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The History of Wine

Natalie Burnham

When you pop open your favorite bottle of Cab, did you know that in it lies a tradition that can be traced nearly as far back as proto-writing? Though ancient winemaking techniques vary vastly from our modern winemaking techniques, similar patterns run throughout both, resulting in a tradition that has spanned over 8,000 years.

Wine in amphoras

When was wine first made?

The earliest found creations of wine were found in modern-day Georgia.

With limited winemaking technology, an over-simplified version of wine was found: grape juice kept in earthenware jugs underground for storage through the wintertime. After an accidental discovery of fermentation, grapes began to be purposefully harvested and fermented.

Within the next six thousand years, wine spread like wildfire. In Greece in roughly 1000 BC, wine was used as a societal marker, signaling celebrations and special events. Ancient Greeks passed along these traditions across modern-day Europe and North Africa. With more time passing, winemaking became more structured and developed, especially with the Roman Empire. For a period of time, wine became safer to drink than water, so technology continued to grow and thrive, such as stopping the use of earthenware fermentation and using wooden barrels.

Along with this, the purposeful cultivation of Vitis vinifera (the grapevine that virtually all wine grapes are derived from) continued to strengthen during this time. This massive boom in the evolution of winemaking technology finally began to slow down in the first few centuries AD, around the time of the fall of the Roman Empire.

Roman God of wine, Bacchus

Wine in the Middle Ages

Following the Roman Empire's fall, the history of winemaking seemed to take a pause. Wine production was kept alive primarily through monasteries for religious use. After hundreds of years of stagnation in wine technology, a defining point was yet again reached during the Renaissance period, where unsafe water conditions again led wine to become more prominent in society. With increased drinking, technology began to grow again.

Dom Pérignon took the accidental discovery of sparkling wine in the south of France and paved the way for Champagne, forcing glass manufacturers to get creative to keep up with the changing wine industry of the 1600s. Around this time was when New World wines began making an entrance into the winemaking scene, and the history of winemaking in California began.

San Francisco Solano Mission

History of Winemaking in California

Wine grapes were brought to the New World as early as the European discovery through Hernán Cortés, though the King of Spain forbade commercial grape plantings. This left the New World in a similar position to Europe in which monastery or missionary plantings were the only authorized grape plantings. Without commercial production pushing it forward, winemaking continued to stay relatively unchanged throughout this period.

The first commercial vineyard in California was started in 1833 by Jean Louis Vignes, which kick-started commercial production. Within the next few decades, early Napa Valley vineyards were established, as well as many vineyards in Los Angeles and Orange County. With mass production alive and thriving, winemaking made great strides yet again. Information about different yeasts was becoming more readily available, and progress in the viticultural sphere meant that there was more winemaking freedom with a more steady, controlled crop through the 1700s to early 1900s. During Prohibition, wine was one of few alcohols that legally could be produced in the United States through various loopholes. This allowed certain wineries and vineyards (such as Epoch Estate Winery in Paso Robles) to maintain that same winemaking tradition.

Winemaking Today

Since the 1900s, other massive changes in the enological and viticultural worlds have still occurred: the usage of screw-caps to prevent cork-related issues, automated machinery to make filling bottles or other laborious work more time-efficient, changes in clarification mediums, different reactions to wine “movements” (thanks a lot, Sideways), standardized regulations for sugar or alcohol content, and more. So, the next time you pop open that… Merlot, perhaps reflect upon when wine was first made, thousands of years ago, and how you are taking part in this millennia-old tradition. Cheers!