So, what’s new in wine?

I thought you might like to read the following exerpt from a talk I gave at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. The subject of the seminar was culture and wine, and mine was one of three talks. I’ve condensed it, but it still is long for a blog entry. What the hell, it’s my blog!

~The wine world has certainly benefited from technological innovation, but, like so many worldly matters, in the wine world what seems new has often been done before.
~My interest in wine is what led me, before I turned thirty, to travel, both figuratively—in books—and literally—around the world. My instinct told me that studying wine is the same as studying civilization.
~My first extensive trip abroad was to the Middle and Near East. Between 1973 and 75 I lived and worked in Tehran, Iran. It was before the 79 revolution, so I was able to travel throughout Iran if I so chose, and if I took a different route each time…
~Since it was before the revolution, I got to sample Iranian wines: Riesling and a couple of reds, one of which I convinced myself had been produced from the shiraz grape, but I never was able to confirm that suspicion.
~I’m still not sure if I believe the shiraz grape originated in southern France, as I have been told. The Greeks started wine production in southern France, at Marseilles, about 400 years before Christ and I am sure they brought new grapes with them, grapes they may have gotten from their trade with others—from Persia, perhaps?
~At the time, the only Greek wines I had ever tasted had turned me off—it’s only in the past decade or so that solid Greek wines have been regularly available in the United States. But on a subsequent trip to Greece, the local white wines I drank, particularly the ones from the islands of Samos and Rhodes, opened my eyes.

In the 1990s I read about Patrick McGovern who specializes in wine archeology and is on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania—I later read his book, Ancient Wine: the Search for the Origins of Viniculture. McGovern led a team that discovered what at that time was the oldest known site where wine had been produced, in the Zagros Mountains of Iran, near the border with Iraq. I remembered that the Iranian Riesling I used to drink had been produced somewhere “up north” between Tehran and the Caspian Sea.

Soon I was researching and writing about ancient wine, which is how my latest book came about Wine: The 8,000 Year-Old Story of the Wine Trade.

~I discovered that in just about any community where wine was produced, it was extremely important both to the economy and to culture: first as a spiritual vehicle, then as a medicinal, and finally as a food.
~Today wine is not as powerful an economic force as it once was but it still manages to serve the spirit in just about the same ways it always has, which means that despite the many innovations along the way, those of us interested in wine’s history can be forgiven for asking: so, what’s new?
~Take the case of cult wine production and single vineyard designation.
~Wine was of course part of Classical Greek culture, especially wine from the Aegean islands, which, in ancient times, as it is today, was considered the best. In fact, the Classical Greek economy, like the later Classical Roman economy, was largely structured around grain, olives, and wine. Greeks introduced wine on the Italic peninsula around a thousand years before Christ.
~At the time, Etruscans held prime land in the north end of the Italic peninsula. There’s evidence that, although the Greeks considered them barbarians, they traded wine with the Etruscans for natural minerals. It was a successful trade relationship: the Greeks continued to build colonies and the Etruscans continued to indulge in good food and plenty of drink.
~Rome was once reluctantly under Etruscan rule. Some historians claim that Romans also considered Etruscans barbarians and that in early Rome the people cultivated milk products instead of grapevines. Roman law at the time prevented men under 30 and women of all ages from drinking wine. How’s that for culture taking the lead?
~Soon enough, however, the efficient Romans were poised to subsume both Etruscan and Greek cultures. Romans began to produce wine for themselves, using Greek methods as their guide.

A culture of the elite developed in Rome and those wealthy Romans drank only Greek wines—considered superior to the homegrown stuff. (Some of us know that feeling.) The cult fashion that elite Romans gave to Greek wines could be viewed as a reflection of too much disposable income in the hands of too few people (and doesn’t that seem familiar, too?)

Yet, cult wine wasn’t a new idea even then. The practice can be traced to the Nile Delta well before Rome, and even earlier in Damascus, where a famous Phoenician sweet wine called Chalybon had a cult following all the way to Persia, and who can forget the famous nectar of Homeric Pramnian Essence, which was sweet red wine. Unfortunately, cultism often proved to first increase the price of wine and then, over time, to cheapen the product.

~As Rome slid from a republic into an empire, it finally did subsume Greek culture, and viticulture took on more importance as a reflection of that event. Then, in the Punic war of 141 BC, Rome sacked Carthage, a place where the descendants of the Phoenicians had taken a largely wine dependent culture and economy to new heights of oligarchy. After the war, Romans had in their possession fine viticultural notes from a book by a Carthaginian named Mago. The book not only showed them how to produce better wine, it taught Romans the potential economic value of viticulture. Soon Romans produced widespread commercial wine—they had already taken over the grain industry and would soon take over the olive industry from the Greeks.
~Two decades after sacking Carthage, at the Latium border with Campania, Romans on a small hillside known as Falernum finally put the reputation of Greek wines to rest, and they did it through single vineyard wine production. The producers at Falernum identified three sites from the bottom to the top of the hill, the latter being the premium site.
~Falernian was not only produced from single vineyard grape growing, it was controlled in small production. It was also expensive—it became a Roman cult wine and of course any Roman who was anybody had to have it—the wine was probably shipped on allocation well before the advent of email newsletters…
~The success of Falernian produced copycat wines and then imposter wines. Even the Roman government had been duped, using so-called Falernian to give away as expensive political favors to rivals and barbarians at the gate. Incidentally, wine to pay political favors and potential warring rivals remained a common cultural activity in parts of Europe into the Enlightenment period, but no other culture since seems to have done what the Roman government did: give wine away as welfare payments to its citizens.
~Since the owners at Falernum could make money by exploiting its cult status, they began to dilute the single vineyard designation by flooding the market with more Falernian than could have been grown on the little hillside. By the second century Pliny and the famous physician, Galen, each had written that Falernian had become second-rate.

