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Wine History ... science and social impact through time ...

One path of wine history could follow the developments and science of grape growing and wine production; another might separately trace the spread of wine commerce through civilization, but there would be many crossovers and detours between them. However the time line is followed, clearly wine and history have greatly influenced one another.

Fossil vines, 60-million-years-old, are the earliest scientific evidence of grapes. The earliest written account of viniculture is in the Old Testament of the Bible which tells us that Noah planted a vineyard and made wine. As cultivated fermentable crops, honey and grain are older than grapes, although neither mead nor beer has had anywhere near the social impact of wine over recorded time.

An ancient Persian fable credits a lady of the court with the discovery of wine. This Princess, having lost favor with the King, attempted to poison herself by eating some table grapes that had "spoiled" in a jar. She became intoxicated and giddy and fell asleep. When she awoke, she found the stresses that had made her life intolerable had dispersed. Returning to the source of her relief, her subsequent conduct changed so remarkably that she regained the King's favor. He shared his daughter's discovery with his court and decreed an increase in the production of "spoiled" grapes...

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology has a web site covering the Origins and Ancient History of Wine with several very interesting and user-friendly articles about the discovery and science of wine's social origin and development.

Certainly wine, as a natural phase of grape spoilage, was "discovered" by accident, unlike beer and bread, which are human inventions. It is established that wine drinking had started by about 4000 BC and possibly as early as 6000 BC. The first efforts at grape cultivation can be traced to the area that forms the "Fertile Crescent", around the Caspian Sea and in Mesopotamia, including portions of present-day Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkey. Excavations from tombs in ancient Egypt prove that wine was in use there by 3100 BC. Priests and royalty enjoyed wine, while beer was drunk by the workers. The Egyptians recognized differences in wine quality and developed the first arbors and pruning methods. Archeologists have uncovered many sites with sunken jars, so the effects of temperature on stored wine were probably known.

Wine came to Europe with the spread of the Greek civilization around 1600 BC. Homer's Odyssey and Iliad both contain excellent and detailed descriptions of wine. Wine was an important article of Greek commerce and Greek doctors, including Hippocrates, were among the first to prescribe it. The Greeks also learned to add herbs and spices to mask spoilage.

The foundation and strength of viniculture in Western Europe are primarily due, however, to the influence of the Romans. Starting about 1000 BC, the Romans made major contributions in classifying grape varieties and colors, observing and charting ripening characteristics, identifying diseases and recognizing soil-type preferences. They became skilled at pruning and increasing yields through irrigation and fertilization techniques.

World's Oldest Wine Bottle. WORLD'S OLDEST BOTTLE of WINE
Unearthed during excavation for building a house in a vineyard near the town of Speyer, Germany, it was inside one of two Roman stone sarcophagusses that were dug up. The bottle dates from approximately 325 A.D. and was found in 1867.

The greenish-yellow glass amphora has handles formed in the shape of dolphins. One of several bottles discovered, it is the only one with the contents still preserved.

The ancient liquid has much silty sediment. About two-thirds of the contents are a thicker, hazy mixture. This is most probably olive oil, which the Romans commonly used to "float" atop wine to preserve it from oxidation. Cork closures, although known to exist at the time, were quite uncommon. Their oil method of preservation was apparently effective enough to keep the wine from evaporation up to modern day.

The bottle is on permanent display, along with other wine antiquities, at the Historisches Museum der Pfalz (History Museum of the Pfalz), worth a visit if traveling near the area of Speyer, Germany.

The Romans also adapted wooden cooperage, an invention they acquired with the spoils of conquering Germanic tribes, to wine storage and transportation. This was a great advance for operations previously accomplished in skins or clay jars (amphora). They may also have been the first to use glass bottles, as glassblowing became more common during this era.

Beginning about 200 BC, Roman exploits were as significant as Roman experiments as the armies of Rome planted wine vines in the wake of their conquests, all over the land mass now known as Europe.

By the first century AD, wine was being exported in barrels from the Empire (Italy) to Spain, Germany, England and Gaul (France). It wasn't long before these regions began developing their own vineyards and the Roman Emperor forbid the import of French wines to eliminate competition with the local wines. Over the next few centuries, France would become dominant on the world wine market. Monastic wineries were responsible for establishing vineyards in Burgundy, Champagne and the Rhine Valley. Sacramental usage preserved wine industry methods and traditions through the dark ages.

