James L Newman. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Wine is the fermented juice (must) of grapes, and for thousands of years humans have been attempting to perfect a process that occurs naturally. As summer turns into fall, grapes swell in size. Many will eventually burst, allowing the sugars in the juice to come into contact with the yeasts growing on the skins. This interaction produces carbon dioxide, which is dissipated, and a liquid containing alcohol (ethanol) in combination with a plethora of organic compounds related to aroma and taste that have yet to be fully enumerated. Many people have found drinking this liquid so highly desirable that they have been willing to expend enormous effort to find ways of improving its quantity and quality.
In some places both viticulture (grape growing) and viniculture (wine making) emerged as specialized crafts, which today have achieved the status of sciences within the field known as enology. In general, three basic types of wine are produced: (1) still or table wines with alcohol contents in the 7 to 13 percent range; (2) sparkling wines from a secondary fermentation where the carbon dioxide is deliberately trapped in the liquid; and (3) fortified wines whereby spirits are added to still wines in order to boost their alcohol contents into the 20 percent range.
Grape-bearing vines for making wine belong to the genus Vitis, a member of the family Ampelidaceae. Vines ancestral to Vitis have been found in Tertiary sediments dating back some 60 million years, and by the beginning of the Pleistocene, evolution had produced two subgenuses—Euvitis and Muscadiniae. Both were distributed across the midlatitude portions of North America and Eurasia. Glaciation, however, exterminated the Muscadines with the exception of an area extending around the Gulf of Mexico and into the southeastern United States, where one species, Vitis rotundifolia, has been used to make sweet wines that go by the regional name of scuppernong.
The distribution of wild Euvitis in North America was concentrated east of the Rocky Mountains. In excess of 30 species have been identified, with Vitis labrusca being by far the most important in terms of wine making. Its genes are found in all the major grape cultivars such as the Concord, Niagara, Catawba, Dutchess, Delaware, and Elvira. Other species that have made some significant contributions include Vitis riparia, Vitis aestivalis, and Vitis bourquiniana.
Across Eurasia, the geography of Euvitis reflects the cultural importance of wine. From southwestern Asia through Europe one species, Vitis vinifera, dominates, but from central Asia to Japan and Southeast Asia, where drinking wine made from grapes is not a traditional practice, a number of species still can be found. The wine-making superiority of V. vinifera undoubtedly led to its replacing competing species. It achieves a balance between sugars and acids that is unmatched by any of the others, and it evolved with human assistance into a self-propagating hermaphrodite capable of producing a virtually unlimited number of cultivars possessed of different colors, aromas, and taste characteristics. Some of the better known of these include Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Syrah, and Nebbiolo, but there are many hundreds of others, most with highly localized distributions.
In the late nineteenth century, French scientists began systematically to hybridize vinifera with labrusca and other native American vines. Their efforts were aimed at producing varieties that were more disease resistant (ones that could, in particular, resist the two scourges of phylloxera and oidium) and were better able to withstand winter cold. Often called French–American hybrids, they were planted in many parts of Europe during the early twentieth century, but currently most of the vines are being uprooted because of dissatisfaction over their wine-making capabilities. In the eastern United States and Ontario, Canada, however, the hybrids have become increasingly important, and research continues into developing new varieties.
During the last 500 years, humans have carried Euvitis to areas outside its natural range. It is now found growing in the tropics, as well as in the midlatitude portions of Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, where wine making has achieved considerable prominence. Virtually all of the vineyards are planted with V. vinifera.
The earliest archaeological evidence indicating wine that might have been made from domesticated vines comes from a pottery jar, dated to between 7400 and 7000 years ago, which was found at the Neolithic site of Hajji Firuz in the northern Zagros Mountains. Whether this is wine’s precise hearth remains for future research to determine. But the general area from the Zagros to the Caucasus Mountains is a reasonable possibility—it lies within the natural range of V. vinifera and it is included within the broader Southwest Asian region of plant and animal domestication. From here, wine seems to have diffused in two directions.
