August 4, 2020

Adam McHugh: And God Gave Wine


The Psalms tell us that the Lord gives wine to gladden the human heart. That is one scripture I have absolutely no problem obeying. All kinds of gladdening happen every time I open a bottle of wine. The image of clusters of ripe grapes that will be crushed, fermented, bottled, and poured into glasses makes my heart exult. I love learning about wine, smelling wine, looking at the bottles in my wine refrigerator, finding the perfect wine and food pairings, and introducing people to new wines.

If I never drank another glass of wine, I can honestly tell you that my passion would not change. Wine, for me, is not about the consumption of alcohol. The effect that it has on my body is insignificant in comparison to the meaning and the depth that it brings to my life. Wine has become a ruby, or straw, colored window into the past, into a rich and diverse history of men and women who looked into their wine glasses and found romance and poetry and beauty and God. It has become a pilgrimage companion, accompanying me to places in the world where vines are not just plants but sources of life, where place is not just where you are standing but who you are. It has become a looking glass into the future, as I have come to envision heaven not as an ethereal realm but a vast table where the wine will flow freely and the nations will laugh openly.

The thing about wine is that it was not made nor conceived of by humans. It was discovered. Wine happens. Probably around 8,000 years ago, a woman left a bunch of grapes in an open container for a few days, and the grapes on the bottom started to release their juice. When she returned, she noticed that the grapes had changed. They smelled different, they tasted different, and they made her feel different. What she did not know was that when the grapes were crushed and exposed to oxygen, the yeasts swirling in the hot wind could do their work and convert the sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide. What she did know was that the partially crushed grapes tasted so much better than usual.

To the ancients, then, wine was considered a miracle of God and thus used in sacred rituals and meals. The biblical tradition is not shy about its passion for wine. The Psalmist sings that the Lord gave “wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart,” inspiring northern Italian chefs for millennia to come. When Moses dreams of a Promised Land he proclaims that God “will love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock, in the land that he swore to your ancestors to give you.” Wine, it seems, is a fruit of God’s blessing, a silky symbol of his lovingkindness. A Promised Land is not truly promising unless it produces a harvest of ripe grapes that make a full-bodied wine.

Centuries later the apostle Paul would scold his protégée Timothy for only drinking water and direct him to “take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” Wine in the ancient world was prized for its healing effects, because the combination of alcohol, acidity, and healthy bacteria were an antidote to the untrustworthy elements of their diet and the impurities of their water supply. Today, the antioxidants and other elements that are present particularly in red wines are considered to be components of a healthy diet, when taken in moderation.

For all its sober cautions against overindulgence, the Bible regularly chooses images of wine and grapes and vineyards to represent the covenant relationship between God and his people. The fruitfulness of the people and the faithfulness of their God, or conversely, the withering of the people and the judgment of God are embodied in vineyards and harvests and wine presses. The covenant reaches its climax in the events of one evening, in which a man, hours before he is betrayed, puts a cup of wine into the hands of his friends and says “This is my blood.”

wine4Jesus had already demonstrated himself to be a master vintner without equal in John 2, in which he managed to produce the best wine the guests have ever tasted without aging it. In identifying his death with wine, Jesus ensured that wine would be in the centerpiece of Christian theology and practice for all generations to follow. We not only look back to that sacramental cup but we look forward to celebrating God’s victory at the end of the ages, because Jesus vowed that he would not drink “of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” I’m relieved to know that at the eschatological banquet, the feast of the Lamb, we won’t be toasting with water. It’s bad luck, you know. That is gonna be some damn good wine.

Wine’s sacramental qualities set the stage for generations of his followers to cultivate the wine grape, both for sacred and pragmatic purposes. If your community is planning to continually re-enact the Last Supper, you’re going to need plenty of wine. Thus began a long, rich tradition of monasteries cultivating grapevines on their property, refining viticultural processes and finding spiritual meaning in the difficult, back-bending labor. Dom Perignon, 17th century monastic vintner in Epernay in northern France, toiled for years to achieve the secondary fermentation that produces the now legendary streaming Champagne bubbles. One day he tasted his work, and cried out to his Benedictine brothers: “Come quickly! I am drinking the stars!

