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Wine-Dark History

By: Michael Taube
May 7, 2018

here are few experiences that match the sight, smell, and taste of a glass of wine. English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in Wisdom of the Ancients (1609), that “Of all things known to mortals wine is the most powerful and effectual for exciting and inflaming the passions of mankind, being common fuel to them all.” Legendary comedian Groucho Marx got right to the heart of the matter when he quipped, “I shall drink no wine before it’s time! OK, it’s time.” 

Most people know how they feel about their favorite bottle of vino, but the luscious, pressed grape’s history isn’t as widely known. There are some intriguing overviews of the industry, such as Hugh Johnson’s The Story of Wine, and others publications have concentrated on narrower historical periods—Don and Petie Kladstrup’s Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure, for example.  

Rod Phillips’s 9000 Years of Wine: A World History is the genre’s newest addition. A history professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University, Phillips has also carved out an impressive career as a wine writer and author. “Clearly, the journey that wine made from the vine to the glass (or the kylix or the mug or whatever was used to drink from) has always been one in which humans and the environment have collaborated,” he writes in his Introduction, “and part of the history of wine is the story of that relationship.”

But who pressed the first grape?

This remains, and may always remain, a mystery. “The origins of wine are as cloudy as the first wines must have been,” Phillips notes, much the same way “we will never know who ground grain and baked it to produce the first loaf of bread.” The oldest existing example discovered was a batch of 3,000-3,500-year-old Chinese wine, which survived only “because it was sealed in totally airtight containers.” Nevertheless, ancient earthenware jars containing “the remains of grapes—seeds, stalks, and skins—or stains and chemical residues from wine,” hint at wine’s much older origin.

Winemaking is most often associated with the Mediterranean region in Europe, but the earliest known examples appear to have originated in Asia, in the area including China and the Fertile Crescent, the Caucasus Mountains near the Black and Caspian seas, eastern Turkey’s Taurus Mountains, and western Iran’s Zagros Mountains. In fact, the earliest fermented beverages date back to 7000 BC and were discovered in Jiahu, a village in northern China. Phillips describes the concoction as a “cocktail of liquids” containing rice, fruit, honey for sweetness, and either grapes or haws, which is the “fruit of the hawthorn tree.”

A 3,000-3,600-year-old grape-based wine in liquid form was also discovered in Jiahu at a later date. This isn’t surprising, since the North Hemisphere, which includes North America, Europe, and Asia, contains wild grape vines which are ripe for the picking. Phillips believes it’s possible humans “were cultivating vines there as early as 6000 BC,” and the “earliest physical evidence of wine production comes from the region in about 5000 BC, although as yet it is not known whether that wine was made from wild or cultivated grapes.”

One of Phillips’s more significant chapters deals with ancient Greece and Italy. The Greeks initially had one alcoholic beverage, mead—which contains fermented honey, water, and various spices and/or grains. Vineyards were gradually constructed near water in large cities like Athens, Sparta, and Argos, and eventually spread to the Greek islands. The Greeks began to combine “innovation with what we might think of as already traditional viticultural practices...they largely abandoned the widespread method of growing vines up trees in favour of training them along trellises and stakes, making the grapes more accessible for havesting.” Greece’s wine trade rapidly developed and quickly become quite profitable.  

Meanwhile, Roman civilization began its own foray into the wine industry using Greek viticulture, particularly in southern Italy. Winemaking was also popular in some  conquered nations, like Gaul (as René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s classic comics about Asterix and Obelix accurately depicted). Italian men had “access to well over a litre a day” on average, although winemaking was often viewed as a “high-risk investment of money and land” due to the varying sizes and successes of grape harvests. Another component, especially during the Christian era, was a “coherent body of writing” about wine from the likes of Cato and others.

The winemaking industry has had historical ups and downs, as other alcoholic drinks like beer and whiskey have grown and waned in popularity. Phillips points to the period between 1500-1700 as a “dynamic one for wine” due to “dramatic shifts in the range and styles of beverages available to Europeans. There was also a “warming tendency in the early sixteenth-century climate that enabled grapes to be cultivated in parts of Europe where they had previously been marginal.” Spain, for example, became a major success story when it became part of the Habsburg Empire in 1519—and was able to take advantage of the powerful Dutch and Belgian wine and alcohol trade.

With apologies to John Steinbeck, there have also been periods of the grapes of wrath. In 1731, France’s royal government “took comprehensive action and forbade the planting of any new vineyards” anywhere in the country “without the express consent of the king.” Vineyards around Paris at that time produced 8.5 million liters, which was “twice the annual average of the previous ten years.” This obviously benefited the royal family, wealthy landowners, and nobility, but left the peasants completely out of the equation.

Hence, ordinary people spent their time and money drinking at bars and taverns. The clientele was mostly adult males, who combined their drink with food, singing, and playing board games. Unfortunately, “the mixture of alcohol and large groups of males was always volatile, and brawls over games, intrusions into personal territory, and perceived insults were not uncommon.” It’s also unsurprising to find out the women who visited these establishments were either servers, or perceived to be card-carrying members of the world’s oldest profession.

Today’s wine industry is now focused on “providing quality wines for an increasingly educated and demanding market.” There has been some economic restructuring; the amount of land dedicated to vineyards is shrinking around the globe, and the twin issues of overproduction and environmental degradation continues to affect winemakers. That said, New World wines continue to grow in popularity—the U.S. and Canada are becoming more powerful and respected, South American wineries are becoming significant producers, and organic viticulture is trendy.

9000 Years of Wine is an extremely well-researched account of an industry with a long, rich history and tradition. While Phillips acknowledges that “the present status of wine seems healthy,” he correctly points out “the long history of wine tells us that we should never be complacent.” Indeed, tastes change as people change. Let’s hope our taste for wine never does.