Wine’s origins are largely a mystery. No one really knows when wines
were first made, and it is speculated that the creation of the first wines
were almost certainly an accident. It is likely that wine was born sometime
in prehistory: man’s ancestors found grapes growing on wild vines,
squashed them to make juice, and, when they tried to keep this juice for
a day or two in their simple clay pots, the wild yeasts worked their magic…
Wine and Ancient Civilization
Wine’s long and rich history dates back nearly 10,000 years. The
earliest known references to wine include those found in the pictographs
of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, whose civilizations flourished
on riverbeds in Africa and the Middle East about 5,000 years ago. The Egyptians
believed that wine was a gift from the god Osiris, who controlled the inundation
of the river Nile, their lifeblood; their wine industry was surprisingly
modern, given the time period, in both the way they cultivated grapes and
the way they made the wine itself. Like the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians
(Persians) regarded wine as a divine gift and made many toasts of praise
to their gods with it. The Phoenicians, based in North Africa, were the
first to explore wine in a commercial sense, being a civilization dependent
mostly upon maritime trade, and this is how it is believed to have made
its way to Greece, Sicily and North-Central Italy.
Wine was also made by early Etruscan civilizations in what is modern-day
Italy, prior to their conquest by the Roman Empire, and the Chinese made
wine some time before 2,000 B.C.
The Roman Empire and Wine’s Expansion to Western Europe
The Roman Empire had, by far, the greatest impact on the development of
viticulture and enology than any other ancient civilization. Borrowed from
the Etruscans, bolstered by the Phoenicians, wine was an integral part of
the Roman diet. Bacchus, the god of wine, was toasted at every gathering
and festival, a tradition inherited from the Greeks, who drank to the god
Dionysus. Under the Romans, wine finally got its due: sophisticated vine-growing
techniques, unmatched until the eighteenth century, were developed then,
and grape varieties and cultivating techniques were scientifically and accurately
documented. Barrels were developed for storing and shipping wine, bottles
were used for the first time, and the early developments of an appellation
system formed as certain regions gained reputations for fine wine. The Romans
adored wine and brought it to every new land they conquered: almost all
of the major wine-producing regions of Western Europe today were established
by the Romans during their expansion.
The Dark Ages and the Role of the Catholic Church
Once the Roman Empire fell (500 AD), Europe went into a period known as
the Dark Ages. The only stable social institution of the time was the Catholic
Church, and it encouraged winemaking because of wine’s role in Mass
and in other church activities, particularly the Eucharist (wine symbolizing
Christ’s blood, bread His body). During the period from 500 to 1400
A.D., Catholic monks became the sole preservers of the Roman Empire’s
viticultural legacy. Many centuries’ worth or records detailing rainfall,
crop yields, and grape variety enabled the medieval monks to plant the ideal
grape varieties in their adjoining regions. However, making medieval wine
was dangerous: treading fermenting grapes exposed workers to carbon dioxide,
and would often result in suffocation or at the least minor respiratory
injury. In the late Middle Ages, as wine’s durability became more
important, grape presses, which extracted better juice and reduced the danger
to crushers, became more popular.
Renaissance and the Modern times
By the late eighteenth century, the major wine regions were well-established.
But just as wine expanded outside the Church and across whole continents,
it faced its greatest obstacles.
The French revolution of 1789 had a largely negative impact on wine production:
in Burgundy, for example, vineyards were seized from the church and the
nobles and turned over to the people. The peasantry, working on small plots
and having no prior experience making wine, found themselves unable to grow
successfully, and as a result the industry suffered.
In the late 1800s, when Native American wines were brought to France,
the phylloxera louse came with them, and devastated countless vineyards
in Europe, eventually spreading to other wine-making regions across the
world. The solution to the disastrous phylloxera problem was to graft European
wines onto American vine roots, which are naturally resistant to the contagious
As the Industrial Revolution emerged during the 19th century, technological
advances had a great imact on the wine industry. Of special importance
was the discovery by French chemist Louis Pasteur, the father of
pasteurization, that microorganisms caused wine spoilage. He then went on
to lead efforts to control such spoilage in wine, milk, and other beverages
at risk of spoiling.
In the beginning of the 20th century, in an effort to establish consistent
standards for all of the important aspects of wine production, including
region of origin, grape variety, minimum alcohol content, and maximum vineyards
yields, Europe’s biggest wine-producers, enacted standardizing laws.
France was the first to enact them, with a series of laws beginning in 1905
known as the “Appelation d’Origine Controlee” laws ( A.O.C)
that safeguard the famous place-names of France and guarantee that wines
bearing their names have met rigorous government standards. In 1936, Italy
followed with their own standardizing legislation, “Denominazione
di Origine Controllata” (D.O.C) and the “Denominazione di Origine
Controllata e Garantita” (D.O.C.G). Then came Spain with the “Denominacíon
de Origen” (D.O.) and Portugual with the “Denominaçao
de Origem Controlada” (D.O.C).
United States and California
During the fifteenth, sixteenth, and early seventeenth centuries, as European
nations began to explore the world, in every region where the climate and
soil were acceptable, wine and the various advances they made in its production
traveled along with them. Without success, the French Huguenots first tried
to make wine out of the native scuppernong grape in Florida. An attempt
at cultivation in the eastern United States was made by settlers in the
early 1600s, but the European vines fell as easy prey to the harsh winters
and foreign pests. In response, the settlers developed cultivars of some
of the native species and eventually created hybrids and Vitis Vinifera.
Spain was more successful in bringing European grapes to Mexico in the
1500s, and thirteen Catholic Franciscan missions, led by Father Junipero
Serra, were established in California. In each of their gardens, vines were
planted. By 1823, the chain of missions, with their vineyards growing mostly
Spanish-borne varieties of grapes, had worked its way up to Sonoma.
On the East Coast, colonial forefathers were more interested in rum, apple
cider, beer and whiskey, and only the wealthiest and best educated, like
Thomas Jefferson, appreciated and enjoyed the fruit of the vine. Viticulture
started to be a real industry in the USA only in the mid 1800s. A frenchman,
Jean-Louis Vigne, is said to have established the first commercial vineyard
in California sometime in the 1830s. In 1850, the Hungarian Count Agoston
Haraszthy de Mokesa, also know as "the Father of California viticulture”,
marketed his first Zinfandel. At the same time, Paris was giving increasing
recognition to winemakers in the New York Finger Lakes Region and Ohio for
their wines made from Native American grape varieties.
Perhaps even more harmful to the cause of wine-producing was the eighteenth
amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed alcoholic beverages nationwide
from 1919 to 1933. Total grape production did increase during Prohibition
years, but only because thousands of acres of wine grapes were uprooted
and replaced by table grapes. Only 160 of the 700 wineries that existed
in 1920 survived, mostly by making low quality table wines. Up to the 1960ss,
the quality of wine within the United States remained, at best, mediocre.
After the Second World War, however, soldiers returning from Europe had
a new taste for fine wines. Slowly, the University of California's
department of viticulture and enology began to have a stronger influence
and started to recommend better wine varieties for various wine regions.
Several improvements were made to the winemaking technology (temperature
controlled fermentation and methods to better control spoilage). As the
quality of wine improved, so did America’s interest in it, and new
wineries started to open all over the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.