One was into Assyria and thence to the Mesopotamian city states of Kish, Ur, and later Babylon, among which it attained the status of a luxury drink meant for priestly and noble classes. The hot, dry, and saline soil conditions of Mesopotamia were not well suited for growing grapes, and thus most of its wines probably were imported from the north.
As with many other facets of culture, wine seems to have entered Egypt from Mesopotamian sources. Vines were established along the Nile by at least 5000 years ago, and during New Kingdom times a highly sophisticated technology of wine growing was in place, including an appreciation of vintages and aging. Wine growing followed the Nile upstream to Nubia, where it persisted until Islam’s hegemony over the area was established early in the second millennium A.D.
By 3000 years ago, wine drinking had become widespread in southwestern Asia. It was found among the Canaanites and the closely related Phoenicians, and wine consumption became customary among the Hebrews, who seem to have employed it as a ceremonial drink that was taken in moderation by everyone in the community. Elsewhere, the evidence indicates that wine continued to be restricted to those at the top of the socioeconomic ladder and that it was appreciated largely for the intoxicating effects of its alcohol. Intoxication, indeed, was undoubtedly the reason why almost from its inception wine and religion were bound closely together—wine served as a medium for contacting the gods.
The second route carried wine across Anatolia to the shores and islands of the Aegean. It was adopted by the Minoan civilization on Crete and in Mycenaea, where its production became a specialization of some islands and an important item of commerce. Most significant for later developments, wine became a part of Greek culture, and wherever the Greeks planted their colonies in the Mediterranean, wine drinking, wine growing, and wine commerce followed. Sicily and southern Italy became especially prominent and were given the name Oenotria, the land of vines. Another important site was Massilia (Marseilles), from where the Greek method of wine growing spread inland following the Rhone River valley.
Wine became even more popular because of the cult of the Greek god Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans). Originating as a minor fertility symbol among the Anatolians, he was transformed into a complex figure representing wine in the context of religious and political protest. These protests often took the form of ecstatic revelries, aided by drunkenness, that were intentionally designed to violate prevailing behavioral norms. The cults spread widely throughout the Mediterranean world and apparently were highly instrumental in creating a greater demand for wine among the populace at large.
The Roman Factor
The Romans are usually credited with having contributed more to the advance of wine than any other people. In fact, they probably were not wine drinkers, or at least not wine growers, when they first embarked on their expansion, but instead acquired the habit from the Etruscans, a people derived either from Minoan or Mycenaean migrants who settled in central Italy. But there is little doubt that wine growing flourished under Roman influence. It was established virtually everywhere on the Italian peninsula, both on large noble-owned estates and as a part of peasant farming systems.
Wine also expanded with the empire. A nearby source of supply was needed for garrisons and administrators, and within Rome itself there was a continuous demand for new wines among the upper classes. Although archaeological evidence indicates that some of the Celtic, Iber, Germanic, and Slavic peoples knew how to make wine, they appear to have been largely beer or mead drinkers. Wherever the Romans imposed their rule, however, fundamental changes in wine’s regional significance followed. The Romans not only brought with them a wine-drinking tradition that was copied by others but also set about systematically identifying and developing those areas best suited to vineyards. Key considerations included a nearby market, usually an important town, a riverine or coastal location to facilitate transport, and where possible, slopes for correct exposure to the sun and for facilitating the flow of air and soil moisture drainage.
The greatest amount of Roman wine-growing attention was focused on Gaul and the Rhineland. Today, virtually every important wine region in France and Germany, such as Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Rhineland (and many lesser ones as well) can find prominent Roman influences in its history. Viticulture was a particular specialty of the Romans; they created numerous new grape varieties that were better adapted to more northerly sites and they improved methods of vine cultivation, especially techniques related to pruning and training. Although there is, perhaps, a tendency to credit the Romans with too much in many facets of culture and technology, it is quite clear that the map of wine growing would have been drawn much differently without them.
