An Overview of How Grapes First Made it From the Vineyard, to Your Table
An Overview of How Grapes First Made it From the Vineyard, to Your Table
The History of Wine
There is a story that is told by noted wine writer Alexis Lichine in which a Persian king who loved grapes very much once stored some away in a great jar and marked the jar with the label of "poison". Sometime later, a much neglected beauty of his harem whom had grown tired of being just another one of the girls to her king, drank from the jar that had been labeled “poison.” However, by this time, the grapes had become so delicious that, much revived; she took a cup to the king. The king tasted it and immediately took the lady back into favor and ordained that from that time onwards, grapes should be allowed to ferment.
Wonderful as this story is, wine was more than likely discovered before the Persian culture since grape seeds have been found in Stone Age caves, and grapes themselves, as this story shows so well, insist on becoming wine if left to their own devices.
It is in the Fertile Crescent where vines were first cultivated and wine production truly began. Although it's unknown what variety was first grown, the vinifera varieties that we know today are the grandchildren of those first wild parents. Because vinifera reproduce in a vegetative and rather than sexual manner, they are highly susceptible to mutation, leading to the enormous diversity in grape varietals that we now have.
Death Cults Tell Wine's Story
Much of our information about ancient winemaking comes from Egyptian tombs and their elaborate wall paintings. Believing that they needed to equip themselves for the afterlife, the pharaohs would fill their pyramids with the necessities of life, including, amongst many other things, numerous clay jars of wine. The walls of these crypts are filled with information about grape harvesting and winemaking. Paintings show grapes being harvested with curved knives, into wicker baskets. After the grapes were brought in from the vineyards, they were poured into vats made of acacia wood and crushed by foot while the workers sang. There are still areas in Portugal and Spain that make wines in this uncomplicated way.
Greco-Romans Improve on a Theme
The Christian Old Testament has many references to sweet white wines, and Babylonian cuneiform tablets point toward their civilization also having made, traded and taken pleasure in wine. The Greeks inherited this winemaking culture and elevated it to an art. The Greeks worshipped the grape in the form of Dionysus, god of wine and wild revels. They liked their wines (still stored in the same types of wine jars) old and watered.
The Romans improved upon tradition by inventing barrels specifically for wine storage. Roman wines were thick and sweet with additions of seawater, perfumes and herbs. (Allowing for variations in cultural tastes, this still sounds fairly undrinkable and undesirable!) Vines then spread throughout the Roman Empire: most major wine-producing regions of France, as well as the vineyards of the Rhine and Mosel in Germany, date from around 600 BCE onwards due to this spread.
Wine Gets Religion
The Catholic Church provided the next context for wine development. The monastery system allowed monks the time to constantly research grapes, clones, planting techniques and “terroir” or terrain for growing up a vineyard, this was all in an effort to improve sacramental spirits. As wealthy Burgundian landowners left tracts of land to these monasteries, the French vineyard system as we know it today began to take form.
Vive le Revolution!
Politics and wine are practically inseparable. The French Revolution further divided vineyard land by taking ownership out of the hands of the Church and into the hands of the Republic. The English (who had been drinking the wines of Bordeaux since the 13th century) switched to wines from Portugal in 1703 when the Methuen Treaty made French wines far too expensive.
The Grape Travels to the New World
Spanish Conquistadors brought the vinifera vine to South America via the raisins they had carried on their voyages. From there, the grapes traveled north to California, and were planted from mission to mission as the Catholic priests spread north.
In 1856 a Hungarian exile named Agoston Haraszthy bought a thriving vineyard in Sonoma, California and named it Buena Vista. After being appointed Governor of California in 1861, Haraszthy traveled to Europe and brought back 300 varieties of grapes, some 100,000 vines altogether. These vines provided a much-needed infusion of new varietals to the fledgling California wine industry. In 1866, after years of trying to make his fortune in California, Haraszthy left for Nicaragua, where legend has it he slipped off a log while crossing a stream, and was eaten by alligators.
Wine Goes Techno
The research of Louis Pasteur revealed that fermentation was the product of microorganisms, and that the lack of fermentation could be attributed to the lack of these organisms. This information modernized winemaking, by showing that traditional methods could be scientifically improved upon, and began the technical revolution in winemaking that continues today.
Disease Improves Global Wine Quality
The Powdery Mildew fungus (Oidium) attacked the vineyards of Europe in the mid-1800s, and nearly devastated them until sulfur was found to prevent the problem. As vineyards were replanted, they were replaced with only the essential grapes used in winemaking. Still stunned with the wreckage of their crops, the vineyard owners of Europe were next hit by Phylloxera, a tiny yellow-green aphid from America.
The Phylloxera spread throughout Europe, killing vineyards everywhere. By the time it was finally identified and American vines were found to be resistant, the vineyards of Europe were nearly bare. The process of varietal selection, started after the Powdery Mildew outbreak, and grew even stricter as vineyards and regions were matched to the grapes that performed best.
French winemakers, trying to stay ahead of the devastation, fled to Spain, and even America, resulting in the techniques of winemaking and the quality of wine spreading worldwide.
Bordeaux is Classified
In 1855 the wines of Bordeaux were classified in a hierarchy that justified a wine's price against a set standard of excellence.
In 1905 the French government passed the first wine anti-fraud law that would be the cornerstone for the Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) laws. For the 30 years following this, various laws would be passed, each more strict. In 1935 the current laws were passed, and to oversee these laws the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO) was created. The INAO ensures that proper grapes are grown and correct yields are produced as well supervising nearly all other aspects of winemaking in France.
