Heres a toast &mdash to wine and to Judaism

When you grow up in Sonoma County, people make certain assumptions. They figure you’ll surely know the ins and outs of vineyards and grapes, and whether cabernet or merlot goes better with chicken or fish. But even though I was born and raised in wine country, I’ve failed to become an expert on the product made so famous in the land in I lived in.

I’d like to be more wine savvy. And just as I’ve come to learn about my roots in Judaism as an adult, I find I must now do the same with wine.

Fortunately, I find an intersection. “The Wisdom in the Wine: Winemaking, Drinking and Literature in the Biblical World,” a three-session course from Lehrhaus Judaica, co-sponsored by Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek and taught by the executive director of the Adult School for Jewish Studies of the San Francisco Bay Area.

This will be the perfect class for me to delve deeper into the connection.

When I think of wine and Judaism, my first memory is Manischewitz at Passover seders. I liked the cloying sweetness, my first “Oh, I see why grownups like wine” moment. Childhood summer memories included respite from the heat among cool, wood barrel-filled cellars where we would take visiting relatives and family friends to tour nearby wineries. But wine tasting (grape juice for us kids) and the wineries themselves never had any Jewish connection. Our favorite tour? Christian Brothers in Napa. Not exactly a place with a mezuzah.

I did have a Jewish boyfriend once whose family owned part of a St. Helena vineyard. He took me up there to see it and pick champagne grapes, and we kissed in the shade between the rows. For a time, the thought of Jews and vineyards was connected.

As I pull up to Congregation B’nai Tikvah, high up in the hills of Walnut Creek, I wonder what I will discover about the connection between wine and the Jewish tradition. Inside, in a comfortable classroom with windows that frame green mountains, Lehrhaus Director Jehon Grist has set out some artifacts.

The course was inspired by a group in Napa who wanted a serious seminar about wines from Israel, Grist tells me. They focused first on how wine was made in the ancient world, then explored what ancient texts had to say about the use (and abuse) of wine.

Our early ancestors in 3500 BCE didn’t drink out of goblets or glasses, but from clay bowls, we learn. The one we’re passing around has feet. It looks contemporary and trendy, not ancient, like something you’d find in a modern art gallery. The original is at the Met, he explains. Egyptians used vases of alabaster. I recall the night my husband and I opened a very old bottle and decanted it in a vase whose original purpose was to hold flowers.

Wine was for nobles and the well-to-do. It was a sign of affluence. Commoners drank beer. When I met my husband, he had just won an award for his home-brewed pale ale, which he continued to brew after we married. In our bathtub.

But those days are gone, and drinks with alcohol content are almost always from bottles in our wine cellar. We’ve grown up, evolved. I’ll tell him: Honey, we’re nobles now.

“Bread and wine were the essential foods of the biblical world, so it’s no surprise that they have become the sacred stars of Jewish ritual,” Grist says. “Both provide comfort, joy and the desire to recognize the sacredness of life. If you learn about wine’s beginnings, you’ll drink with even greater pleasure.”

We end the session by tasting a kosher wine from a kibbutz in Israel. Not bad, a little young. I think of the winemakers who made it, how it traveled to Northern California, how a small group of Jews who want to learn more about wine and its biblical history sip together and enjoy a peaceful moment on a weekday night.

I can toast to that.

Joanne Catz Hartman lives and writes in Oakland. She can be reached at [email protected].