Even back then, wine writers could make or break a producer…the difference between then and now is that not all of them, but a majority of the ancient wine writers either grew grapes or produced wine, or both.

~The price of Falernian plummeted.
~In fact, over the life of the empire, Roman wine economy suffered from bouts of under and over production as fads came and went, vineyard practices changed, and populations shifted. It got truly bad for single vineyard owners between the first and second century when large producers began to contract with growers, paying money for the crop before harvest, a practice that had once been outlawed in Greece for fear of weakening the quality of the crop, which, of course, it did. Roman vineyard standards fell, wines became increasingly mediocre, and prices rose and fell with frightening regularity.
~Always a thorn in Roman wine merchants on the Italic peninsula, when Rome fell the Gauls began to take control of the European wine trade. In some sense, they had to reinvent the trade. Certainly, government wine welfare systems were a thing of the past; so was the amphora, which gave way to the oak barrel—Mediterraneans had access to a lot of material for ceramics, but the Gauls had a lot of forest in the north.
~With some exceptions, single vineyard wine production was out of favor. Large-scale cooperative production was encouraged. Plus, the economic focus shifted. The medieval French, and other northern Europeans, introduced new grape varieties to survive northern climates, where more elegant wines began to be produced and more commercial traffic had taken root.

Throughout the Middle Ages the wine trade regrouped and grew stronger, mainly in northern Europe. By the 16th and 17th centuries most wine traffic either was in bulk or went through negotiant shippers who blended. And then along came Arnaud De Pontac and Haut-Brion.

~De Pontac owned a restaurant and grocery in London that catered to the cream of society. He was also a Bordeaux wine producer who followed the line of beneficiaries of the 12th century marriage between Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England, a wedding that solidified a relationship that to this day keeps the British in ample supply of their beloved “claret.”
~De Pontac brought his Haut Brion wine to the restaurant and billed it as special and at truly special prices. He not only made himself rich, he started a small wine revolution in Bordeaux. And what was that revolution? Another version of single vineyard designation, which led to the Bordeaux growth classification system, a system that was arguably established mainly on price and cult status…and the worm kept turning.

Past centuries are full of small winery successes that had been overtaken by conglomerates; wine gluts that caused major price fluctuations and losses in wine quality; wine fads, such as various additions to wine (yes, the ancients had their versions of the wine cooler). Discussions in vine spacing, trellis training, crop exposure, and suitable grape varieties for certain sites go back to ancient Egypt—which method took precedence often reflected the marketplace rather than the vineyard, as is evident in the modern desire for crop hang time on the vine to increase intensity and alcohol; this very practice was in part responsible for the success of ancient Falernian, some of which may have been as high as 30 percent alcohol by volume.

~Constant arguments over storage, shipping and packaging led to innovations that took wine out of ceramics stuck into the ground and put them into barrels stacked in a warehouse or out of large earthenware vessels and into smaller glass bottles. The point being: each innovation often fed off commercial and cultural conditions such as developments in glass blowing, overgrown forests for wood and so on. Follow the culture and you are soon following developments in commercial wine.
~400 years ago an argument ensued in Europe whether cork, which was first under widespread use to cap pharmaceuticals, should be used to cap wine. Obviously, the cork prevailed over the use of a layer of olive oil, wax or a rag stuffed into a container; cork was better. But today the wine cork is under siege, and while its time may be coming to an end, it promises not to go without putting up a valiant fight. What is behind the fight? Many producers are afraid to switch to screw caps in part for production reasons, but mainly because of perceived consumer resistance. But the cork will be subject to the culture, and a growing part of the culture hates to lose rather expensive wine to a tainted cork; to them, screw cap is better.
~In past centuries the cycles of the moon guided viticulture and winemaking. Then, thanks to much of the work of people like Louis Pasteur, science and the laboratory advanced grape growing and winemaking technologically. Today, however, there’s a move out of the lab, away from petrochemicals and into the natural state of things from organic to biodynamic, where the claim is that the sun, the moon, and the earth gods govern all living things, including plants, and that the natural concoctions of earth materials are superior to any chemical regime. The ancients certainly would recognize this call.
~After generations in the cultural wilderness of what we still call the New World, the past thirty-plus years have seen an increase in wine consumption cycling throughout the North American culture. Of course, this is encouraging to those of us in the wine business. Arguments in the U.S. over the archaic wine shipping restrictions across the fifty states proves that a growing segment of the American population wants its wine. It’s also nice that even the Supreme Court has been brought into the fray, although I am not fond of the narrow solution they put forward, reasoning that gave states the right to restrict shipping completely or to allow it but with many potentially expensive—not to mention confusing—hurdles for out-of-state wineries. Europeans of past centuries who fought wars over wine and placed protective tariffs across borders would likely hail such medieval thinking.
~Scan the global wine landscape; look at its fads, its regulations, its technological achievements, and its level of growth in North America and it becomes clear that our New World often reflects the Old. Oddly, that idea gives me hope, because it forces me to continually ask: so, what’s new in wine?
~My only sadness is in the realization that if North American governments feel the need, as the Romans had, to dispense wine as welfare payments, it probably won’t happen in my lifetime.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
June 2007, All Rights Reserved.

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