In Vino Societas
A sommelier and business owner considers the social importance of conviviality and craft.
Imagine for a moment that your grandfather produced wine all his life, that your family's joy was sitting around a table and at almost every meal enjoying a glass of wine together—wine you had sipped since you were old enough to remember. This is in fact Gisela Kreglinger's family history, a history very different from the teetotalling experience of many North American evangelicals. The taboos many evangelical children grow up with—that drinking is forbidden, that it's for the weak who overindulge, that it's for adults only, and that it would most certainly lead to shameful abuse—were unfamiliar to her Christian, winemaking family. While recognizing that the abuse of alcohol is a reality, Kregliner points out that "the prophets firmly upheld wine as a gift from God." While "the abuse of wine would lead to a disregard to God and his purposes," that is a feature of abuse and misuse, and is not inherent to wine itself (just as gluttony is not essential to food). The biblical narrative seems to include space for the craft and purpose of fermented drink and the celebratory communal place setting that it is often at the centre of. Kreglinger, a theologian, teases out these less-digested texts and themes in order to give us insight into the spirituality of wine.
My life with wine officially began thirteen years ago when preparing to open my first wine and specialty food store, Art of the Table. I chose the name intentionally to convey a purpose and to echo a biblical mandate facilitating the communal aspects of entertaining and encouraging the spiritual gift of hospitality. I knew far less about wine than I do today, but even then I knew that to sell it I would need to communicate a strong vision of quality, storied wines to my staff and future customers. Reading Kreglinger's thoughtful book thirteen years later has helped me articulate what I sensed back then. In particular, The Spirituality of Wine paints the biblical and historical context of wine, it communicates the joy of communal fellowship around feasting, and it provides a thoughtful and poignant view of wine as craft.
Kreglinger provides a solid context both for wine's place in biblical history and for our lives today. She conjures up visuals of God the Vintner who guards and protects, who is in many ways the wine shepherd. She gives multitudes of examples of wine-based metaphors from the Bible: "I am the vine, you are the branches," Jesus's miracle of making water into wine, and examples of the prophets who "speak figuratively about God and his relationship with his people concerning their identity, judgement, and redemption" in terms of vineyards and wine husbandry.
Moving beyond the biblical text itself, the first half of the book also brings together many aspects of the history of wine use in the Christian church. While this portion can sometimes feel lengthy, Kreglinger relates some of the historic and now modern struggles, such as whether wine (or just grape juice?) should be used in the Eucharist or not. The answer: the monks and the saints did! The king of Burgundy even donated land to French monasteries, and by the twelfth century monasteries were the largest producers of wine in Europe. They saw wine as the blood of the grape—a powerful symbol.
For anyone who appreciates wine and wants to challenge the notions of the modern wine industry or wants to weigh opinions of modern-day enjoyment of wine, the second half of the book is thought-provoking. I have found it to be a great conversation starter.
Most enjoyable to me was the way Kreglinger fleshes out the redemptive notion of communal feasting. In the Bible's redemption story there's a promised land with feasting and enjoyment—the idea of "embodied experiences which are especially powerful when we speak of invisible, spiritual truths." We know our bodies need food for strength, and the joy of the Lord is our strength, so why not communal feasting with wine? Why not a beautiful summer gathering in the backyard, table set, delicious, inspired foods made by our hands, and wine? Wine that we talk about together, wine that blends with conversation. We're ready to receive the fruit of the earth and labour together. Why not have "our fundamental posture in the Christian life be that of receptivity?," Kreglinger asks. And what better way to learn that than by feasting?
St. Benedict, with his emphasis on hospitality, brought food and wine together. Martin Luther, named after the patron saint of wine, apparently composed "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" in a wine tavern in Oppenheim, so even writing songs among friends while drinking wine seems perfectly communal!
Her play-by-play of Babette's Feast draws out the film's practiced, joyful feasting. "Christian feasting becomes a place where we embrace and cultivate this posture of gratitude and joyful celebration. It is a deeply spiritual practice, and we must rediscover it as such. Joyful feasting becomes a place where we remember God and his gifts to us. Fostering a posture of gratitude through thanksgiving and rejoicing opens up our lives to God's presence and his abundant generosity." While I might have appreciated a shorter synopsis, Kreglinger pivots from the film to raise an important question: "If eating and drinking are so important in the biblical worldview, why is the church so ambivalent to wine?" If we ate more slowly (like in Babette's Feast and in Europe) we could slowly savour and sit and chat and drink more!