By 1152, during the reign of Henry II, Britain had become the principal customer of Bordeaux. The end of the Hundred Years War in 1453 left the city of Calais as the only French territory still under British control and trade between England and France nearly cut off. Political conflicts between England and France ultimately benefitted competition in the export wine market. From 1703 until 1860, tariffs restricted French wine imports and encouraged those from Portugal, so the English "discovered" and developed a great love of Port.

Exploration, conquest and settlement brought wine to Mexico, Argentina and South Africa in the 1500s and 1600s. Although there were many attempts during this period to plant European wine vines along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of North America and in the Mississippi River basin valleys, none were successful. Each vineyard planted would die off within two or three seasons. No one apparently sought to determine why, even though little difficulty was encountered in Mexico or California vineyards. In the late 1800s, one answer to this mystery would ultimately prove fatal for nearly all the vineyards of Europe.

Hernando Cortez, as Governor of Mexico in 1525, ordered the planting of grapes. The success was such that the King of Spain forbid new plantings or vineyard replacements in Mexico after 1595, fearing his colony would become self-sufficient in wine. This edict was enforced for 150 years, effectively preventing a commercial wine industry from forming.

As in Europe, however, vineyards survived under the auspices of the church and the care of the missions. In 1769, Franciscan missionary Father Junipero Serra planted the first California vineyard at Mission San Diego. Father Serra continued to establish eight more missions and vineyards until his death in 1784 and has been called the "Father of California Wine". The variety he planted, presumably descended from the original Mexican plantings, became known as the Mission grape and dominated California wine production until about 1880.

California's first documented imported European wine vines were planted in Los Angeles in 1833 by Jean-Louis Vignes. In the 1850s and '60s, the colorful Agoston Harazsthy, a Hungarian soldier, merchant and promoter, made several trips to import cuttings from 165 of the greatest European vineyards to California. Some of this endeavor was at his personal expense and some through grants from the state. Overall, he introduced about 300 different grape varieties, although some were lost prior to testing, due to difficulties in preserving and handling.

Considered the Founder of the California Wine Industry, Harazsthy contributed his enthusiasm and optimism for the future of wine, along with considerable personal effort and risk. He founded Buena Vista winery and promoted vine planting over much of Northern California. He dug extensive caves for cellaring, promoted hillside planting, fostered the idea of non-irrigated vineyards and suggested Redwood for casks when oak supplies ran low.

For centuries wine was produced and enjoyed with little thought for and no true understanding of its underlying science, wine evolved through "spontaneous generation," as far as anyone knew. French chemist Louis Pasteur, among many discoveries relating to his germ theory of diseases, first proposed and proved, in 1857, that wine is made by microscopic organisms, yeasts. This led to the discovery and development of different yeast types and properties and ultimately to better hygiene, less spoilage, and greater efficiency in wine production.


J. Chauvet vineyard and winery, circa 1900. Joshua Chauvet planted his own vineyard in 1875. Agoston Harazsthy had employed him at one time. Chauvet also started the first brickyard, the first lumber mill. the first grain mill, and the first hotel in Sonoma County. Hotel Chauvet in tiny Glen Ellen still exists today.

Photo courtesy of Fleet Irvine Photomurals

In 1860, Dr Jules Guyot, another Frenchman, published the first of three treatises describing regional traditional vinicultural and viticultural practices as well as his own observations and arguments on the economy of grape growing. Before these documents, viniculture was a practice that had been apprenticed from generation to generation for over 5000 years, with very few written records and no formal instruction.

In 1863, species of native American grapes were taken to Botanical Gardens in England. These cuttings carried a species of root louse called phylloxera vastatrix which attacks and feeds on the vine roots and leaves. Phylloxera is indigenous to the Mississippi River Valley and was unknown outside North America at the time. Powdery mildew, a fungal disease, also indigenous to North America, had previously migrated to Europe and caused problems in some areas. No one, however, had any idea of the wide-reaching destructive potential of Phylloxera.

Native American varieties developed resistance to phylloxera by evolving a thick and tough root bark, so that they were relatively immune to damage. The vinifera vines had no such evolutionary protection and phylloxera ate away at their roots, causing them to rot and the plant to die and driving the pests to seek other nearby live hosts, spreading inexorably through entire vineyards and on to others.