The World Follows Suit with Its Own Wine Laws
In 1963 the Italians created their own system, Denominazioni di Origine Controllata (DOC), based loosely on the AOC laws of France. Germany, while having strict laws, does not have a single ruling body. Spain has an evolving system that primarily went into effect in 1975.
The United States has laws created by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). These laws concern label content, and how the wine complies with the label. While place names (appellations) are awarded by the ATF, there are no controls on the grapes used in each appellation.
Label Charlatans in America
19th century American winemaking was filled with "label charlatans" that labeled bad wines with competitor's labels and re-labeled competitor's good wines with their own labels. The government stepped in to halt these practices, and in 1864 the first tariffs on French wines were passed, to help domestic wineries compete. Wine production was still primarily a West Coast venture, until the late 19th century.
Victorian Morals Squash Hedonism
In 1820 there was a growing movement to outlaw alcohol and, by extension, wine. Over the next 100 years, these prohibitionists would to have a huge effect on American culture, managing, among other things, to eliminate the mention of wine and alcohol from textbooks and literature. The Bible, which mentions wine continually, created a problem until a rationalization was created saying that Biblical "wine" was nothing more than unfermented grape juice.
In spite of the opposition, the fledgling wine industry was beginning to garner worldwide recognition. At the Paris Expo in 1900 wineries such as Beringer and Gundlach-Bundschu proved to be the equal of European winemakers. The celebration was short-lived, however, because in 1920 the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment were enacted, outlawing wine and all alcohol in the United States.
There was a loophole that allowed people to make up to 200 gallons of "non-intoxicating cider and fruit juices exclusively for the use in the home." The grape growers began to sell "juice grapes" for these home winemakers and a cottage industry was born. As a result, the California grape growers enjoyed a huge boom for 5 years until an excess of grapes crashed the market.
Other loopholes included non-prescription medicinal "wine tonics" and sacramental wines. Both the Jewish and Catholic faiths had special dispensations, and could purchase wines for their congregations, which was of course exploited by enterprising individuals.
World War II Brings Wine Back to America
After learning to appreciate wine in Europe, returning GIs brought their new tastes home and fueled a new wine boom in California. The increasing sophistication of these GIs radically changed the way Americans thought of wine. No longer limited to the wealthy, wine found its way into the middle class via wine tastings and the beginnings of modest collections. The stage was set for wine to rock the ‘60s.
Groovin' with the Grape
With the coming of legal drinking age for the Baby Boomers, the mid- ‘60s represented the beginnings of the modern wine industry in California. Bulk dessert wines gave way to table wines. New vineyards and grape varieties were explored. Technology and modernization ruled the day. The premium wine boom was on.
Investors jumped into the new gold rush. Large corporations such as Coca-Cola, Heublien and Seagrams, and executives fleeing the corporate world, decided to open wineries in sunny California.
Wine Goes "Pop"
In the early 1970s "Pop" wines took America by storm. These fruity sparklers began America's great thirst for white wines, and grape growers began to graft white wine varieties (mostly Thompson Seedless) over their red wine stock.
By the late‘70s the "Pop" wine craze was on its way out and white wines made from red wine grapes became the new fad. White Zinfandel (a light pressing of Zinfandel resulting in little color) became the best selling varietal wine throughout the ‘80s. Additionally, the Thompson Seedless grape found itself being edged out of popularity as its successor, French Colombard, was planted for popular Wine Cooler mixes.
California Cultivates Elegance
California wine makers began evolving wines in a more quality-conscious way as Americans began thinking of wine as an everyday beverage, rather than something only consumed on special occasions. Legislation was introduced that would allow wines to be taxed only in their first year permitted winemakers to experiment with different aging methods without fear of tax consequences. This contributed to vintage labeling in the mid-‘70s, and with increased consumer awareness many wineries added back labels with even more technical information.
This shift from essentially playful wines, to a wine industry more closely mirroring quality European winemaking, resulted in grape varietals beginning to be matched to their best soils and climates and the boom in 100% varietal wines. This marriage of varietal and place resulted in the federal government creating legal place names through the American Viticultural Area (AVA) program in the early 1980s.
By the late 1980s the Californian shift to a more European winemaking style continued with Bordeaux-style blends labeled as "Meritage" wines. This period also saw the introduction of huge robust wines: heavily oaked Chardonnays and inky tannic Cabernet Sauvignons.
Don't Panic, It's Organic
The late ‘80s were a very health conscious time, and the wine industry felt its effects along with the rest of the country. Health warnings about the possible risks of alcohol, sulfites and driving while under the influence were added to wine labels.
By the 1990s, many of the huge "tannic monsters" and "oak bomb" wine styles of the ‘80s began mellowing toward a lighter, more fruit-forward style that was more pleasant to the average customer.
The phylloxera louse began infesting vineyards and the massively expensive process of recovery began as vast tracts of land were stripped of their vineyards, fumigated and replanted.
The New Millennium
In true American fashion, the shift to quality has ballooned into a giddy cult following for "boutique" wines: hard to find, fabulously expensive, wildly glorified. One extreme example: at a recent Napa Valley Wine Auction, a bottle of Screaming Eagle Cabernet sold for half a million dollars. Although these limited-quantity wineries make truly exceptional wines, their prices limit all but the wealthiest people from being able to actually drink them.
And so a toast to rarest vintages: May poverty always remain a day's march behind us!
-The Tipsy Grape