While I resonate strongly with the call to communal feasting (when will you host your next gathering?), I think the most significant moments in the book centre on hand-craftedness and the goodness of work well done. When creating wine, how can we be socially responsible? How does wine reflect the image of our creator? In my world we often call it art. Wine is art made for your table. And the art that makes it to your table is a partnership of two different crafts, Kreglinger explains: "viticulture" (the cultivation of grapes and grape vines) and "viniculture" (the making of wine). Well-crafted wines, she says, can inform "the blessedness of conviviality around the table."
As a hyper-local, community-focused store owner who sells products people "want" not "need," I resonate with this vision Kreglinger captures: "God's redemption does not envision a world ruled by grand and rich landowners, in which the poor and socially vulnerable are forgotten. Rather, it paints an ideal vision of a peaceable kingdom, where every family sits down in its own orchard and vineyard—enjoying a modest abundance."
She interviews "craftsman vintners"; those who work with the land, who recognize that diversity in winemaking is a gift, not a threat. In a chapter titled "The Vintner as (Practicing) Theologian: Finder or Maker?" she emphasizes that with "big" winemaking, there is more reassurance and security because wines are basically made in a laboratory. To these producers, greatness means "sameness" and offers security to each batch and their own well-being, not the sippers'.
We work hard at my stores daily to select wines and wineries that are "right sized," owned by families, not conglomerates, and value the sort of craft Kreglinger describes. We direct ourselves toward wines that were tended, created, shepherded in a vineyard. My personal angst about the wine industry is that is has continued to evolve into a mass-produced giant with bulk wine filling the shelves and consumers drinking out of no consideration for what is in the bottle or where it came from. She remarks boldly, "In such a noisy and manipulated world it is difficult to contemplate and savor the great and subtle bounties that surround us in creation. Instead, we have become complicit by settling for food that is homogeneous, predictable and lacking in variety. . . . We have forgotten that eating and drinking can be deeply spiritual exercises that feed us as embodied and communal souls and root us in a particular place."
I, too, have learned through my travels and in conversations with vintners that, as Kreglinger articulates so well, "the rhythm of nature and life in the vineyard has deeply shaped life. Every year he watches new things come into existence: the first budding of the vines, the first blossoms, the first bees and insects, the summer in all its glorious majesty." This image is close to us in the springtime of the year, as we become aware of how gardening gives us bounty—only here it's the "fruit of the vine and the work of human hands."
As far as actually enjoying these well-crafted wines, in her chapter "To Drink Is to Pray: Savoring Wine as a Spiritual Practice," Kreglinger observes that those who make wine assume a posture of prayer. Big wineries manage, and their posture is outward, selfish—toward marketing, growth, and quantity. Smaller producers cultivate with a loving posture toward tending vines. She goes on, "Savoring a well-crafted wine . . . is both a science and an art form. It requires patient and devoted attention. It reveals to us something of God's abundant generosity. God could have just provided water, but he also gave us wine. Christ could have just let the wine run out at the wedding of Cana: instead, he provided an abundance of choice wine . . . learn to receive it as a gift from God." It turns out this kind of wine appreciation is like an apprenticeship in gratitude, which has much broader significance for our lives. "To be grateful means to pay attention to what God has given us, to give thanks for it, to share it and to appreciate it together." That would be a good habit for our common life together beyond the table.
While my stores and I are always in a state of change, we have to remain thoughtful and focused on inspiring people to stories of quality and craftsmanship. So while it may take a little more effort and maybe a little more money to plan and execute a great meal with quality beverages, Kreglinger helps us realize how coming together around a table set simply (or lavishly) with beautiful linens, glassware, and candles enables us to enjoy the idea of slow eating, conversation, and community. It's all about the art—made by God, cultivated by farmers for the table for the purpose of sitting and communing together. In my world, there's nothing better than friends and family and just that.Subscribe