By 1865, phylloxera had spread to vines in Provence. Over the next 20 years, it inhabited and decimated nearly all the vineyards of Europe. Many methods were attempted to eradicate phylloxera: flooding, where possible, and injecting the soil with carbon bisulfide, had some success in checking the louse, but were costly and the pests came back as soon as the treatments stopped.

Finally Thomas Munson, a horticulturist from Dennison, Texas, realized that native American vines were resistant and suggested grafting the vinifera vines onto riparia hybrid rootstocks. So, there began a long, laborious process of grafting every wine vine in Europe over to American rootstocks. It was only in this manner that the European wine industry could be retrieved from extinction. Downy mildew, another fungal disease in American grapevines, unfortunately probably migrated to Europe on some of the rootstocks imported for grafting. One tragic consequence of the Phylloxera devastation is that many of the native species indigenous to Europe, since they were of negligible commercial value, were not perpetuated by grafting and became extinct.

There was some debate generated by this replanting that the quality declined in "post-phylloxera" wines. Whether this was indeed the case and whether this was due to the rootstocks themselves or to the relatively sudden and nearly universal youth of the vines, or to changes in vinification techniques, or to some other concurrent factor or variable, is unknown. Undoubtedly, it will remain a matter of theory and opinion and provide animated conversation at wine tastings, but ultimately never be proven.

European consumer demand was unabated, especially in France, yet the vineyard blights resulted in shortages of wine for many years. French producers turned their focus to the French North African colonies of Morocco, Tunisia, and particularly Algeria. Fraud and adulteration became problems. In a short period of just over a decade, Algeria grew into the World's largest wine exporter, taking over the position of France. As their industry gradually recovered, ultimately it was competition from these African colonies that spurred French wine growers to the form the system of Appellation Controlée. AC became the model for all wine producing countries to both protect reputations and markets for the wine trade and authenticate product origins for consumers.

Northern California wine harvest, c. 1900. Around the turn of the century, the quality of American wines had reached excellence by international standards, as testified to by the three dozen medals won by them at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Photo courtesy of Fleet Irvine Photomurals


During the period when the Europeans were contending with phylloxera, the American wine industry was ironically flourishing. By 1900, America had a fully developed and proud commercial wine producing business. Leading brands from California, New York, Ohio, Missouri and New Jersey were appearing on many of the best restaurant wine lists alongside French, German and Italian listings. Barrels of California wine were being regularly exported to Australia, Canada, Central America, England, Germany, Mexico and the Orient.

The destruction of the American wine industry would come not from an entomological pest, but from a political one. While it took a hundred years instead of 20 to complete its course, the results were even more devastating. It didn't spread from vineyard to vineyard, but from town to county to state to the entire nation.

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism and their related problems were much more widespread and affected a radically larger share of America's population in the early and mid-1800s than they do at present day. Excessive use, rather than moderate use, was the norm in an era of fewer entertainments and diversions.

The first Prohibition law went on the books in Indiana in 1816, forbidding the sale of any alcohol on Sunday (still enforced to this day). By the 1840s, many towns and counties in Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York and Ohio had gone legally "dry". In 1851, Maine enacted the first statewide law prohibiting the manufacture and sale of liquor and, by 1855, thirteen of the thirty-one United States had followed suit.

The Industrial Revolution led from local to large-scale brewing and mass marketing, with intense competition. A proliferation of saloons drove owners to seek side profits by pursuing illegal and unsavory vices such as gambling and prostitution. As another beverage containing alcohol, wine began to suffer the successful excesses of beer.

In 1880, Kansas became the first state to go "dry" by amending their Constitution, followed by Iowa, Georgia, Oklahoma, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia. Although some of these laws allowed winemaking to continue for sale elsewhere, few wineries in these states could compete without selling their wines locally. Most closed their doors and abandoned their vineyards.

The Drys went so far as to have any mention of wine expunged from school and college texts, including Greek and Roman classic literature. Medicinal wines were dropped from the United States Pharmacopoeia. They even tried to prove that praises for wine in the Bible were actually referring to unfermented grape juice. Thirty-three states had gone dry at the outbreak of World War I.

