Roots and Gastronationalism: The Holy Grail of Science and Wine in Israel/Palestine

A new phenomenon in Israeli and Palestinian politics is gaining momentum: the application of a discourse of indigeneity to food – more specifically, to “native” grape varieties – Daniel Monterescu asserts. The associate professor of urban anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at CEU advanced these claims in his recently published article “Liquid Indigeneity: Wine, Science, and Colonial Politics in Israel/Palestine,” which explores native wine production and the search for authenticity and identity in the culinary realm. Monterescu’s findings were published in the noted journal American Ethnologist, and his article is one of the journal’s most downloaded pieces in recent history. “I think one of the reasons for the topic’s popularity is that it hits a raw nerve among both Israelis and Palestinians: their claims for a primordial ‘rootedness’ in the land”, Monterescu explains.

Recreating “The Wine that Jesus Drank”

Monterescu’s article tells the story of a grapevine that carries the burden of history, scientific promise, and economic prospects all on its branches. In this story, a local, millennia-old cultivar turns into an internationally coveted commodity overnight. The first Palestinian indigenous wine was released in 2008, and in 2015, the first Israeli indigenous wine was made with similar grape varieties grown by an anonymous Palestinian farmer in the Occupied Territories. “Tellingly, it was not the Palestinian wine but the Israeli newcomer that gained widespread attention in the international press,” Monterescu observes. “Israel Aims to Recreate Wine that Jesus and King David Drank,” declared the New York Times. An Israeli national religious news station lauded the achievement as “the study that will restore the wines of the Holy Temple.” Soon, the wine went global and a Beijing-based wine magazine referred to the indigenous grape known as Marawi or Hamdani as the first one “re-created with DNA technology, thanks to preserved samples of grape tissue at least 2,000 years old.”

“Today, winemakers, scientists, autochthonous grapes, and native wines are all political actors,” posits Monterescu. “Thus, the Palestinian and Israeli wine industries are reconfiguring the field of gastronationalism by claiming exclusive historical entitlement in a global era in which terroir shapes economic and cultural value.” Against the dominance of ‘international varieties’ (such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon), this indigenous turn in the wine world mobilizes genetics, enology, and ancient texts to rewrite the “longue durée of the Israeli/Palestinian landscape”. The appropriation of the indigenous grape illustrates the power of science, craft, and taste to reconfigure the human and nonhuman politics of settler colonialism.

Having conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the Holy Land, Monterescu had various personal impressions of wine culture shaping cultural identity. One of his interviewees, a molecular biologist at Ariel University, spoke of his project of reconstructing ancient wine: “People ask me what’s the purpose of the research. I tell them that the goal was almost ideological - to create an identity for the Israeli wine industry, which is now struggling and debating and not knowing exactly what it is. Our Jewish scriptures are filled with wine and grapes. We have a very ancient identity, and it is very important for me to restore this identity. It is a matter of national pride.”

Collective Fantasies Made Real

To understand the complexity of science, economics and politics, an interdisciplinary approach was needed, which resulted in Monterescu’s collaboration with political geographer Ariel Handel. This research article is also included in his new publication Food and Borders: Transnational Terroir and Contested Territory in Europe and the Middle East. The book also analyzes the case of border wine regions such as the Tokaj region, shared by Hungary and Slovakia.

“Both my ‘Lost Cities’ research (funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation) and this project engage the dialectic between loss, ruination and revival. In the urban project I focus on cities lost and found by virtue of activating collective memory and mobilizing social movements. In the Food and Borders project, we examine how settlers seek to become natives by naturalizing their very existence in the land of contention. The indigenous wine thus becomes an emblematic vehicle for Israelis to write themselves into territory and history by scientific means, while Palestinians produce a discourse of indigenous rootedness that attempts to tip the uneven power relations. Both projects are about material histories and the social life of things. We document how collective fantasies are made real through webs of knowledge and power," Monterescu concludes.