Last fall, I visited the mission at San Juan Capistrano, where the father of the California missions, Junipero Serra, was based for a time. The mission proclaims itself as “the birthplace of the California wine industry,” and as the Franciscans moved northward to establish new missions, one of the first things they would do is plant vines so they could celebrate the sacrament and also sell grapes to fund their missionary endeavors.

As a pastor and unabashed oenophile, I fantasize about presiding at the Lord’s table one Sunday and saying “This morning the body of our Lord Jesus will be accompanied by a spicy little Syrah from the Rhone Valley of France. You’ll notice that the blood will have a bursting bouquet of blackberries and blackcurrants, along with hints of earth and smoke.” Even though I’m pretty sure I would get the Ananias and Sapphira treatment, my last words would be “Wooorrth iiit…”

Ultimately I believe that wine has embedded itself so deeply into ancient and modern cultures not because of its smell or taste, which can border on profound, but because mystics and theologians and romantics throughout history have found deeper meaning in the life cycle of wine. The story of wine is one of transformation. In it we are given clues about what God is able to do with the ordinary, earthy elements of life. The story of wine is about the transformation of the commonplace into the sacred, or perhaps about the revelation that the sacred has been there all along. Grapes are converted into transcendent flavors and aromas, dirt is transformed into holy ground, wine becomes sacrament, average meals are elevated into sacred offerings, and everyday labors are raised into vocation.

* * *

Adam McHugh is a writer, spiritual director, ordained minister, and the author of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture. He is giving living in Santa Barbara wine country one more chance, and if it doesn’t work this time, he’s gonna start drinking beer.


  1. br. thomas says

    “God in His goodness
    sent the grapes to cheer
    both great and small.
    Little fools will drink too much,
    and great fools none at all.”

  2. Wine is celebrated in Islamic mysticism as well, despite being technically prohibited.

    • If you’ve ever been on an airplane leaving a predominantly Muslim country, the sight is hilarious. As soon as the plane gets into international airspace, the booze comes out! And it’s not just the international folks who are doing the drinking.

      • A lot of Muslims honestly think that things that are Haram where they live are not so in other places. A friend of mine is a University professor in the UAE and had students use this excuse to explain their bragging about their numerous sexual escapades in Egypt while on spring break.

        There is also a school of thought that certain prohibitions are for the sake of the weaker brother and are not technically Haram. Liquor falls into that category.

  3. Awesome!

    And when His promises are attached to it (shed..for you)…then it IS His true blood…”given for you.”

    What a gift! (even if it’s that sweet, cheap, communion wine)

    • The Episcopal fellowship I attend uses port–and it ain’t the cheap stuff.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        I have long said that if you want good communion wine, go Episcopal. We Lutherans, on the other hand, select our communion wine for its indestructibility. That jug can sit in the closet for months, and won’t be any worse than it was when first opened.

      • Xinomavro

        I made the mistake of drinking “several” cups of Xinomavro at the Greek Festival, failing to remember that Father always diluted it with warm water for the Eucharist. My daughter had to drive home.

  4. Thank you for the post, Adam. Personally, I take the principle and apply it to beer.


    p.s. To be more accurate I apply the principles to ales and stouts.

  5. Adam, what a wonderfully thought provoking and well written gift to me this morning! Reading this (and other posts here at IM) almost makes getting up at four thirty daily for my new job bearable!!

  6. A wonderful meditation, but could it not have waited until Bright Week? We Orthodox are cheerless until then, although we can have a glass on the Feast of the Annunciation coming this next Tuesday. It’ll have to be white to go with the fish though.

