as a gift from God is not a closed system but open to God’s creative and redemptive presence.2 Rather than seeing God over and against creation, this miracle helps us see that God in Jesus Christ entered into creation to reveal God’s glory. What is rather remarkable about this first miracle is that Jesus came into the world to share and intensify the joy of ordinary people. 

* * *

The vision of the prophet Isaiah that God will swallow up death, wipe away the tears from all faces, and remove the disgrace of His people and instead provide a feast of rich food and well-aged wine has begun in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ (Isa. 25:6-8; Rev. 21:4). The Old Testament prophets instilled in God’s people a longing for a future redemption, where the harmonious times of Eden, the garden of delight, will be restored. Wine will flow in great abundance. When Christ transformed water into a great abundance of wine at the wedding of Cana, he provided a powerful sign that in Him these promises of old have come to be fulfilled.   

Rather than seeing the miracle of Cana as mere symbol or picturesque illustration hinting at greater spiritual realties, however, we can and must see in it the manifestation of God’s presence with His people and His desire to redeem all of creation. The gift of wine will always remain a visible expression of God’s blessing and His desire to rejoice with His people and make them glad. 

Wine in The Lord’s Supper will always remind us that Christ is the choice wine that God poured out for the life of the world. He is the noble grape that was crushed in the divine wine press so that the world might be reconciled with God and receive everlasting life. Even when Christ celebrated the Passover meal with His disciples, He prepared them for His departure and taught them that the fulfillment of his mission will only come in the future. And like the Old Testament prophets who envisioned the eschaton in terms of feasting and an abundance of wine, so does Jesus envision the completion of all things in terms of festive celebration, the reunion with his beloved, and the drinking of wine: “I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29; see also Mark 14:25; Luke 21:18). Meanwhile, as we enjoy a glass of wine prayerfully, it should always fill us with hope and the longing for a future time when Christ will return to renew the heavens and the earth. Life will then be like a grand wedding banquet where we no longer see God through a glass darkly, but we shall see Him face to face (Rev. 21:1-4; 1 Cor. 13:12).


1 Each interview was transcribed. Rather than citing vintners word by word, however, I have woven their reflections into a narrative in order to give flow and coherence to the material. The vintners were able to look over the material and give their consent before the publication of the material.

2 Jürgen Moltmann, The Future of Creation (London: SCM Press, 1979), pp. 115-19.


Excerpted from Gisela Kreglinger's The Spirituality of Wine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), xi–xv, 217–220. 


Gisela H. Kreglinger grew up on a winery in Franconia, Germany; her family has been crafting wine for many generations. She holds a PhD in historical theology from the University of St. Andrews, and she taught Christian spirituality for four years before turning to writing full-time. She has worked with different organizations and churches to establish the arts as a vital part in nourishing the spiritual life in contemporary culture. For more information about her see her website: www.giselakreglinger.com.

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