Decline and Rebirth
The demise of Roman political and military authority led to a reversal of wine’s fortunes in Europe. This was not because successors, such as the Franks, Vandals, Goths, Visigoths, and Huns, eschewed wine; rather it resulted from the unsettled conditions that plagued the countryside for several centuries. Vineyards were difficult to maintain in the face of repeated raiding and pillaging, and markets all but disappeared as cities went into decline with the disruption of trade. Wine growing persevered, if on a much reduced scale, and it managed to do so largely because of its role in the Christian liturgy. Wine was needed in order to celebrate the mass, and thus the numerous bishoprics established following Rome’s conversion managed to keep small vineyards in production during the difficult times of the middle of the first millennium A.D.
Of longer-term significance, however, were the monasteries, which provided bastions of security amid general insecurity. In terms of wine, the most significant monastic orders were the Benedictines and their offshoot the Cistercians, followed by the Carthusians. Experiments by the monks led to new cultivars and to improvements in numerous aspects of viticulture, especially with regard to site selection. Many of today’s most celebrated vineyards in such places as Burgundy, the Reingau, and the Mosel were laid out by monks nearly a thousand years ago.
By contrast, from Persia through western Asia across northern Africa and into Iberia, viticulture was confronted by the advance of Islam and the Koranic injunction against drinking alcohol in any form. Although the spread of Islam was very swift, the elimination of wine growing proceeded much more slowly. Minority Christian and Jewish communities often were allowed to continue to use the beverage largely for the tax revenues wine provided. Thus during the early centuries of Islamic rule, the ban on alcohol varied in terms of how rigorously it was enforced. It never seems to have taken a strong hold in Iberia, and consequently wine growing continued there without serious interruption during the period of Moorish rule. But wine in western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean was under greater pressure, and with the rise to power of the Ottomans, it virtually disappeared over much of the area.
Although Norse raids had slowed the pace of vineyard developments in Europe, expansion was once more under way by the beginning of the twelfth century, even in such northerly locales as the Low Countries and England. The monasteries continued with their plantings and were joined in this endeavor by noble estates, many of which employed wine-growing specialists. Local demand was expanding as wine, at least in Western Christendom, became a more common drink among the populace at large. It was a substitute for unsafe drinking water and widely prescribed as a medication for a variety of ailments. In addition, profits could be gained from exports, particularly to the trading states of the Baltic and North Seas. Much of the wine headed in this direction seems to have come from the Rhineland, including Franconia and Alsace.
Markets and Politics
By the close of the twelfth century, the history of wine growing in Europe was being shaped to an ever increasing extent by a combination of politics and market demands in which England played the most prominent role. Vineyards had been planted in the southern part of that country during Roman times, and as noted, further developments occurred with the establishment of monasteries.
The Domesday Book recorded in excess of 40 vineyards, and over the course of the next several centuries their numbers multiplied severalfold. Most, however, seem to have been quite small, and the wine they produced never achieved any esteem. It was thin and acidic and used primarily for sacramental purposes. Thus the English had to begin looking elsewhere for the wine they were consuming in ever larger volumes. The future of wine growing in England was further dimmed by the advancing cold of the Little Ice Age. By the seventeenth century, all the English vineyards had fallen into disuse.
Much of the wine the English initially imported came from the Rhineland, but the source of supply shifted to the Loire River Valley and its hinterlands when Aquitaine was joined to England during the middle of the twelfth century. An important commercial center in Aquitaine was Bordeaux, and here a new kind of wine was encountered. Unlike the white to golden-colored wines from the Rhineland and the Loire, the wine here was red, or at least pink. Termed claret, it became the royal favorite and thus the wine in most demand among the upper classes. Yet at this time, only a very small amount of claret actually came from the Bordeaux region itself. Most of it was shipped down the streams converging on the Gironde estuary from the hauts pays of the interior, from such places as Bergerac, Gaillac, and Cahors.
In the mid-fifteenth century, following the end of the Hundred Year’s War, all of Aquitaine, including Bordeaux, was incorporated within France. This development did not end the flow of claret to England, but the supply became less regular and depended to a great extent on the state of relations between the two countries. English merchants looked for alternatives, which took them southward to Portugal, their political ally against the Spanish and French.
Some red wines were exported from the Minho region of Portugal, but they never developed much of a following. As wars and plans for war grew more frequent toward the close of the seventeenth century, the search for reliable supplies of claret substitutes intensified. Some merchants traveled up the rugged and underdeveloped Duoro Valley from their base at Porto. Only very rough reds were encountered, and their initial reception in England was not very positive.
