In Numbers 13 we read that when Moses sent in the twelve spies to scout the land of Canaan, it happened to be the season of the first ripe grapes. [vs. 20]
They reached Wadi Eshcol, and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them and some pomegranates and figs. That place was named Wadi Eshcol [cluster valley] because of the cluster that the Israelites cut down there.
The pictogram of two persons carrying a huge bunch of grapes on a pole between them is of course the familiar insignia of the Israel ministry of tourism after all, the spies were the first tourists to visit Israel. Grapes, the third of the seven species [Deuteronomy 8:8], have always served as a symbol par excellence of the agricultural plenty of Eretz Yisrael.
Of course, wine has had a dual significance since earliest times. In Psalms we read of wine that cheers the hearts of men [104:14], and in Leviticus and elsewhere, it is described as an integral part of the sacrifices the libation offering poured out on the altar [for example, 23:13]. On the other hand, wines first appearances in the Bible are in the episodes of drunkenness of Noah [Genesis 9:18-27] and Lot [Genesis 19:30-38]; in both cases the results were disastrous both morally and historically. Despite this dark side, however, the dominant view of wine is positive, and we associate it in our tradition with occasions of holiness and of joy, as one of the central symbols of the Shabbat, certainly of Pesach, and of all other holy times, in the community and in the family. Indeed, its hard to imagine Jewish life without wine; its hard to imagine French or Italian life without wine too, but somehow theres a difference. Wine has a different place, a religious place, in Jewish culture, a symbolic significance; it is not just part of our everyday diet.
On top of our hillside here at Shorashim there is an ancient gat [winepress] cut into the limestone. About ten years ago the bar mitzvah class excavated it with an archaeologist, as a class project, cutting away the overgrowth and clearing away fill. It is about time to do it again. These are a common feature of the landscape, and every amateur archaeologist can identify them. It is interesting to conjecture who carved it there. Moslems are forbidden to drink wine. Every Arab house has a grape arbor on the roof, and in late summer the heavy clusters are a beautiful sight as you walk through the villages; but these grapes are only for eating, not for winemaking. Perhaps there was a Christian community here in Byzantine times; perhaps a Jewish village.
When the Rothschilds decided to help the Zionist settlers find an economic base in the late 19th century, as good Frenchmen they tried to nurture the wine industry here, sending cuttings and experts. It took a while, and a certain amount of trial and error, but they did ultimately succeed, and every Zionist is familiar with Carmel wines from the Rothschilds wineries at Zichron Yaakov and Rishon Letzion; for years, Jews bought them (maybe they still do) as a gesture of solidarity, regardless of their quality. Only twenty years ago, it was almost impossible to find any wines in the shops here except a handful of rather boring Carmel varieties. In recent years, however, the industry has grown and the market has opened up; now there are many wineries large and small, and new varieties of grapes grown in the Golan, the Galilee, Judah, and the coastal plain. The supermarket wine aisle feels almost like America (well, not really), with a broad range of tastes and prices.
Many people including, often, me - are nostalgic for the good old days in Israel, when there were four soft drinks and two kinds of bread, before commercialization and globalization, when everyone ate falafel instead of MacDonalds. But I dont think there is anyone who doesnt take pleasure from the development of the wine industry. The good life as symbolized by the supermarket wine aisle is the same good life the spies saw three thousand years ago. And its worth noting that the ultimate good life is described by the prophet Micah [4:3-4] thus:
...Nation shall not take up sword against nation;
They shall never again know war;
But every man shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree