Seeing world history through the eyes of wine
One of the things I find so fascinating about wine is its impact on social history. From the first discovered viniferous grapes in Mesopotamia near present-day Iran in 4000 B.C., through its travels through Europe and the influences of religion, all the way to the New World and Prohibition, wine was the most safely consumed and stable beverage throughout much of human history. The earliest written account of viticulture is in the Old Testament of the Bible, which tells us that Noah planted a vineyard and made wine. As cultivated fermentable crops, both grain and honey are older than grapes, although neither mead nor beer has had anywhere near the social impact that wine has. Wine came to Europe with the spread of the Greek civilization around 1600 B.C. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad both contain detailed descriptions of wine. The Greeks used wine as an important part of commerce and Greek doctors, including Hippocrates, were among the first to prescribe it for medical purposes. The Romans, however, are who we credit with the foundation of viticulture.
Starting in 1000 B.C., the Romans made major contributions in classifying grapes, recording colors and charting ripening characteristics, identifying diseases and even recording soil-type differences. The Romans were skilled farmers and increased vineyard yields through pruning, irrigation and fertilization.The Romans also contributed highly to wine’s journey by inventing wooden cooperage for storage, which was previously done is skins and clay jars. With the invention of glass, wine was being exported from The Empire (Italy) to Spain, Germany, England and Gual (France). Soon these regions began to develop their own vineyards. Over the next few centuries, France would become dominate in the world wine market and monasteries established vineyards in Burgundy, Champagne and the Rhine Valley. Sacramental usage preserved wine-making methods throughout the middle ages.Exploration and conquest brought wine to Argentina, South Africa and Mexico in the 1500s and 1600s. Mexico’s viticulture success and the work of Spanish missionaries are felt to this day in California. European vines failed to produce when planted on the Atlantic and Gulf Coast of America and it wasn’t until 1863, when species of Native American grapes were taken to the Botanical Gardens in England, that they discovered a root louse called phylloxera vastatrix. This louse is indigenous in the Mississippi River Valley and was unknown outside North America until this time. No one had any idea how devastating phylloxera would be.
By 1865, phylloxera had spread to vines in Provence. Over the next 20 years it killed almost every vineyard in Europe. Native American vines developed a resistance to phylloxera by evolving a thick and tough root bark and were relatively immune to the disease. Finally, a horticulturist from Texas, Thomas Munson, discovered you could graft the European vinifera grape vines to the American native root stock, saving many of the varietals from extinction.While Europe was dealing with phylloxera, the American wine industry was booming. It wasn’t a pest that brought the industry to its knees, it was politics. It took a little over 100 years, but by 1919 wartime prohibition was enacted, followed by the Volstead Act and the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, forbidding the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.”Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but the industry did not recover until the late 1950s.
Today, almost every state in the country produces wine, as well as most countries in the world. Wine is steeped in history, imbedded in tradition, and is seen as an artistic and cultural accompaniment to our daily lives. Cheers to that!Susanne Johnston is the owner of Frisco Wine Merchant. For more information, contact her at (970) 668-3153, or at Susanne@friscowine.com.
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