What caught on eventually, however, was the practice of adding brandy to the still wines. At first this was done at the end of fermentation to increase alcohol content. High-alcohol wines were preferred not only because they were more quickly intoxicating, but also because they did not spoil as rapidly and thin into vinegar. Although not discovered until much later, the wine-spoiling culprits were oxidation and bacterial contamination, and the reactions they produced slowed down at higher alcohol levels.
In the eighteenth century, it was discovered that if brandy was added during fermentation, a sweet wine of much higher quality could be produced, and thus the port of today was born, named for Porto, the place where it was processed and from which it was shipped. It became a highly fashionable drink for English gentlemen, which set off a wave of vineyard plantings that transformed the upper Duoro Valley into a landscape almost totally devoted to wine.
Perhaps the most highly prized wine in England was malmsey. It arrived in Genoese and then Venetian galleys from Cyprus and other Christian-held lands in the eastern Mediterranean, where vineyards had been reestablished by monastic orders in the wake of the Crusades. These sun-drenched lands produced a sweet, golden wine naturally high in alcohol, and thus the malmsey also traveled well. However, the Ottoman advance cut off the source of supply, which once again set in motion a search for alternatives that eventually led to Spain. A wave of vineyard plantings there had accompanied the Reconquest, and the expulsion of the Jews had provided an opportunity for English merchants to set themselves up in business, particularly at the active ports of Cadiz and Sanlúcar. The wine exported from this southern coastal region was initially called sac, and later sherry. The latter was an English corruption of the word Jerez, the town in which most of the wine was made. Like the port wines, sherries were fortified and initially sweet. Later developments led to dry styles gaining preference, with England maintaining an almost exclusive hold on the market. A similar type of wine was produced on the island of Madeira, but because of the papal division of the world, its exports were directed mostly to the Americas.
The other major participant in the wine trade was Holland, where cool growing-season temperatures, poorly drained soils, and high winds virtually precluded the establishment of vineyards. Satisfying most of the Dutch thirst for wine were the vineyards of the Rhineland and the Mosel Valley, but the destruction wrought there by the Thirty Years’ War caused the Dutch (like the English) to turn to the Loire Valley and to Bordeaux, where they encouraged the growing of grapes to make white wines.
Dutch tastes, however, were increasingly moving in the direction of spirits, especially brandies. In addition to vineyards, ample timber supplies were required in order to fuel the distilleries, and the Dutch found this combination in two locales, the Charente (Cognac) and Armagnac, two names that have come to define the standards by which brandy is judged.
The Search for Quality
The emergence of noble classes and wealthy merchants in Europe generated a greater concern for wine quality, with those in Burgundy leading the way. There, in the fourteenth century, the combination of the tastes of the dukes and the wine-growing skills of the Cistercians resulted in a purposeful attempt to reduce the quantity of wine produced in order to raise its quality. The monks had determined that the best vineyard sites lay along a faulted escarpment that has since gained the name Côte d’Or, and a Duke, Philippe the Bold, declared the high-yielding Gamay grape banned in favor of the lower-yielding but more aromatic and complexly flavored Pinot Noir (then known as the noirien). At about the same time, quality considerations were singling out the Riesling grape in the Rhineland and the Mosel Valley. Both cases illustrate an important trend in the making—the development of a hierarchy of quality wine regions based in large measure on grape varieties.
Two advances of the seventeenth century were crucial in the quest for wine quality. The first was the discovery of how to make stronger glass bottles, thus providing an inert container in which wine could be stored instead of in wooden barrels, jugs, or, in some instances, leather bags. The bottle then needed a stopper to protect the wine from the deleterious effects of too much oxygen contact. Wood plugs and cloth were tried with limited success, but the solution to the problem proved to be cork. It deterred the passage of air, and cork’s pliability meant that it could be made to fill the space between the walls of the bottle’s neck. It was now possible to keep new wines fresh longer, and a medium was available to allow wines to age.