In December, 1917, Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, criminalizing the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors"; by February, 1919, 45 states had ratified it; New Jersey held out until 1922, and only Connecticut and Rhode Island ultimately rejected it. To define the language and set the effective date, Congress enacted the National Prohibition Act, more popularly known as the Volstead Act, named after Minnesota Republican Andrew Volstead, teetotaller and primary proponent of the bill. After midnight on January 16, 1920, National Prohibition would begin.

The net consequences of the legislation made it much more difficult to obtain alcohol, possession by individuals for personal consumption was not a federal crime. Through a provision that made penalties not applicable1 to "a person manufacturing nonintoxicating cider and fruit juice exclusively for use in his home," thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens became home winemaking hobbyists and quasi-bootleggers. This poorly-constructed clause eliminated punishments without strictly legalizing either home brewing or winemaking, yet the obvious difficulty of interpreting and applying the law's intent led to new pastimes for many households.

Authorities dumping wine into the NYC sewer.

Wine Commonsewers, New York City, 1925

CAUTION: this photo may be unsuitable for wine enthusiasts.

Could this be the pipeline to the mayor's office? Or maybe, they're running a Veterinary Clinic to prevent arteriosclerosis in rodents...

Photo courtesy of Fleet Irvine Photomurals

Explosive demand for fresh grapes and a shortage of refrigerated railroad cars in which to ship them caused prices to skyrocket. Growers began replanting their vineyards from fine wine varieties over to table or juice grape varieties that shipped better. Planted acreage nearly doubled from 1919 to 1926. Vineyard land prices climbed from $200 an acre in 1918 to $2,500 an acre in 1923. Prosperity for the growers lasted barely five years. In 1925, the railroads finally had enough cars, too much fruit was shipped and it rotted on the Eastern docks. In 1926, vineyard land fell back to $250 per acre. The massive plantings produced a constant surplus of California grapes that persisted until 1971.

By the time of National Repeal, effective December 5, 1933, the industry was in ruins. Although some wineries managed to survive by obtaining permits to make wines used for medicinal, sacramental and non-beverage additive purposes, production dropped 94% from 1919 to 1925.

Even after Repeal, several states stayed dry: Kansas until 1948, Oklahoma until 1957, and Mississippi until 1966. Seventeen states chose to obliterate free-market capitalism by establishing monopoly liquor stores with limited selections and plain-as-dirt merchandising that discourages respectable housewives from shopping.

There remain local prohibitions that are arbitrary, inconsistent and niggling, with such manifest foolishness as streets lined door-to-door on one side with taverns and "package stores" and nary a one on the opposite side where the dry boundary runs down the middle of the roadway. Today 10 percent of the nation's area and 6 percent of the population remain dry.

Anticipating Repeal, speculators and quick-buck artists soon flooded the legal market with quickly and poorly made wine. Dilettantes published books and articles warning Americans about rigid rules that must be followed to serve the proper wine with the proper food from the proper glass at the proper temperature. Faced with bad-tasting products with which to risk committing social blunders and while remaining uncertain about the social acceptance of any alcohol, most Americans stayed away. Hard drinkers stuck to hard liquor. For decades, moderate wine drinking in a social context survived almost exclusively in households that made their own.

The only group of wines that sold well following Repeal were the fortified dessert wines. Taxed at the lower rate of wine as opposed to distilled spirits, but with 20 percent alcohol, this group made the cheapest intoxicant available for derelicts and winos. Recovery and re-growth of the wine industry was severely inhibited for the next half century, in both quantity and quality.

Before 1920, there were more than 2,500 commercial wineries in the United States. Less than 100 survived as winemaking operations to 1933. By 1960, that number had grown to only 271. California had 713 bonded wineries before Prohibition; it took more than half a century, until 1986, before that many were again operating.

Before 1920, table wines accounted for 3 of every 4 gallons shipped. In 1937, four years after Repeal, fortified wine production outpaced table wine by a ratio of 5 to 1. It wasn't until 1968 that table wines sales caught up and finally overtook fortified wines, regaining the status of most popular wine category.2

Prohibition left a legacy of distorting the role of alcohol in American life, ruining a fledgling world-class wine industry, weakening the U.S. Constitution, and boosting the success and profitability of Organized Crime (the price of whiskey rose over 500% during the 1920s). The maze of confusing and conflicting laws that currently vary widely between states impedes commerce, sustains distribution monopolies, casts aspersions of greed on tax coffers, and mocks the American sense of fair competition.