  7. “…I have come to envision heaven not as an ethereal realm but a vast table where the wine will flow freely and the nations will laugh openly.” I like that, Adam. Wonderful post!

  8. Adam thanks your timing is super with my favorite Holiday here Purim

    I still remember one of the rabbis remarks to drink till you can’t tell Haman from Mordecai. and plan on spending the night!

  9. This is a fun read (though I think he might be a bit too harsh on teetotalers):

    • No disrespect to the disciples of grape or grain, but the other side of the alcohol question is best represented, not by the Baptists who are also against dancing and fornication, but by AA.

      • Never mind–I see AA discussed at length below. (Not that Luther was a Baptist anyway.)

  10. I once heard it said that; “Our best theology is spoken through purple teeth.”

  11. Back in the days when I still listened to the White Horse Inn, they would occasionally do an episode skewering the Prohibitionist streak in American Christianity. One of their better lines in that episode (I forget which one of them said it) was along the lines of “If we could just get evangelicals to loosen up and enjoy some table fellowship and properly enjoyed beer and wine, we could cut the number of psychological counciling sessions needed in half.”

  12. @Adam:; so after 230plus comments on the Driscoll thread, what is the appropriate wine ? Can I get that in a magnum or larger ??

  13. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    And this is what you guys gave up (very Righteously and Piously) for thimbles of Welch’s.

    • We refresh our lips with thimbles of Welch’s when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in my church. After reading this post, I must confess the juice often leaves me wanting. It wasn’t always that way, I remember with fondness the sweet port that used to be served. Perhaps the intentions were pious and righteous, but they were also motivated by the genuine concern for the weaker brother. I do wonder if we’ve sacrificed too much for the struggling few at the expense of the many who are parched and seek the transcendent gift through wine.

  14. I grew up in an evangelical traditition (Plymouth Brethren) that used wine in a common cup. My parents liked the taste of this particular wine, and so asked the elders where they were getting it from. The elders wouldn’t tell!

  15. Michelle Toste says

    My comment will be “slightly” different than the others. First off…I thoroughly enjoyed this article! I appreciate the perspective, and the expertise. For some of us, however (am I pointing out the obvious?)..abstaining from any form of alcohol seems to be the wiser choice.
    Having come from 2 alcoholic parents…(my mother who’s life was shipwrecked/devastated by alcohol, and who passed away at 39), I have chosen not to indulge. Part of this comes from seeing my own tendencies (bipolar/depression)…and feeling that drinking would be addictive to me, and destructive for my life and family.
    Notwithstanding…I can completely see the benefits and that it is recommended, accepted, and promoted in the Bible…for certain people (maybe even most!)…but not for others. So let us all make that “wise” choice.

    • This is so true. I’m very careful how much I drink, and who I drink with. I abstain when I’m with people whom I know can’t have a drink. I’ve held parties which I’ve advertised as “non-alcoholic” for that very reason.

    • My son, who recently turned drinking age, has decided not to drink. He knows that I struggled with alcohol when I was a youth and says, “why would I open that Pandora’s box.”

      This decision was entirely of his own accord, and we did not exert any pressure on him in the matter.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      At St Boniface. we serve communion under both species when possible. Nothing says you have to take it under both. If you have to stay away from alcohol, you take it under the bread only.

    • Thanks for pointing this out. Also, some people are rightfully uncomfortable being around people who are indulging because it evokes for them not merry ruddy-cheeked hobbit memories, but things far less pleasant. I can’t stand the implication that alcohol is a must for fun and relaxation, or that people who have reservations about it are “just uptight.”

    • I remember reading somewhere, years ago, that in parts of Europe alcoholism is treated not by prescribing abstinence, as it is here in the U.S. and particularly with Alcoholics Anonymous, but by teaching moderation. In this sense it is similar to the way that gluttony is treated, not by abstaining from eating but by learning eat in moderation.

