The Evolution of Wine
From wine cellars and sommeliers to boxed wines and paint-and-sip parties, wine manufacturing and distribution is more important than ever before. In this modern age, we can walk into our favorite wine bars and choose from any number of varieties of wine from all over the world. From its beginnings with grape farms and foot stamped batches through prohibition and more contemporary modes of commercial production, wine has had a long and storied history. As scientists continue to discover more benefits to drinking wine, more and more people order wine at restaurants, and keep their wine racks fully stocked.
The Beginnings of Wine
Wine originated in the Near East region, and is now produced on every continent in the world. Wine was discovered by grape farmers more than 7,000 years ago when they left damaged grapes in their harvesting vessels and found them transformed by fermentation days later. Upon finding the fermented grape juice and tasting it out of curiosity, farmers decided that they liked its flavor.
Organized production of wine began 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (recognized as the area in present-day Iraq between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). Commercial production was later established in Greece. The first records date back to 3,500 years ago when the Greeks planted commercial vineyards and marketed their wine, selling their products to other countries. The Greeks made their wine by stomping on piles of grapes, using overhead ropes for support.
In Mesopotamia, wine was served at meals as an alternative to water because good drinking water was hard to find. Traces of wine were found on stone tables and tomb walls, some markings dating back as far as 6,000 B.C. Today, we would likely consider Mesopotamian wine undrinkable. The wine served at their tables was probably very different from the wine we drink today because their production methods were much less controlled. Ancient winemakers had not yet discovered how to alter the fermentation process. Modern studies on the fermentation of wine have helped winemakers identify the most desirable conditions, allowing them to make the best possible products.
Advancements in Wine
All winemakers follow the same basic steps: pick, crush, ferment, age and bottle. When fermenting grapes for red wine, it is important to keep the grape skins immersed in the liquid. In the old grape-stomping days, winemakers did this by climbing into their wooden vats and manually mixing the contents. Winemakers submerged their whole bodies in the liquid, paddling their arms and legs to keep the skins incorporated. Today, winemakers push the skins down with a mechanical plate, or mix them in with a rake.
Once the steel tank came along, wooden vats were no longer used in the fermentation process. The first successful steel tank was patented in 1912 by the German industrial conglomerate, Krupp. Steel tanks did not appear in America until after World War II when famous winemaker, Ernest Gallo, commissioned the making of tanks for his California winery. Before refrigeration was made available in the 1950’s, most reputable white wines still came from France and Germany because their naturally cool climates preserved the wine best.
Grape-harvesting equipment was also commercially available for the first time in the 1950s. Despite speeding up the process, the first grape-picking machines worked poorly; they were known to destroy the vines and grapes during the picking process. Stanley Shepardson and Nelson Shaulis invented a more efficient machine in the early 60’s. The Cornell Grape Harvester, developed at Cornell University, removed the grapes by shaking the vines. Max and Roy Orton developed similar machines in 1963 and 1967; instead of shaking the vine, however, their machines beat the trellises that the vines grew onto. In the late 60’s, John Deere developed yet another grape-harvesting machine using shaking/beating technology. Sadly, despite their attempts to build a gentler and more efficient machine, these mid-century inventors still failed to provide a perfect fix. Their modified harvesting machines still damaged the grapes and vines.
With much gentler, state-of-the-art harvesting equipment, machines can now safely remove grapes from their vines without damaging them. After harvest, grapes make their way from the fields to the wineries in large bins or lugs. Most wine harvesters prefer to work at night because of the cool temperatures. During daylight hours, the sun can cause premature fermentation.
Before entering the steel tanks, grapes must be fully destemmed. The grapes are dropped into a hopper where the stems are carefully removed by an auger. While some destemmers are meant to lightly crush the grapes, others return the grapes plump and whole. Some winemakers wait for the cell walls to break down naturally, a process that happens in the tank. As cell walls deteriorate, the grape juice escapes and collects at the bottom. Winemakers then introduce yeast to begin the fermentation process. If the tank contains skins, the juice gets pumped over the top, breaking the cap and forcing the skins downward. While fermenting grapes with their skins makes red wine, white wine is the product of skinless grapes.
After fermentation, the wine is pumped into barrels in a climate-controlled room. The wine then ages in those barrels for 10-18. Winemakers have the option of using stainless steel or oak barrels. A crisp white wine, like Pinot Grigio, tastes best when aged in steel or “neutral” barrels. Oak barrels add distinct flavors called aroma compounds, which are important components of wines like Chardonnay or Malbec. Vanilla, spice and clove, caramel, and smoky aromas are just a few of the flavors imparted by oak barrels. Oak barrels are either toasted or untoasted, meaning they have either been charred by fire or left alone. More heavily toasted barrels impart deeper flavors of oak.
Winemakers distinguish their wines by using specific types of barrels and specific types of grapes. Warm-climate grapes, grown in regions like California and Southern Italy, have the chance to become fully ripe and lose some of their natural acidity. Cool-climate grapes, grown in places like Oregon and New York, have a harder time ripening, causing them to retain their natural acidity. Ripe fruit flavors are found in wines from warm climates, while tart fruit flavors are found in wines from cool climates.
Winemakers are still struggling to make exact replicas of their favorite batches. They have learned how to control the fermentation process by timing the introduction of yeast and controlling temperature, but they are still unable to perfect their manipulation of soil. Scientists measure water levels and temperatures in vineyard soils in hopes of finding the best possible conditions for each varietal. By compiling data and measuring outcomes, winemakers may someday learn how to perfectly replicate wines.
Threats of global warming have led to an interest in warm-climate varietals. With sustainability concerns on the rise, vineyards in dry climates like California have been forced to imagine ways to cut back on water usage. To combat both issues, California winemakers predict a stronger reliance on Spanish and Sicilian varietals because they thrive in warm, dry climates. Though California is currently using over 100 different varietals, the changing climate may reduce this number over time. Worldwide, global climate change may impact the way we grow, what we grow, and what we consume.
Despite these challenges, winemakers anticipate a bright future for wine. Because consumers can learn about wine on the web, more and more people are taking interest in lesser-known wines like Corvina or Chenin Blanc. There are a number of wine apps available for smart phones that analyze consumers’ taste preferences and deliver a list of matches. Overall, people are becoming more knowledgeable about wine and are more comfortable selecting a bottle from a liquor store or restaurant wine list. Sellers of fine wine expect that stores will soon change. As consumers’ palettes grow, so too does the demand for niche wine shops with special products for connoisseurs.
Additional Wine Information
This is How Wine Gets Made in the 21st Century – Popular Mechanics
Wine Industry – Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau
A History of Wine – Cornell University
Wine as Biological Fluid – US National Library of Medicine
Emerging Varieties – California Vineyards
How Wine is Made – Wine Folly
The Future of Wine – Fox News
The First Vintage – Time Magazine
Then and Now of Grape Stomping – Scott Harvey Wines
Origin of Wine Making – Made in Southern Italy
History of Wine – Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute
Rise of the Machines – Wine Spectator
Future of Wine – A Journal of California
What is Clean Wine? – Clean Wine
Suggested Resources for Wine History Studies – Berkeley
The Origins and Ancient History of Wine – Univesity of Pennsylvania Museum
Wine History – Winepros
Wine Resources – PlusWine
Wine in Macedonia – Macedonia Heritage
How Wine is Made – MadeHow
An Illustrated Guide to how Wine is Made – Wineanorak
Guide to hundreds of wine trails – America’s Wine Trails