One region that profited almost immediately from the use of improved bottles and corks was Champagne. By the fourteenth century, its wines had gained the reputation of being good values. Champagne was close to the Paris market, and reds and whites were made in styles similar to those in Burgundy. Matters began to change, however, in the seventeenth century under the leadership of the Benedictine abbey at Hautvilliers and, most particularly, when the legendary Dom Pérignon assumed the position of cellarmaster. He set meticulous cultivation and vinification standards designed to elevate Champagne’s wines to the very top of the quality ranking. Consistency seems to have been what he was seeking most, and to this end he perfected the art of wine blending, something that has been a hallmark of champagne ever since.
One of the problems Dom Pérignon had to deal with was a fizziness that frequently appeared in the wine during the spring following vinification. The cold weather of the late fall sometimes shut down fermentation before it was completed, and it would start up again when the warmer weather of spring arrived. Yet the fizziness produced by the carbon dioxide in the wine was precisely what consumers began to find attractive. It became fashionable to serve this kind of champagne at the court of Louis XIV during festive occasions, and the habit soon spread to other European royal families, setting off a demand that could not be met by relying on an accident of nature. Thus, by the early part of the eighteenth century, secondary fermentation was being purposefully created through the addition of a dose of yeast and sugar to already bottled still wine. Because the carbon dioxide created enormous pressure, strong bottles and a tight seal were both required. During the remainder of the eighteenth century and on through the nineteenth, numerous technological changes continued to improve champagne’s quality and thereby its image. It was a different wine than that which Dom Pérignon envisioned, but it achieved the ranking he sought.
No region is more closely associated with the image of wine quality than Bordeaux. As noted, the politics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries meant that the supply of claret for the English market was highly unreliable, and often it fell far short of demand. Consequently, claret became a prestigious commodity with attendant high prices. This situation initiated a twofold response from Bordeaux. One was an effort by some producers to make better wines and then to let consumers know with a label which properties or estates had produced them. The wine was thus not just a claret but a claret from this or that estate. The other was to expand markedly the amount of vineyard land. Most of the plantings initially were near the city of Bordeaux, in an area known as the Graves because of its gravelly soils. Because of drainage work carried out by Dutch engineers earlier in the seventeenth century, a considerable amount of land was available in the Médoc promontory to the north of the city, and by the end of the century, most of the best sites, also on gravel, had been planted. Expansion continued during the next century and soon enough wine was being produced in Bordeaux so that supplies were no longer needed from the hauts pays. Indeed, these wines were restricted from entering in order to protect local prices.
Wine and wealth in Bordeaux had come to feed on one another. The port was significant in its own right, connecting the southwest of France not only to England but also to the markets of Scotland, Ireland, Holland, and the northern German states. As profits grew, more and more was invested in wine, both by merchants and the landed aristocracy. The latter began to build country estates marked by grand chateaux, which helped to further the elite image of the Bordeaux wines. In terms of prices paid and profits earned, Bordeaux had risen to the top of the wine world.
Wherever possible, wine growing accompanied European imperial expansion. It was introduced into Mexico during the first decades of the sixteenth century and from there spread southward in rapid order to Peru, Chile, and Argentina. Its northward expansion was slower, but eventually by the late eighteenth century it had reached what is now California. Catholic missions had established the first vineyards in both directions. They were small, and the wine produced went mainly to celebrate the mass, but some was also consumed at meals by priests and monks and by nearby Spanish settlers. Wine, however, was not to be given to the local Indians.
Where and when wine was first made in the eastern part of the United States remains in dispute. Some give the credit to French Huguenots at a settlement near Jacksonville, Florida, in the 1560s; others point to the settlers of a contemporaneous Spanish colony on Santa Elena Island off the coast of Georgia; and still others say it was the Jamestown settlers. Whoever they were, they would have used wild native American grapes, including the muscadines. The pungency of wines made from these grapes was not greatly appreciated, and throughout the colonial period attempts were made to grow vinifera varieties. Without exception, however, the vineyards died within a few years of planting (we shall see why in the next section). Reconciling themselves to this fact, wine makers turned their attention toward domesticating and improving the indigenous vines, the first of which, known as the Alexander, appeared at the end of the eighteenth century.