      And yes, I know that alcohol is optional and food is not. But still, I wonder if teaching moderation would be a better way of treating alcoholism than abstinence. Just curious if anyone knew anything about this.

      • Does it really work? Alcoholism is (partly) a physical addiction, after all, in a way that gluttony isn’t.

        I have a friend who’s a recovering alcoholic. She says that while she may one day reach the point where she can just have a drink or two, she’s not there right now and won’t be for a long time.

        • I believe that food can be every bit as much as an addiction (for some) that alcohol is. (Others better informed my correct me if I am wrong.)

          • Josh in FW says

            I think this is true, especially for people with atypical body chemistry, that certain foods (sugar, gluten, etc.) can have as much of an ability to create physical cravings as alcohol.

      • I was once told by a Jew that their children are introduced to wine at an early age, but only as something very special, i.e. for use on significant occasions such as Passover. That way, they learn to respect it and they don’t end up with problems of over-indulgence and misuse.

        • There are just as many (proportionally) Jewish alcoholics as gentile ones. A lot of cultures tell themselves this same fairytale, though.

      • The tendency may be genetic, at least partly.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Both approaches have their problems.

        Teaching Moderation (European “Wet” method) does teach how to use it responsibly and more-or-less safely. However, this isn’t much help if your DNA rolled a one (like Steven King’s) and you’re easily physically addicted to it.

        Total Abstinence (American “Dry” method) runs the risk of making alcohol The Forbidden Fruit while not teaching how to handle it responsibly. (Further complicated by the history of “Dry” activism among Real True Christian(TM) types.) Because of US drinking age, alcohol has also become the closest thing mainstream American culture has to a “now you’re Adult” coming-of-age transition. Result you have a lot of new adults who can now drink their brains out on The Forbidden Fruit without limit. And things get ugly.

        As one story about American seminarians in Italy (where wine is universal, even at breakfast) put it: “You Americans drink like the Irish — always as Much as you can and as Strong as you can to get as Drunk as you can as Fast as you can.”

        I’ve also used a similar argument (abstinence making a Forbidden Fruit while ignoring safety precautions) for firearms. Except in that application, it can get a lot uglier. (Especially if you have a troubled kid who notices adults are terrified of guns; instant Magic Wand/Ring of Power as well as Forbidden Fruit.)

      • That’s a really good question, Calvin. I wonder how the alcoholism situation is in a place like Germany, with Oktoberfest and rather liberal drinking stance. Does anyone have any data to compare Germany’s alcoholism rates with the USA and other countries?

      • Thank you for your responses, they are both insightful and helpful.

        Interesting stats, Michael. No surprise that Muslim countries ranked last, but Columbia among the “0.0” countries? That seems very odd to me.

        In college I had a drinking buddy and we drank a lot, mostly beer. I drank on weekends; he drank 24/7 (OK, I’m exaggerating a bi–but not much). I could put it down, he could not. I saw him again a few years after graduation and he was carrying around a bottle of Everclear (can’t recall the exact label) with him when he came to visit which he would add to his Coke. If your not familiar with this product it is pure ethanol. He was a full-blown alcoholic. So yes, genetics must have something to do with it.

        I will continue counseling alcoholics to abstain from alcohol; this appears to be the safest way. As for me, I’m good with a glass cabernet sauvignon most evenings, but only at home or at a dinner where the host serves it or a restaurant where my guests are OK with it.

  16. Joseph (the original) says

    amen and amen and amen!


    ~Primitivo Joe, aka, St. Joseph Bernard de Vinho

  17. Dana Ames says

    The Russian farmers who gave their adjoining parcels of land for our church in the 1930s kindly left a vineyard planting of at least an acre. It lay alive but untended for a lot of years. A fellow in our parish who works for a Sonoma County winery has been tending it for some time now, and revived it. We’re about to be enjoying the fruit of that labor 🙂 after the first “new” crush 3 years ago. The wine we have been using up to now has been rather sweet. but I don’t think it’s Port.

