Winemakers, sometimes called vintners, have been making wines for millennia. Wine is a fascinating product that goes through many steps before it is finished.
First, the grapes are harvested. This is done by hand for some winemakers, although larger wineries use mechanical harvesters. The grapes are then sorted for quality and de-stemmed.
Wine-making specialist putting some clusters of ripe grapes into a wooden crusher
The earliest winemakers
The exact origins of winemaking are unknown, but you can imagine a group of early humans foraging in a river valley and becoming captivated by the beautiful brightly colored berries hanging from thickets of grape vines. They are enticed by the tart, sugary sweetness of the berries and their juices, and they scoop them up in animal hides or crudely-fashioned containers to carry home.
Over the next few thousand years, people began to domesticate grapes and winemaking became a major part of many cultures across the globe. The earliest evidence of wine production comes from Georgia in 6000 BC, Iran around 5000 BC, and Sicily around 4100 BC. The earliest evidence of steady production was found in Armenia where the earliest winery was discovered, with vintners using their feet to crush the grapes and collecting the juice in a vat to ferment.
Throughout the centuries, wine has been used as a religious beverage, a status symbol, and an aphrodisiac. In modern times, wine has a reputation for being high in calories and alcohol, but it is still considered to be a healthful beverage when consumed in moderation.
The first commercial California wineries were founded by Charles Kohler and John Frohling in 1854 and Agoston Haraszthy at Buena Vista in 1857. During this time, European grape varieties were introduced to California and the wine industry continued to develop worldwide. Louis Pasteur figured out how yeast turns fruit sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide, bringing new scientific knowledge to the world of winemaking.
The Romans were wine lovers, consuming large quantities every day as well as at public events and celebrations. It was considered a democratic, socially acceptable part of life and even slaves were known to drink it. They took over the winemaking culture of their Italian neighbours, the Etruscans and Carthaginians, but also introduced new grape varieties such as biturica, fiano and balsaca which were more frost resistant.
They were keen to improve wine quality, particularly for religious use, and pushed the sanitisation of wines to new heights with boiling until reduced to one-third of its original volume; diabaton, which involved reducing the wine until it was thick enough to stand a spoon in; and caroenum which reduced the wine by further distillation. They bottled wine in large clay pots (terracotta) and, as the empire expanded, exported their wine along trade routes.
Today’s winemakers have many more tools, techniques and equipment at their disposal than the ancient Romans did, but the basic process remains the same. Vine sugar is fermented with yeast to make alcohol. Winemakers now understand that the best wines should carry a taste of their vineyard, rather than simply the grapes themselves; this is called ‘terroir’. They also realise that different winemaking styles produce varying results; it is up to them to choose the style that suits their grapes and their customers’ tastes. And of course they have a huge choice of delicious wines to choose from.
The Middle Ages
With the slow decline of Roman civilization and Europe entering the Dark Ages, grape growing and winemaking waned. Only for the Church, where wine was needed for the Eucharist, were efforts made to maintain vineyards. Eventually monasteries such as those of the Benedictines (Dom Perignon was a Benedictine) in Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux in France and along the Rhine River in Germany began producing surplus wine to sell to commoners and nobility.
The Middle Ages saw the development of many new varieties, including Riesling in Germany. In the same time period a winemaking tradition developed in England where the Doomsday Book of William the Conqueror lists 28 producing vineyards.
In other parts of the world, Jewish communities leased vineyards from Fatimid and Mamluk rulers in Egypt and Iraq; Christian monasteries produced wine for sacramental and secular use; Zoroastrians in Persia and Central Asia cultivated vines; and even though alcohol was forbidden under Islamic rule in the Middle East, local Jews and Arab traders ferried in wines from other areas and traded them across the Eastern Mediterranean.
By the medieval period, winemakers were using oak casks for aging which presented two problems: too much time in wood could rob a wine of its fruit, and once a bottle was opened, the wine would deteriorate unless consumed quickly. This led to the introduction of steel barrels that allowed a greater amount of air to reach the wine and helped it mellow in a relatively short period of time.
The Renaissance saw the rise of winemaking as a science, thanks to Louis Pasteur’s discoveries that alcoholic fermentation occurs because of a living yeast that turns sugar into alcohol. This knowledge allowed for better grape selection, better farming practices, and improved equipment like mechanical presses.
Once grapes arrived at the winery, they were sorted to remove mildewed berries, unripe clusters and leaves. They then went through a crusher/destemmer, which removes the whole berry from the stem and allows juice to flow. The result is called “must.” Some winemakers cool this must for a day or two, a process known as cold soaking, to extract color and flavor compounds before alcoholic fermentation begins.
Some winemakers still crush the grapes with their feet rather than with a machine, claiming that this method is gentler and releases more delicate flavors and aromas. This is also known as foot stomping.
The 16th century ushered in a fashion for fortified and sweet wines, which were used by merchants to enhance cheap base wines. These were also shipped far and wide, so to prevent the wines from spoiling on long voyages, neutral grape spirits were added. This practice is the basis for the fortified wine that is still produced on the island of Madeira today. This winemaking process is unique to this region, and fundamental in the development of a wine that is very different from all other wines.
The 19th century
Winemakers in the 19th century focused on quantity rather than quality. This was due to the lack of consumer demand for a more flavorful and aromatic wine. They also lacked knowledge of what grape varietals would produce the best wines.