Vinifera found a much more hospitable environment at the very southern tip of Africa. Here the Dutch East India Company chose Table Bay as the site for establishing a colony in 1652 to revictual their ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope, and vines were among one of the first crops to be planted. In the late 1680s, a group of French Huguenot refugees arrived; they brought wine-growing expertise with them and extended the area devoted to vineyards. The vines did so well in the mild Mediterranean climatic conditions of the Cape region that not only were the ships resupplied with ample quantities for their crews, but exports were also sent to Europe. One result was a rich dessert-type wine known as Constantia that gained considerable renown in the early 1700s.
Wine growing was attempted by the first Australian settlers who arrived at Sydney Harbor in the 1780s using seeds and cuttings obtained from Europe and the Cape. But the prevailing high heat and humidity militated against success and, in any event, more money could be made raising sheep. It was not until the 1820s that wine growing in Australia finally found a congenial environment in the Hunter Valley. Other areas in Victoria, southern Australia, and western Australia came into production in the 1830s and 1840s when wine-making efforts were also occurring on the North Island of New Zealand.
Disasters in the Making
By the middle of the nineteenth century, wine was entering what many have termed its golden age. It had been an everyday drink among Mediterranean Europeans for many centuries and was becoming ever more common across the Alps, where a succession of good vintages helped to spur an increase in the areas given over to vineyards. Profits had never been greater, and some areas, notably the Midi of France, became virtual monocultures supplying the demands of the general public. Side by side were other areas catering to the wealthy, now augmented by newly emergent industrial and professional classes. Burgundy, Champagne, and the Rhine/Mosel each had its markets, but no place could challenge the primacy of Bordeaux.
Most of the wine being produced was, in fact, of ordinary quality, but a few properties, mostly located in the Médoc, had managed to distinguish themselves. This led to numerous attempts at classification, the official codification of which was achieved in 1855 for the Paris Universal Exposition. At the top, it divided the wines of the Médoc into first through fifth growths (crus), and it then added lower rungs of crus exceptionneles, crus bourgeois, and crus artisans. The appearance of such a listing, which no other wine region had, created an even greater demand for the top growths, and Bordeaux’s image reached new heights.
Nevertheless, disaster was lurking in the background. It started with a powdery mildew, termed oidium, that in the early 1850s was infesting vineyards virtually everywhere in Europe. The fungus retards vine growth by attacking both leaf and stalk, and it also desiccates grapes by breaking their skins. Consequently when it first appeared, yields declined, as was especially the case from 1852 to 1854. Nevertheless, a treatment in the form of sulfur dusts was quickly found, and by the end of the decade oidium, although not eliminated, was being controlled.
But no sooner had oidium come under control than reports of mysterious vine deaths began to emerge. The first came from the lower Rhone Valley, and by 1870, it had become evident that the problem was on the verge of universality. The plague of vine destruction made its way through France (the last region to be visited was Champagne in 1901) and the rest of Europe, and eventually into most of the wine-growing world. Chile was the only major exception, being spared by a combination of distance, desert, and mountains.
In 1868 the culprit was shown to be a minute aphid, Phylloxera vastratrix, that destroys vine roots. It is native to North America, and may have entered France on vines that were imported for experiments on ways to better control oidium. With the collapse of the wine industry at hand, numerous, often desperate, attempts were made to rid vineyards of the aphids. Some chemical treatments were moderately effective, but the ultimate solution turned out to be one of grafting European vines onto American roots. Experiments had determined that several species of the latter were tolerant of the aphid’s presence and thus North America, which was the cradle of phylloxera, turned out to be the cradle of the cure.
But the diffusion of phylloxera had drastically altered the wine-growing world. Those regions hit later were able to realize short-term profits. For example, the price of champagne soared, and Italy and Spain filled in the gaps left by the fall of French production in the 1880s and 1890s. In addition, wine growers themselves were on the move. Algeria was a favorite destination for those leaving France, and small numbers also relocated in the Rioja region of Spain, bringing with them new ways of growing vines and making wine with an eye on the larger market. When, at the turn of the century, phylloxera finally hit hard in Italy, Spain, and Portugal, an exodus to Chile, Argentina, and Brazil ensued, leading to the reenergization of these long dormant regions.