    In the Orthodox Church, the bread is put into the chalice and absorbs some of the the water/wine therein. For Communion, we are given a portion of the mix from a special spoon. The priests know who has difficulties with alcohol and contrive to give them more bread than wine, but there’s always some small amount of wine; at least in our parish, no one has returned to alcoholic drinking behavior because of receiving Communion. Nowadays, priests know about alcoholism and work pastorally with people so no one’s conscience is violated, but they still receive the Sacrament, The bread is leavened, because it’s viewed not so much as a icon of sacrifice as of the life of Christ, as well as the Body of Christ – which also means his people, who continue to grow and increase. There is some internal evidence in the NT text that Jesus may actually have used leavened bread at the Last Supper, as it may not have taken place on the first evening of Passover, but rather a couple of days before.

    Interestingly, in the early years of the church, the people took the communion home and consumed it in bits throughout the week. Wary of abuse or desecration, taking communion became restricted to eating it at church, but still under “both species” and with one’s own hands. At about the same time the church in the west was restricting it further to the bread only, with the priest placing it on the recipient’s tongue, the church in the east instituted the spoon, in order to keep the bread and the wine together physically. Unfortunately, one of the arguments between west and east that contributed to the schism was whether the bread should be leavened or unleavened, along with, of course, who got to decide…

    When I was a student in Germany, I occasionally attended the generic Protestant service at the American Army base chapel. They had weekly communion, and a clever way of presenting the circular tray with the little glasses containing the grape stuff. For people whose tradition was grape juice or who otherwise wished not to drink wine, the outer 3-4 rows of glasses contained red grape juice. For those who wanted wine, the circular cluster of glasses in the center of the tray contained a lovely local white German wine. People partook according to conscience as the tray was passed.


    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      For people whose tradition was grape juice or who otherwise wished not to drink wine, the outer 3-4 rows of glasses contained red grape juice. For those who wanted wine, the circular cluster of glasses in the center of the tray contained a lovely local white German wine.

      And the contents were color-coded. Neat.

      • I think a combined grape juice and wine tray is a reasonable compromise. We used to do it like that, but it was argued that even the smell of wine was too much of a temptation for those struggling with alcoholism. Wine has never been served since.

    • One way some of us high church Protestants manage this is communion by intinction, where the wafer or bit of bread is dipped in wine and given to the communicant. It’s very easy to go light on the wine this way, while still serving in both kinds.

  18. Bill Metzger says

    I’ll drink to that! What a great article. As a Lutheran pastor of 31 years I am only now beginning to marvel at the simple truth of Jesus actually being present in bread and wine. As an avid oeniphile, I fantasize about serving as officiant at the altar and offering a bold cote du rhone or a complex cabernet sauvignon to the family of believers who commune! Attendance would skyrocket! 🙂 How brilliant of God to bless us in this world and in the church in paricular with WINE!

  19. Wonderful post! Although I do agree with Michelle Toste that Alcohol isn’t for everyone. I once deeply offended a friend who is a recovering alcoholic when I invited him into my men’s group. We had (have) a habit of indulging in strong drink while we talk about life. My insensitivity didn’t make for a happy ending to that story. I still regret my assumption that everyone is OK with that sort of thing.

    But for me “There’s naught, no doubt, so much the spirit calms as rum and true religion”
    -Lord Byron

  20. David Cornwell says

    For those who are not aware: Welch’s grape juice has a Methodist history. Welch himself was Wesleyan Methodist (maybe Free Methodist back then?) He promoted the juice for use in the Lord’s Supper, as these Methodists wanted unfermented wine to be used. The Methodist Episcopal Church also recommended its use.

    I would be interested in hearing about any Methodist church which has changed this practice.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      At the time Reverend Welch also held the patents on Pasteurization of unfermented grape juice, so you had a little conflict of interest situation right there.