More police officers were killed during the decade of the 1920s than in any decade in history. The "Grand Experiment" implanted moral ambiguity and disrespect for authority in an entire generation of Americans, while it deprived them of potential social and health benefits, and brought the character and term "wino" into the streets and the lexicon.

The one positive remainder is the lingering Congressional hesitance to pass Constitutional Amendments, especially regarding restrictions on individual liberty and personal moral choice. We can only hope for the future that our representatives don't commit such folly when powerful special interests clash with the shared individual freedoms that make up the public interest.

The forces of prohibition are not dead yet. They are more insidious, combining moralist and monopolist factions, pursuing an agenda of obstructionist legislation, that includes preventing or encumbering direct sales of wine to consumers (see Free the Grapes 3), preventing health information from being printed on wine labels and spreading disinformation about potential benefits and studies related to wine and health.

In spite of the political workings, table wine grew in popularity in America during the last half of the 20th Century. U.S. per-capita consumption of wine still lags far behind most countries of the Western Hemisphere. American wine-consuming growth is on pace to become the number one wine consuming nation by 2020.

A remaining problem is American tendency toward excess. More than 85% of the volume of wine America drinks is done by less than 8% of the total population. A goal of moderate regular consumption seems too tame for America's tastes. Achieving such might bring better health overall to the population and peace with all but the most radical teetotallers.

Research in the past thirty years has led to developments in both agriculture and technology that have greatly improved overall wine quality. The quality and stature of California and American wine has never been better and worldwide demand continues to grow. The attractions of the "gentleman farming" lifestyle and the increasing demand drove the industry to swell to a total of 4,383 bonded US wineries in 2006.

In America's Bicentennial Year of 1976, two California wines (Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Chateau Montelena 1973 Napa Valley Chardonnay) bested their top French wine counterparts at a blind tasting in Paris judged entirely by Frenchmen4, all experts in wine! This event shocked the contemporary world of wine and became famous as The Judgment of Paris. More than four decades later, it is now only surprising when French wines win both categories at similar events.

Jim LaMar

1. Volstead Act, Section 29, Title II RETURN

2. By 2003, fortified wine production had sunk to less than 6.5% of total U.S. wine production. RETURN

3. It is interesting to note while viewing the United States map that shows states that regulate and allow direct-to-consumer shipping and those that prohibit this commerce, several of the prohibitionist states are following the religious conservative politics of their majority population (the Southern States of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama + Utah), while South Dakota (we're guessing) has a high Native American population that is genetically predisposed to alcoholism, but for Pennsylvania it is all about political power and greed, since this state runs a distribution monopoly on all alcoholic beverages within its borders...

4. This event was hosted by Steven Spurrier, a young Englishman who owned the Cave de la Madeleine wine shop and the Académie du Vin, a wine school with six-week courses primarily for chefs and sommeliers of the French Restaurant Association. His purpose was to prevent the French wine industry from stagnation by combatting their common disbelief at the time that California could produce World-class wine. RETURN

Wine artifacts collector Dean Walters' Early California Wine Trade Archive site is really well-designed and serves, if successful, as a harbinger of a museum-to-come. There are several really interesting slide shows displaying historic photos, labels, bottles, postcards, etc., along with pages of reference and related links. Encourage his efforts by visiting and contributing if you can.

The Sonoma County Grape Growers' Association details the players and events which impacted the development of California wine as it takes an Historical Look at Wine Growing in Sonoma County.

The Maritime History Project has a biographic article online about Count Agoston Haraszthy.

The History Channel web site offers a very interesting Prohibition Facts and Summary, including several videos on specific aspects.

Another good article on the Age of Prohibition with many links to related subjects can be found on the Orchid Recovery Center site.

The most famous and popular brand of American wine prior to Prohibition was "Virginia Dare." For accounts of the origin of this brand and its colorful founder, visit the North Carolina History Project: Virginia Dare page.

Maryland Winery Association site has a summary of wine events from 1648 to present on the History of Maryland Wine.




Page created January 11, 2000 | Updated April 26, 2018
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