The History of Wine

I have long been telling the story of the origins of wine based on archeological evidence. Thousands of years before the pyramids or writing, someone put a bunch of grapes (probably Muscat) in a clay jar, and forgot to eat them right away. The grapes got all funny tasting, frizzy and tart, but in their hunger they ate them anyway, and received a pleasant surprise. 

Recent discoveries in biology push back the discovery of wine not by thousands, but millions of years. It turns out that we have a genetic trait that allows us to metabolize rotten fruit. This mutation allowed our earliest ancestors access to a food source that the competition couldn't utilize. The ability to enjoy wine is a survival mechanism that helped us carve out our niche in the world. We have come a long way from grapes rotting in the dirt, but not as far as you may think.

Grapes turn to wine, but wine turns to vinegar

Unlike other alcoholic beverages, wine basically makes itself. Leave a grape unattended it will be attacked by a microscopic mushroom called yeast. The yeast turns the sugar in the grape into heat, carbon dioxide and most importantly, alcohol. We have, over time, learned to control the process to make wine better.

Grapes turn to wine, but wine turns to vinegar when it is exposed to the right kind of bacteria (acetic) and the clay pots the ancients used to move wine around did little to stave off bacteria. By the time the Romans had created an empire, wine was a major trade item. Grapes had spread all over the known world, and their vinous product was being shipped to and fro. In order to combat the sourness of wine turning into vinegar, they added things to the wine, that we still do to this day. Things like pine pitch (the Retsina of Greece) or citrus fruits (the Sangria of Spain). Other things, such as lead used to sweeten wine, we have fortunately given up.

Benedictine, Vermouth, Jaegermeister, Fernet

For the next several thousand years or so wine would remain an important trade item and would be hauled to market in mule trains led by the driver, called a sommelier. In Europe religion would play an important role in the production and distribution of wine. Monks needed a source of income, and for those who were less inclined to fund their monastic lifestyle by praying the rich into heaven, planted vines and produced liquid cash flow.

While wine was often seen as ALSO having medicinal value in Europe, far to the east in China, wine was considered primarily medicinal. In both cases herbs and sometimes animal parts were soaked in the wine, to impart the medicine with special properties. Again, these concoctions survive to this day in such well known forms as Benedictine, Vermouth, Jaegermeister, Fernet, and so many more. In China it was only in the last few handful of years that wine went from medicine to beverage.

 Louis Pasteur would peer through his microscope and discover yeast

With the changing attitudes in politics and religion, the vineyards of the church were secularized and owned by private individuals. These individuals died, willing parts of their vineyards to different children, who did the same as they passed. And so it was that so many vineyards were broken into the smaller parts they appear in today. Nowhere is this better illustrated that then the hodgepodge that is Burgundy.

The Romans may have moved wine about in clay pots (amphora) but at a more local level they were already selling and serving wine in glass bottles. It wouldn't be for another 1500+ years that those bottles got a decent stopper in the form of cork, and that wine would start to improve with time.

It would also take about that long before technology in the form of optics would bump up against the genius of one man to finally explain what was going on during the wine making process. Louis Pasteur would peer through his microscope and discover yeast and the mechanism of fermentation in the 19th century.

Champagne Charlie Heidsieck would single handedly make the drink all the rage in the U.S.

We had the bottle, the cork, and an understanding of what makes wine, wine, but the final part of making wine better was also undergoing a renaissance. Wooden ships had ruled the seas for millennia, but steel was fast taking its place. The forest of oak trees that had been used by shipwrights were now being relegated to barrels - the shipping container of the time. Wine being shipped and later stored, in oak barrels would become one of the final pieces of the puzzle of modern fine wine.

The advent of corking bottles also led to our "seeing stars" in the form of bubbles in sparkling wine. Various wine producers claim to be the originators of the technique, each parading out their own monks like Dom Perignon. Whoever is responsible for making wine sparkle by introducing yeast and sugar for a second fermentation in a closed bottle, it was the Widow Clicquot who's sexual acrobatics brought us the process of removing the dead yeast to make the wine clear and inviting. Another great character of the time, Champagne Charlie Heidsieck would single handedly make the drink all the rage in the U.S.

