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What did “the good wine” (τὸν καλὸν οἶνον) mean in John 2:10?

and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” (John 2:10, ESV)

καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ· πᾶς ἄνθρωπος πρῶτον τὸν καλὸν οἶνον τίθησιν καὶ ὅταν μεθυσθῶσιν τὸν ἐλάσσω· σὺ τετήρηκας τὸν καλὸν οἶνον ἕως ἄρτι. (John 2:10, NA27)

The standards of what good wine means has probably changed considerably now from what it meant in the first century. What did it mean to the master of the feast (ὁ ἀρχιτρίκλινος)?

We can be confident it wasn’t starting to change to vinegar. If they had no process to stop this, does that mean the wine was relatively new wine?

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It was customary at the time to serve the good wine first while people were still sober and discriminating. The poor wine would be served later when the guests were somewhat intoxicated and not so likely to notice the quality of the beverage being served.

In “The Tastes of Wine: Towards a Cultural History, by Steven Shapin, Aristotle listed «the species of flavour», and one can recognize these species as close to our modern neuro-physiologically-informed basic taste categories of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty: there were the opposing categories, sweet and bitter. The former included the succulent, and the latter, the salty. Somewhere in between came the pungent, the harsh, the astringent, and the acid.

Pliny referred to wine tastes as “tart”, “sharp”, “harsh”, “hard”, “rough”, “luscious”, and “unripe”, and tasting too much of wood – all bad things – and, for evidently good tastes, he deployed a more restricted and less referential repertoire, notably including “pretty”, “pleasant”, and, of course, “sweet”.

But, as Andrew Dalby notes, Roman connoisseurs rarely mentioned what must have been one of the main taste elements of foreign wines, many of which were brined and spiced to stabilize them for sea transport.

https://journals.openedition.org/estetica/1395?lang=en

Although the practice of tasting is as old as the history of wine, the term "tasting" first appeared in 1519.[4] The methodology of wine tasting was formalized by the 18th century when Linnaeus, Poncelet, and others brought an understanding of tasting up to date.

The results of the four recognized stages to wine tasting:

appearance "in glass" the aroma of the wine, "in mouth" sensations, "finish" (aftertaste)[6], – are combined in order to establish the following properties of a wine:,

complexity and character, potential (suitability for aging or drinking), possible faults

A wine's overall quality assessment, based on this examination, follows further careful description and comparison with recognized standards, both with respect to other wines in its price range and according to known factors pertaining to the region or vintage; if it is typical of the region or diverges in style; if it uses certain wine-making techniques, such as barrel fermentation or malolactic fermentation, or any other remarkable or unusual characteristics.[7]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wine_tasting

  • Wine does not change to vinegar if it is bottled and properly stored in airtight containers. It is only when the fermentation process is allowed to continue that vinegar is produced. Oxygen is a necessary element for fermentation and bottling eliminates the oxygen.. – Dan Mar 16 '19 at 18:39
  • When ready, wine was then drained off and stored in clay amphorae for transportation, usually sealed with a clay stopper or resin. ancient.eu/article/944/wine-in-the-ancient-mediterranean – Dan Mar 17 '19 at 15:18
  • "The anti-bacterial properties of wine also account for its vast popularity in earlier times. People drank it as we drink water or tea. In human settlements, water was easily contaminated with dysentery, cholera, and other diseases and mixing wine with water could be a lifesaver." strangeside.com/wine-2 – Dan Mar 17 '19 at 22:27
  • "it was common for Romans, Greeks and Jews—among other wine-drinking cultures–to drink a mix of 50% water and 50% wine". covenantwines.com/blog/truth-in-wine-water-into-wine – Dan Mar 17 '19 at 22:29
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Let us remind ourselves of a few facts about this wedding incident in John 2:1-12.

  • The Greek word οἶνος (oinos), according to BDAG always refers to "a beverage made from fermented juice of the grape, wine; the word for 'must' or unfermented grape juice is 'trux';"[not used in the NT]. This is confirmed by all its other uses in the NT: Matt 9:17, 27:34, Luke 1:15, 7:33, 10:34, Rom 14:21, Eph 5:18, 1 Tim 3:8, 5:23, Titus 2:3, Rev 6:6, 14:8, 10, 16:19, 17:2, 18:3, 13, 19:15.
  • Grapes were harvested and processed into wine in about September before the feast of Trumpets.
  • The wedding occurred just before the time of the Passover (John 2:13), about March. Therefore, fresh wine would be unavailable - only bottled wine would be available.
  • When wine is exposed to the oxygen in the air, the (ethyl-) alcohol is (slowly) oxidised to vinegar (acetic acid) creating an inferior drink. Thus, wines were, wherever possible, stored in wineskins (Matthew 9:17 Mark 2:22 Luke 5:37) to minimise this effect. These leather bottles were not cheap and could only be used once (Matthew 9:17 Mark 2:22 Luke 5:37) and thus making good wine more expensive than un-bottled wine that goes sour (see Matt 27:34, 48, Mark 15:36, Luke 23:36, John 19:29).
  • The verb μεθυσθῶσιν (methysthōsin = are drunk/intoxicated) (John 2:10) from the lexical form μεθύω (methuó) means to get drunk and intoxicated as indicated in its other NT uses: Matt 24:49, Acts 2:15, 1 Cor 11:21, 1 Thess 5:7, Rev 17:6.
  • The usual practice at feasts was to serve the good (not sour) wine first so that by the time it ran out, guests would be drunk and happy to drink almost anything including the sour wine. The pulpit commentary observes:

The best wine is appropriately given when the seneca are keenest, but when the climax of the festival has come, when they have drunk too deeply, or are intoxicated, then the weaker, poorer, and less fragrant wine is acceptable.

Thus, "good" wine simply meant wine that was good to taste and not yet oxidised to become sour. I am sure it also meant wine from the best vineyards with the best aroma, etc, as well.

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    "good wine" as it is used here is a metaphor. The chemistry is somewhat irrelevant. – C. Stirling Bartholomew Mar 16 '19 at 21:46
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    What, in the text, makes you believe this is just a metaphor? – user25930 Mar 16 '19 at 22:16

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