Yet a third natural disaster had to be faced, that of downy mildew, which also found its way to Europe on American vines. In a manner similar to oidium, it reduced crop yields and required dusting, this time with a mixture of copper sulfate and lime, to keep it under control.
The labor and cash requirements of grafting and repeated sprayings drove many farmers in Europe out of the wine business, which was no longer something that one could do in a small way. Rather it required new skills and greater financing in order to be competitive, and these were best obtained by specialization. Virtually everywhere, the making of wine was rapidly changing from a craft into a business and a science.
In the United States, oidium, phylloxera, and downy mildew had also taken their toll. Indeed, it was phylloxera that had been responsible for the repeated failure of vinifera to survive east of the Rocky Mountains, and in the 1850s an outbreak of oidium had put an end to the country’s first wine region of note—the so-called Rhine of America along the Ohio River near Cincinnati. A far more significant disaster, however, was social and political in nature, namely Prohibition. Its origins go back to the temperance crusades of the nineteenth century designed to purify America of all vices, and most especially those thought to be associated with alcoholic beverages. The purification urge culminated in 1919 in passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (popularly known as the Volstead, or Prohibition, Act), and its 13 years of existence brought nearly total ruin to the country’s wine industry. By this time, California had achieved top rank in terms of both quantity and quality, but wineries abounded in many other states. Very few managed to survive Prohibition. Those that did sold sacramental and medicinal wines, as well as grape concentrate for making wine at home, all of which could be done under provisions of the Volstead Act.
Over most of the first half of the twentieth century, the world’s wine industry remained in a depressed state. In addition to the ravages wrought by disease and Prohibition in America, the industry had to contend with two world wars, the Russian Revolution (which eliminated an important market for French wines, particularly champagne), and economic depression. In retrospect, the golden age truly glittered.
Recovery and Transformation
Recovery was fueled by the widening base of prosperity of the immediate post-World War II years and by a Europeanization of food habits in many parts of the world. Outside of Europe, wine drinking tended to be relatively uncommon even in those areas settled by Europeans. In general, members of the working and middle classes drank mainly beer and spirits or abstained from alcohol altogether. However, by the 1950s more people could afford wine, and many discovered it as an enjoyable accompaniment with dinner. For others, wine served as a symbol of their upward mobility.
The French were the first to prosper. They had solidified their image as the world’s quality leader by developing a legal classification of wines known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlé (AOC). Its outlines were formed early in the twentieth century in order to counter an outbreak of fraud following the wine shortages caused by phylloxera. Fraudulent practices included such things as the marketing of wine from one region under the name of another; placing non-French wines under French labels; and fermenting a range of fruits and other substances in place of grapes.
As the AOC system evolved into its present form, the emphasis was placed on guaranteeing the authenticity, especially the geographic authenticity, of wines. The system defines specific regions, dictates where the grapes that go into the wine of those regions must come from, and also requires adherence to precise viticultural practices that are deemed essential to achieving a wine’s particular character. A certain level of quality is implied, but only in a very few instances are taste tests actually performed. The success of the AOC system in heightening the image of French wines meant that other countries began creating their own versions. Each is constructed differently, but the message is basically the same—the government certifies what is in the bottle.
Wineries in California led to other trends. Of special significance was the state’s abilities to produce large volumes of consistently good-quality wines at relatively inexpensive prices. Three related factors made this achievement possible. One was the high grape yields attainable in the rich, irrigated central valley of the state; another involved the development of new quality-control technologies, especially ones designed to control fermentation temperatures, permitting bulk manufacturing; and the third was the formation of large companies that could afford to adopt these technologies as well as to engage in mass advertising campaigns. Thus, while meeting a demand, the companies were also creating it.
