It is thought that mankind discovered the tantalizing properties of fermenting grapes about 8,000 years ago. Scientists and archeologists found evidence that the first wines originated at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. That present-day area, which borders Russia to the north and Turkey to the south, is a now-sovereign country named Georgia. During excavations, remnants were found (pieces of pottery, animal skins, carved wooden bowls) for the fermentation and transport of wine. There was also excavation evidence of grapes being fermented into wine in the nearby fertile crescent and in present day Israel.
However, the question “when did humans first make wine” is a misnomer. Humans simply discovered that grapes, if allowed to naturally ferment, would somehow magically turn into wine. Even to this day, our role as “wine-makers” (sic) is to facilitate and augment this natural fermentation process to (hopefully) create a better product. To this day, the French don’t even have a word for “winemaker”… the closest being “vigneron,” which means “grape grower.” Many wine historians also believe that wine was discovered those 8,000 years ago not by men, but by women. Why? Throughout human history there were specific divisions of labor for both men and women. Women were traditionally the “gatherers,” while men were the “hunters.” The job of women was to forage and collect anything edible: wild fruits, vegetables, nuts, roots, or plants. The job of men was to hunt critters for food (and to make up stories about “who killed the biggest sabre-toothed tiger”). One fine summer day (probably) a group of women gatherers came across a wild grapevine climbing up a tree. Birds were eating the fruit, so thinking it would be edible, they gathered up as many berries as they could carry and transported them back to the clan for food. After consuming the freshly picked grapes as a food source, for some reason or other, not all the berries were consumed and some grapes were left at the bottom of whatever vessel they had carried it in. When they got around to “cleaning up” a week or so later, they realized that what was remaining in the bottom of that vessel hadn’t spoiled, but it had dramatically changed.
Because of the yeast that is inherently on grape skins, the berries began fermenting, creating a new mixture of liquid (wine) and solids (skins and seeds). Not wanting to waste anything, they ate the solids and drank the liquid, and even though it was not the same as the fresh fruit, everyone agreed that the skins and the juice were pretty tasty. And then a magical thing happened … everybody seemed to be in a better mood and their aches and pains seemed to lessen.
Thus, two unusual things happened to grapes when left alone for awhile: 1) the grapes “transformed themselves” into something tasty but entirely different; 2) chewing the skins and drinking the juice from this newly made elixer seemed to make life a bit more pleasant. And then, the “magical trifecta”: 3) they noticed that no one seemed to get ill when they consumed this newly-created potion … quite unlike the possibly unpotable water they drank. What was this new elixir and how did it happen? It seemed like magic!
Photo by Squire Fridell
Photo by Squire Fridell
Today, there are between 5,000 and 10,000 different and unique varieties of Vitis vinifera grapevines in the world, of which about 1,400 varieties that are currently made into wines. If you think about it, 1,400 different wine grape varieties is an huge number! I oft times will ask folks to name all the wine grape varieties they can…and if they’re pretty wine-savvy, they can list about 30. (How many can you name?) Portugal alone produces about 250 different varieties and chances are that the vast majority of them you’ve never heard of. (Portugal’s most well-known variety that makes a superbly dry red wine is Touriga Nacional…ever heard of it?) Suzy and I will be flying to Portugal this June and will be traveling up and down the Douro River about the time you are reading this article. Why? We’re on a fact-finding mission and want to taste all 250 varieties! (Just kidding.) The sheer number of Vitis vinifera grape varieties there are in the world from which wine is made is astounding. Many of them you can’t even read or pronounce because they are written in the Greek or Cyrillic alphabets.
How could early humans possibly grasp the science of fermentation, grapes turning themselves into wine? There were many things that primitives could not explain: the moon changing shapes, the tides rising and falling, eclipses, earthquakes. It all seemed mystical! Since there were no easy answers to these multitude of questions, early humans probably explained these phenomena as best they could by creating dieties (gods) to explain the unknown. Since writing did not develop until about 5,000 years ago, everything that is known about early civilizations comes from excavations, artifacts, and conjecture.
Once humans began to write, for the first time we had first-person accounting of things that happened and what folks believed. Writing began in many areas of the world but, about 4,000 years ago, two early civilizations, Greece and Rome, produced great historians (Herodotus, Homer, Plutarch, to name a few) who began writing about events, including wine. We are fortunate to still have a lot of those writings to this day.
Greece and Rome were highly developed civilizations where great advances in government, mathematics, language, architecture, philosophy, astronomy, and culture became quite refined. Science was still rudimentary, and there were still many events in people’s lives that they couldn’t logically explain. These were polytheistic people who created and worshipped multiple gods, each responsible for occurrences not otherwise understood. Thanks to the writings of these early historians, we know that both the ancient Greeks and Romans had very important gods of wine: Dionysus and Bacchus.
Dionysus, the Greek god of the vineyards and wine, was usually depicted as a beautiful young man with coiffed hair, and a six-pack abdomen, delicately holding a goblet of wine and sporting an ethereal look on his face. His Roman counterpart was named Bacchus, usually shown as an old, inebriated guy with bleary eyes and matted hair, always lusting after young virgins.
I have ofttimes said that the Greeks’ idea of a perfect afternoon would be to sip a glass of wine while listening to Plato and Socrates discuss the meaning of life, while the Romans’ idea of a perfect afternoon would be to guzzle a huge bowl of wine, take Plato and Socrates to the Colosseum, throw them to lions, and wager on which one was eaten first. But I digress… Throughout history, a multitude of civilizations revered wine and the mystery that accompanied it. (Google “gods of wine.”) In our own Old Testament, Noah’s first task after stepping off the ark was to plant a vineyard. It was not to count the pairs of unicorns (“Didn’t I pack the unicorns?”) or mosquitoes (why he brought two mosquitoes on the ark is beyond me). Even our own New Testament records Christ’s first miracle as attending a wedding to turn the water (possibly unsafe to drink) into wine (safe to drink). Today’s Holy Communion, in many of our Christian churches, equates wine as something divine, representing the blood of Christ. Wine is, and always has been, mysterious and other-wordly.
For that answer (and others) you’ll have to wait until next month, when we’ll chat about the evolution of wine from those early wines to the wines of today. “Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine so that I may wet my brain and say something clever.” Aristophanes, Greek playwright, 446–386 B.C. “Men are like wine; some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age.” Cicero, Roman statesman and philosopher, 106–43 B.C. Yamas! (Greek for “Cheers!” English pronunciation; different alphabet.) Prosit! (Latin for “Be well!”, later developing into German “Prost.”) Squire Fridell, GlenLyon Vineyards & Winery; Two Amigos Winery I would be remiss in not thanking my “muse” and bride of 45 years, Suzy. If Jack London had his Charmian, I have my Suzy. She faithfully and diligently proofreads and “crits” my monthly column. So, thank you!
It takes a long time to grow an old friend.