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Wine at Its Time

March 1, 2012 By:
Jewish Exponent Feature
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A fermentation vat used for making wine in Shivta, Israel

 

Purim is coming -- and with it is the injunction to drink ad lo yada; that is, to imbibe until you are unable to tell who is the good guy (Mordechai) and who is the bad guy (Haman) in the Purim story. 
 
So to get you in the holiday mood for the celebration -- Purim begins the evening of March 7 -- here is a story appropriately enough about wine.
 
You'll need to use a bit of imagination for this one, as the Nabatean/Byzantine village of Shivta www.goisrael.com, (search Shivta) didn't always look the way it does today. Nowadays, Shivta's well-preserved remains sit on a parched Negev site, 34 miles southwest of modern day Beersheva. 
 
To be diplomatic, it is located in the middle of nowhere.
 
Everything looks dry. When you walk around, you won't find any natural springs or wells. Only 3.94 inches of rain falls in a year. More than likely, you'd think that nothing could grow there.
 
But switch frames: Picture a bright autumn day in a village of 2,800 people, a number of whom are out and about on Shivta's wide streets. Some residents, for example, are at Shivta's well-maintained cistern collecting water for their households.
 
But the place "to be" is the treading floor. Over there, excitement is mounting as the farmers carry in straw baskets filled with clusters of grapes. When everyone is organized, people will take turns stomping on their grapes.
 
Soon, the juice or must will begin to flow. The fall wine season is under way.
 
So how do these two contrasting scenes of inactivity versus productivity fit? In other words, how did a thriving wine industry function under the above-mentioned conditions?
 
Fascinatingly, Mattanyah Zohar, a prominent climatologist, notes that today's average rainfall is significantly less than the average in Shivta's heyday. He points out that just as climate change dramatically affects today's economic and social conditions, so it did back in ancient times.
 
Basing his conclusions on sedimentation in caves and lake cores, Zohar reports that when Shivta was flourishing in the sixth and seventh centuries, the rainfall was close to eight inches. Accordingly, this more upbeat period of time even has its own special name: The Byzantine Optimum.
 
Calculations show that Shivta's wine presses produced about 528,000 gallons of wine. That's no sour grapes.
 
Unbelievable as it may seem, farmers in what is today a dry surrounding grew several different types of fruit. In fact, they developed a complex, but profitable farming system called intensive runoff agriculture.
 
Simply put, they captured the water from sudden, intense rain showers. "Simply put," however, does not mean simply built or maintained.
 
Consequently, the farmers had to manually construct a method for collecting the rainfall before it seeped into the often bone-dry earth. Remember, this was in the days before there were trench-digging machines, bulldozers and trucks.
 
Thus, these ancient growers back-wrenchingly removed the stones laying on the surface of Shivta's hills; carefully dug spaced ditches along the slopes; constructed terraced plots along the wadi (dried-up waterway, except in times of rain) banks; and optimized the growers' plots by allocating large water catchment areas.
 
Moreover, according to archaeologist Moti Hyman, the ancient growers stacked stones in a cone-like fashion around the vines. Overnight, dew would collect on the stones; the stones then funneled the accumulated dew down to the plants.
 
Hyman reports that in ancient Israel this method was used throughout the Negev. Astonishingly, some Bedouin farmers still employ this method (known as <em> tuleilat el anab</em>, the Arabic term roughly means "grape mound") and Tal-Ya Technologies, a new Israeli water technology company, markets sustainable agriculture products based on this ancient system www.tal-ya.com/album.html.
 
Under the heading of waste-not-want-not, Shivta farmers raised thousands of pigeons in columbaria. They ate the pigeons and yearly spread 15 tons of their droppings as ready fertilizer. 
 
Two intact wine presses are still visible at Shivta, one at the northern end and one at the western end.
 
The northern wine press stands in close proximity to the northern church. It differs from the western wine press in two significant ways: It does not have an area for storing baskets of grapes, and it has only one wine tank.
 
Conjecture is that the Byzantine monks affiliated with the northern church/monastery farmed communally; hence, they would not have had a need to separately store and process their grapes.
 
At the western wine press, the entire process of ancient wine making is laid out. For example, visitors may observe where growers stored their grapes until they were ready to begin crushing them.
 
Cost-effectively, the growers built the walls of the storage units in a way that separates and traps any leaking grape juice.
 
Adjacent and below the roomy storage area were both the 323 square feet of treading zones and the vats used in the initial fermentation. The paved treading floor has openings where the must flowed through a channel into two lower holding tanks or vats. 
 
Interestingly, each of these vats has a deep impression. This intentional structure caught the skins and seeds that would separate and eventually sink to the bottom of the container.
 
Shivta wine producers built impressive thick stone towers for second fermentation and/or storage. The towers stood in close proximity to the presses; they guaranteed that the wine would sit in a dark, consistently cold environment. 
 
Towers discovered in nearby Nahal (Hebrew word for "stream") Lavan had plastering on the outside. Thus, Shivta farmers must have had some yet-to-be-discovered method for releasing built-up carbon dioxide. 
 
Agricultural expert Ruti Erez Edelson's research in 2004 suggested that not one, not two, but three categories of wine were produced at Shivta -- two for export and one for local consumption.
 
Of the export-quality wines, one was designated for rich connoisseurs -- meaning that even in ancient times, people had the taste for and money to spend on fine wine. The second export type was probably of good quality, but not for wine collectors.
 
Shivta wine producers proved the truth of the axiom: Where there is the will, there is a way. 

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