The history of wine in the U.S. would not be complete without a nod to Agoston Haraszthy. Hungarian born with a minor title, he would often be referred to as Count Haraszthy - a title above the one he was due - or Colonel, an honorific he was certainly entitled to. His brief attempt to raise grapes in Wisconsin would yield little except heartbreak, but before he moved on to sunnier climes, he founded the town that would eventually become known as Sauk City.

the small hiccup of Prohibition

In California, Haraszthy would slowly move north from San Diego to Sonoma, planting vineyards, founding more towns, getting elected to various posts, and generally being an all around good guy. In Sonoma he would make one of his lasting contributions when he founded the still in business Buena Vista winery, hiring Charles Krug as his wine maker. His unwavering dedication to viticulture in California would ultimately lead  Haraszthy on a trip to Europe to buy an enormous sum of vine cuttings (to the tune of 100,000). He had planned on his pals in the California Assembly to help him pay for the venture, but when that fell through, the financial difficulties of divesting himself of the giant nursery (and one of the earliest appearances of phylloxera) would lead to his ruin and final death in the jaws of a crocodile in Nicaragua. 

His legacy would ultimately have the last laugh, as the very venture that ruined him is what he is best known for and will forever be lauded in the annals of history as the "Father of Modern Winemaking in California."

The two great wars of the twentieth century would bring an awareness of wine well beyond the vine clad regions of Europe.  With the small hiccup of Prohibition in the middle, wine was poised to make a big splash in the U.S. and World economies.

It was after the second of these world wars that a young Russian born gentleman, who had served in the American Army procuring wine for the likes of Eisenhower and such, would return to France with a portable bottling line and a vision. Alexis Lichine convinced the producers of Burgundy that they would make much more money if they bottled their wine themselves. At the time it was common for wineries to sell barrels of wines and for the retailers to be responsible for final bottling. 

His crusade to bring certainty to the consumer of wine is one that still resonates today

Lichine had watched the advent of wine place laws codify the authenticity of wine, and he demonstrated to the Burgundians the need and benefits of controlling their own products. This same vision of what wine could and should be would later take him to Bordeaux where he would buy a Chateaux (at the cost of his good name) and proceed to make wine well above its official ranking. Prieure-Lichine would be the legacy the world knows about, but this post is another. It was Lichine's Encyclopedia of Wine and Spirits, and meeting the man himself that got me into the industry in the first place.

Those codified wine place laws, or as they are known in French "Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée" (AOC) were in no small part due to another near mythical figure in wine history - Baron Le Roy, of Chateau Fortia in Chateauneuf-de-Pape. He was a decorated fighter pilot during the First World War, and later married the heiress to Ch. Fortia. His crusade to bring certainty to the consumer of wine is one that still resonates today, and helped to form the classifications we count on around the world. 

Being a brief history, and the term already being stretched, one more anecdote begs to be told. The Methuen Treaty in 1703 would guarantee that wines from Portugal would be well priced compared to wines from France. Knowing that the long boat ride would harm most wines, it was the fortified wines sold in the town of Oporto that the merchants would ship to England. Thus began the long love affair the British would have with Port. In fact, several hundred years later it would be the British restaurants that would clamor for Port that did not have to be decanted that would lead to the development of Late Bottled Port (LBV) that would become the most common type found in eateries around the world.

How easily you procure a product produced half a world away

Experimentation, deep pockets and waning and waxing fashions would continue to shape the wine we buy today. Never in all of history has there been so many choices for the consumer. At the low end wine is now more stable and more consistent than even the best wines were a few hundred years ago. At the high end, wines costing small mortgages are exported to every part of the world with many becoming household names.

The next time you are admiring the gem colored sparkle of the light passing through your wine glass onto your white table cloth, pause to consider how fortunate you are to be able to enjoy wine the likes of which kings of yore would have gone to war for. How easily you procure a product produced half a world away. How certain you are that the wine you are about to open will be drinkable, safe, and just like the last time you tried it.

History never ends, wine never stops improving, and there is always so much more to learn, and above all else, to enjoy. Cin Cin! 

Copyright WineEducation.com
Do not reprint without permission