The wild grape type of Vitis vinifera has uni-sexual flowers and requires cross-pollination by insects in order to bear fruit. However, cultivated vines have been bred to be self-pollinating. This means that a single vine will only produce a wine that is similar to itself. Therefore, a winemaker must use different grape varieties to create a wide range of wine styles.
In California, a new breed of winemakers began to plant vineyards with the goal of producing quality wine. Despite this, the wine industry in America was stifled by Prohibition and the Great Depression. It was not until the 1940s that Napa Valley began to rebirth. This rebirth was led by Robert Mondavi. It was he who introduced many of the modern winemaking techniques that we still utilize today.
He pioneered the use of small French oak barrels to age his wine. He also reintroduced the practice of cold fermentation in order to concentrate flavors and aromas. Mondavi was also responsible for promoting the idea of selling wines by the varietal. Prior to this, most wines were sold by the acre or the region. This idea was quickly picked up by other Napa Valley winemakers including Charles Krug, BR Cohn, Colgin, Bryant Family, and Pahlmeyer.
The 20th century
The early days of winemaking in Napa Valley and California were difficult. Glass bottles were expensive and often hard to find. Vineyards were planted on hillsides and wine was aged in redwood barrels. Winemakers were using grape varietals that weren’t suited to the soils of Napa Valley and were often producing wines without proper blending or winemaking techniques.
Prohibition stopped Napa Valley’s rebirth in its tracks but the industry fought back and by the 1940s, the region was once again booming. But World War 2 put an end to all that.
By the 1980s, the quality of Napa Valley wine had improved dramatically. Agoston Haraszthy was credited with much of that improvement. He was the first California producer to dig his own caves, plant on hillsides and use redwood barrels. He also used dry farming and avoided irrigating his vineyards.
During the 1970s and 1980s, winemakers focused on ripe fruit and soft tannins. Many of those winemakers became famous with high Robert Parker scores and massive critical acclaim. But they were often pricey and consumers could only afford a few of the wines. This created a secondary market for these wines. Many producers watched their customers resell their wine for double and triple the original price. So, they began raising their prices. This started a vicious cycle that continues to this day. The most successful growers and winemakers are able to keep their prices in check.
Notable Winemakers in History
Dom Pérignon (1638-1715)
A Benedictine monk and cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers in France, Dom Pérignon is often credited with making significant advancements in the production of Champagne. While he didn’t invent Champagne, he did refine the winemaking process, including the use of cork stoppers to retain bubbles and developing blending techniques to create consistent and high-quality sparkling wines.
Baron Philippe de Rothschild (1902-1988)
Known for his innovative approach to winemaking and dedication to improving the quality of Bordeaux wines, Baron Philippe de Rothschild was a key figure in the wine industry. He played a pivotal role in modernizing winemaking techniques and was responsible for creating the iconic Château Mouton Rothschild.
Robert Mondavi (1913-2008)
An American winemaker, Robert Mondavi was a trailblazer in the Napa Valley wine scene. He advocated for quality winemaking in the United States and played a significant role in popularizing California wines on the global stage. He founded the Robert Mondavi Winery and introduced new winemaking techniques and marketing strategies.
Margerum Amaro (b. 1959)
Doug Margerum is a contemporary winemaker who has made a name for himself in the world of Rhône-style wines. He is the founder of Margerum Wine Company in California, known for its focus on producing elegant and balanced Rhône varietals. Margerum is recognized for his commitment to sustainable and organic farming practices.
Eileen Crane (b. 1949)
Eileen Crane is a notable figure in the realm of sparkling wines. As the CEO and founding winemaker of Domaine Carneros in California, she has contributed to the production of high-quality méthode traditionnelle sparkling wines. Crane has been recognized for her dedication to crafting exceptional sparkling wines that rival those from Champagne.
Paul Draper (b. 1936)
An influential figure in American winemaking, Paul Draper served as the winemaker and CEO of Ridge Vineyards for several decades. He is known for his commitment to traditional winemaking methods and his focus on producing terroir-driven, single-vineyard wines. Draper’s work has been instrumental in showcasing the potential of California’s diverse vineyard sites.
These are just a few examples of famous winemakers who have made significant contributions to the world of wine. Each of them has left a lasting legacy and has played a crucial role in shaping the history and evolution of winemaking techniques and practices.
Iran has a rich history of wine, and it has been one of the prominent wine producers for a long time. But the Islamic revolution of 1979 did damage to the wine industry because wine was wholly forbidden under the supreme leaders. In 2016, only 6% of the country’s population consumed wine, and in 2020, a person was executed after being found guilty of drinking alcohol and driving without a license.
On This Day
6000 BCE: Earliest evidence of winemaking in ancient Georgia.
3000 BCE: Ancient Egyptians start cultivating grapes and making wine.
776 BCE: Wine is an integral part of the ancient Olympic Games in Greece.
1st Century CE: Roman expansion spreads viticulture across Europe.
4th Century CE: Saint Martin of Tours is known for spreading viticulture and winemaking in France.
1098 CE: Cistercian monks cultivate vineyards in Burgundy, France.
14th Century: Sparkling wine production begins in the Champagne region of France.
1716: The world’s first official wine classification system is established in Hungary’s Tokaj region.
1816: The phylloxera epidemic devastates vineyards in Europe, leading to widespread replanting.
1863: Baron Georges Haussmann transforms Paris, including the arrangement of its vineyards.
1976: The Judgment of Paris blind tasting event shocks the wine world by ranking California wines over French wines.
2000s: The rise of biodynamic and organic winemaking practices gains momentum.