Ancient ceramic wine storage jars from Israel date back to 1,500 BC. A modern-era California winery has adopted ceramic bottles for its signature look. (Credit: Brandeis; Futurity CC license.)
As we approach the Thanksgiving weekend in the United States, we often pause to reflect that the nation’s first celebration of Thanksgiving dates back to the early 17th century when pilgrim immigrants and Native Americans came together to share a meal of gratitude.
By the time that historic meal took place, a banquet hall in the Canaanite region of northern Israel had already sat in ruins for more than 3,000 years. According to Brandeis assistant professor of classics, Andrew Koh, the hall site is remarkably pristine. More often than not thieves have ransacked a site, or a later civilization built has over it and destroyed some of it in the process. Thus, Koh and an international group of collaborators are getting an unprecedented glimpse into the banquet celebration practices of ancient Canaanites as they excavate the wine cellar of a palace that dates back to about 1,500 BC.
The wine cellar contains 40 ceramic jars about one meter tall. Each jar can hold a volume of about 50 liters. Initially, the team is focusing on chemical analysis of the organic residues (Koh’s specialization) to understand the winemaking craft of the era because, as Koh said in a phone interview, “Residue analysis is the [priority] because of the delicate nature of the evidence.” As a result, he says, “Ceramic research is lagging behind,” but the group intends to study the jars themselves eventually.
According to Koh, the jars are utilitarian and purely functional. “They are well-constructed but nothing special,” he says. However, they appear to be made from the same clay and fired in the same way, suggesting they were made for the palace by a single workshop, he adds.
Most likely, the wine would have been made in the vineyard regions of northern Israel where wine grapes are still grown today. The vineyards are far enough away that wine would have been transported to the palace in the jars. Koh said the 40 jars were mostly indistinguishable from one another, however, the rims varied slightly in groups. The archeologists speculate that the rims correspond to different batches or lots of wine. According to a press release, nothing is known about the purpose of the banquets, who hosted them, or why the palace was abandoned.
As the picture shows, the jars are tapered and do not have flat bottoms but are torpedo-shaped with thick points and were not intended to be moved often. Koh says they would have been pushed into a dirt floor for storage or supported by metal or wooden stands (none of which survive at this site). The team has collected sherds from the pointed ends for evaluation and petrography later on.
Over the millennia, the fundamentals of winemaking have remained unchanged—grapes, yeast, and time combined according to the vintner’s magic touch. Oenophiles relish the tasting experience and the sleuthing out of the grape’s experience on its way to becoming a wine. However, imbibers of Mer Soleil Vineryard’s Silver Chardonnay will not detect any “oakiness” in the wine because it is fermented in concrete tanks. Instead, it picks up a “minerally” flavor, according to a video on MSV’s website.
The wine is not only fermented in concrete tanks, it is distributed in ceramic bottles. MSV winemaker Charlie Wagner II, a third generation winemaker, got to thinking about ceramic bottles for wine after drinking a beer from a ceramic bottle. In an interview with Wines & Vines, he says, “After looking at this [beer bottle] for a over a year, it hit me that this bottle sort of resembled the concrete tanks that we use for our unoaked Silver Chardonnay.”
The winemaker worked with MKM, the German manufacturer of the inspirational beer bottle, to get the right color, right labeling process, and good enough strength. The color is customized to match the concrete color of the fermentors. Applying a label proved tricky. Pressure-sensitive labels did not adhere well to the bottle. Ultimately, they were unable to find an adhesive that would hold a label on a bottle in an ice bucket. Wagner says, “We scrapped the idea of paper labels and pursued silk screening, which had its own set of issues.” The largest issue was cracking of the bottles during secondary firing of the silk-screened design. Eventually, a low firing temperature paint was found, and MSV started bottling in ceramic.
The marketplace has responded well to the unique bottles, and MSV has grown from producing 1,000 cases in 2008 to 50,000 cases in 2011. There is a bit of a cost premium—35 to 40 cents per bottle—for the ceramic compared to glass, but, Wagner says, “ … we see it as a great investment due to the visual attention it receives as compared to its glass cousins. To me it feels like a more expensive bottle than it actually is.”
Ultimately, MSV’s ceramic bottles serve exactly the same purpose as the ancient Canaanite jars—they transport wine from the winery to the feast. There will be a bottle of Silver Chardonnay on my family’s Thanksgiving Day table as we celebrate our many blessings. I count you among them.