At the same time, other California producers were heading in a somewhat different direction. Following the repeal of the Volstead Act, several smaller-volume wineries in the Napa Valley north of San Francisco had decided to compete with French wines in the prestige market. Their success in the 1950s and early 1960s sparked a wave of winery openings that spread out from the Napa Valley to adjacent Sonoma County and then to other areas of the state. Leading both branches of the industry were researchers at the Davis branch of the University of California. As early as the 1930s they had begun mapping the state into microclimates based on growing-season temperatures, and this work emerged as a guide to what areas should be planted in vineyards. In addition, basic research was initiated into all phases of wine making and the results obtained were quickly disseminated into the vineyards and wineries through various degree-granting and training programs. The application of science to wine began in Europe, but in California it reached new heights that set the standard for the late twentieth century.
During the 1960s and 1970s, wine was in a new golden age, and virtually all predictions made at the time foresaw even better days ahead. Many older wine-producing areas of the globe were modernized so that they could market their products abroad. Suddenly wines were appearing from such places as Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Algeria. However, the most spectacular change took place in Italy, which quickly went from being a producer of wines meant mostly for local consumption to the world’s leading exporter. Wine growing also expanded into many non-traditional areas including China, Japan, Kenya, and American states such as Oregon, Texas, and New Mexico. It even returned to England.
The events of the 1980s and early 1990s, however, did not bear out the optimism of the previous two decades, which to a great extent was built around trends in the U.S. market—a market that seemed to be headed in the direction of making Americans into regular wine drinkers on a par with the Europeans. But the course of upward per capita consumption did not proceed as predicted. The adoption of wine as a mealtime beverage has not spread to the population at large; for most people wine retains its image as something either foreign, elitist, or reserved for special occasions. In addition, a growing neoprohibitionist movement centered around the issues of drunk driving and health has exerted its influence on all alcoholic beverages. Information about wine’s contribution to cardiovascular functioning has reversed the decline somewhat, but it is too early to tell if that will turn out to be just another health fad.
In Europe, wine consumption has fallen everywhere, and bottled water and soft drinks are becoming preferred by more and more people. In this instance as well, health and safety issues seem to be major reasons for the change in drinking habits.
The impact of declining demand has, to this point, fallen most heavily on lower-priced, so-called jug or country wines. In areas such as the Midi of France, southern Italy, and the central valley of California, supply is greatly in excess of demand. With no signs of change in the offing, the future portent is one of considerable vineyard abandonment in such areas.
By way of contrast, the demand for prestigious high-priced wines has never been greater. Each year they sell out even as their costs escalate. To some extent, this results from wine drinkers preferring quality to quantity—one or two bottles a week instead of four or five. But wine has also become a collectible for the world’s affluent. It is not so much a matter of investing in financial terms, but of investing in status. To hold certain types of wine and then to serve them in the appropriate circumstances is to mark one’s social standing. The competition among wine producers for this market is intense, with much of it centering on extolling the geographic features that give a wine its special character. The French, for example, argue for the influence of terroir, a term that encompasses all the physical characteristics of the growing site. A variation on this theme is increasingly seen in California, where smaller and smaller wine-producing areas and the individual vineyards are indicated on the label. Very recently, Chile has begun exporting larger volumes of wine, stressing that wine makers there attain a unique quality because in that country they grow ungrafted vinifera vines. Oregon and Washington State also employ the same selling technique.
To a large extent, the minutiae of locational differences are emphasized in order to counteract a worldwide trend toward uniformity. Only a small number of grapes are considered suitable for making fine wines. These are dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, which along with Riesling, Pinot Noir, and two or three others (depending on who is making the list) constitute the so-called noble family of grapes. The standards are set at numerous wine-tasting competitions and by a small group of wine writers whose opinions are enormously influential in shaping the market. As the preferred grapes spread, they provide an underlying sameness to the wines made from them and pose the likelihood of extinction for many long-standing local varieties.
Uniformity results not only from using similar grapes but from similar ways of doing things in the vineyard and winery. Science and technology have created the means for standardizing wine making around the world, and their application has been facilitated by more and more wine coming under the control of large transnational corporations. The regional distinctions of the past are blurring as wine from places as distant as the Médoc in France, the Maipo Valley in Chile, and the Napa Valley in California all begin to look, smell, and taste alike.