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A Feature Review of
The Spirituality of Wine
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2016
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Reviewed by Jeff Nelson
My first encounter with this book came about a month before I agreed to review it. While attending the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, a friend and I attended an after-hours wine and cheese party hosted by Eerdmans. As we walked in to the gathering, a woman—presumably the author—was reading an excerpt from The Spirituality of Wine to help set the mood for the evening, which was a relaxed time of enjoying food, conversation, and, of course, wine.
I regret that I didn’t make it a point to introduce myself to the author that night, but I remember the event being a time of joy and fellowship. At least partial credit, I think, could be given to the provided beverages. As I read this work, I naturally recalled that evening’s festivities, as they embodied much of what she describes over the course of the book.
The book has two sections. The first, Sustenance, could be considered the historical-theological portion. Kreglinger first gives the reader a fairly exhaustive survey of Biblical texts that mention wine, of which there are many. Some may be surprised to find that the vast majority of them reference it favorably as a sign of prosperity, peace, or enjoyment. In the Old Testament, wine is often included in imagery of a prominent future of Israel where all will be able to feast and live life abundantly. This use continues in the New Testament as Jesus not only performs his water-to-wine miracle at a wedding feast, but during his final meal with the disciples envisions a day when he will once again drink of the fruit of the vine with them in a blessed new reality.
Kreglinger’s frequent refrain is the notion that wine is a gift from God. As something produced from the earth of God’s creation that lends itself to enhancing humanity’s company with one another, she suggests that wine should be appreciated as a blessing: “A biblical understanding of redemption encompasses all of creation, including the vine and wine. We will understand God’s redeeming purposes in much broader ways when we re-envision ourselves within this larger community and realize that wine is first of all a lavish gift of an incredibly generous, loving, and forgiving giver.” (16-7)
After Kreglinger’s analysis of the Bible, she turns her attention to the history of wine in the church, which is also quite extensive. We learn that early church leaders and theologians such as Cyprian and Augustine praised wine’s positive attributes. We learn that many monasteries and other religious communities kept vineyards to not only sustain themselves but to offer gifts to the neighborhoods in which they resided. We learn about Dom Perignon, a Benedictine monk and creator of one of the first champagnes. And we learn how recently Christian calls to abstain from wine and other alcoholic drinks really are, as they didn’t become prominent until around the time of Prohibition in the early 1900s. Up until that point, many in the church much more readily embraced wine as a gift to be enjoyed in moderation rather than a source of evil to be altogether condemned.
Kreglinger then explores the use of wine particularly in the sacrament of communion. During this chapter, her theological treatment of the book’s central idea is perhaps most pronounced and complete, as in addition to wine being a gift from God’s creation, she also notes how—particularly through the celebration of communion—it creates community and grounds us in a lived reality: “The Lord’s Supper, central to our lives as Christians, is a wholly physical and communal experience. It calls on our mind, our senses, and our imagination to receive Christ and his work on the cross as a living presence in bread and wine, the fruit of the very earth that God made. This is a profoundly embodied and thus sensual experience and anchors our spirituality in creation.” (67)
The next two chapters further elaborate on this theme as Kreglinger explores the enjoyment of wine both communally and as individuals. In group contexts, she notes, wine helps loosen both one’s tongue and guardedness to create a relaxed air among all dining together. In addition, she suggests that wine is a drink meant to be savored slowly and contemplatively, noting its texture and unique flavoring. In this way, sipping wine becomes an act of slowing down, reflection, and attentiveness.
The second half of the book, Sustainability, considers more modern issues related to wine. The first few chapters in this section address how wine is made. Kreglinger interviewed many vintners in regions prominently known for their wine production such as parts of Europe and the western United States. She details the wine-making process that begins with caring for the soil in which it is produced, through the harvest and preparation of grapes, fermentation, and eventual finalization. With each step come frequent reminders of how much of an impact the specifics have to any given year’s worth of wine. From chemicals present in the fields to the depth of the vine root to the weather to the quality of grape to where the juice is left to ferment, all have a role to play in the end result, which will vary from case to case and from one locale to another. The act of making wine is as deliberate a process as tasting it.
This leads to the next chapter, which decries more modern and industrial methods of wine-making that result in an inferior product. Kreglinger details some of the ways large companies attempt to mass produce something that simulates what more careful vintners make through a much slower series of steps, but is ultimately cheap, inauthentic, and lacks nuance. The taste and body of a well-crafted product cannot be manufactured through shortcuts, much like communal or individual spiritual growth.
Kreglinger next explores several issues related to health. She first presents multiple studies that delineate the positive effects that moderate wine drinking can have on the mind and heart. She takes the reader all the way back to Hippocrates and his praising of wine’s benefits to physical well-being, up through the modern day.
After this, she follows up by addressing what might be the large elephant in the room for some readers: the dangers inherent to abuse of and dependence on alcohol. Kreglinger lauds the work of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and others that work with those who face such struggles, and is very forthright in acknowledging how real a problem this is for many people. As she often has throughout the book, she also stresses the difference between enjoying wine in moderation and over-consuming it to one’s own detriment. Several times over the course of this work, she shares a saying from her German heritage: “to drink is to pray, to binge-drink is to sin.” Such a maxim guides her reflection throughout her presentation, and she carefully differentiates between healthy and unhealthy drinking more than once.
This book is a fascinating look at the theology, history, production, tasting, and appropriate consumption of one of the world’s most popular beverages. Much like its subject, it may be best enjoyed slowly and attentively for proper appreciation.