1,500-Year-Old Winery Found in Israel

The industrial-scale operation produced half-a-million gallons a year, destined for drinkers around the Mediterranean

Wine press during excavation
Each of the five wine presses covered about 2,400 square feet. Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority

A newly uncovered winery in central Israel made some of the Mediterranean's best wine of the Byzantine-era, at a clip of more than a half-million gallons per year, archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) say.

“The proportions here are incredible,” Elie Haddad, who co-directed the excavation of the site for the IAA, tells NPR’s Daniel Estrin.

Digging at the site of a construction project on the outskirts of Yavne, south of Tel Aviv, Haddad's team found five enormous wine presses, each covering about 2,400 square feet. Each press included treading floors, where workers crushed the grapes with their feet, as well as compartments for fermenting the wine and vats to collect it. Also at the site were four large warehouses where the wine was aged, as well as kilns where the wine jugs were fired. 

“We were surprised to discover a sophisticated factory here, which was used to produce wine in commercial quantities,” Haddad and co-directors Jon Seligman and Liat Nadav-Ziv say in a statement. “We should remember that the whole process was conducted manually.”

Seligman tells the Jerusalem Post’s Rossella Tercatin that Yavne was a significant city within the Byzantine Empire when the winery was built, around 500 C.E.

“It was located in what at the time was on a major road, called the sea highway, which went from north to south, and on its junction with the Sorek River,” he says.

The city was mostly inhabited by Christians and had its own bishop, but there were also Jews and Samaritans living there at the time. 

The wine produced in the region in and around Yavne was known as Gaza or Ashkelon wine for the nearby ports that transported it to other parts of the Mediterranean world.

“It was a light, white wine,” Seligman tells the Jerusalem Post. “We have found many wine presses in Israel, but what is unique here is that we are talking about a cluster of five huge ones, especially beautiful in their architecture.”

At the facility, workers first placed the grapes on small floors where the pressure of their own weight caused them to produce “free run” juice, Ruth Schuster writes at Haaretz. This juice produced the highest-quality wine, free from bitter tannins released when the grape skins were broken by treading. After that, the grapes went to the treading floors, where less-fancy wine was made. After the grapes were compressed by foot, a screw-press squeezed out their last juices. 

“These large winepresses were thoroughly planned,” Seligman tells Haaretz. “All were symmetrical, and their features are all the same. They were built as one complex down to the very last detail. It seems to show that they were all designed as part of one industrial move.”

Seligman says the team is now trying to extract DNA from ancient grape pips, or seeds, found at the site to determine what types were used at the winery. Ancient sources describe Gazan wine served at the coronation feast of Byzantine Emperor Justin II in Constantinople as “white as snow.” Researchers have also found large numbers of wine jugs from the region in Alexandria, Egypt.

1,500-Year-Old Winery Found in Israel
The wine produced in the region, including at Yavne, was known as Gaza or Ashkelon wine for the nearby ports that transported it to other parts of the Mediterranean world. Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority

“It was taken to many, many countries around the Mediterranean,” Seligman says in an IAA video. “We’re talking Egypt, we’re talking Turkey, Greece, maybe to southern Italy as well.”

The major industrial-style operation didn’t mark the beginning of the site’s use for winemaking. The dig also found earlier wine presses dating to around 300 B.C.E., as well as kilns used for making vessels going back even farther, to the Middle Bronze period in quantities suggesting an industrial operation.

“Usually, in Middle Bronze sites, you find one kiln in a village,” Nadav-Ziv tells Haaretz. “Here we didn’t find the village, but we found four, maybe five kilns one by another.”

Kilns at that time could only be used once or twice, making dozens or hundreds of vessels at a time, before becoming useless.

The site apparently continued to host various winemaking operations under Canaanite and Roman regimes, reaching its highest level in the Byzantine era. Following Yavne’s gradual conversion to Islam, the winemaking operation fell into disuse by the seventh century C.E.