The History of Wine

Around the entire world, wine has become a symbol of the highest echelons of culture and life. It traces its origins to pre-agricultural societies, to Biblical times, and to modern-day tourism destinations. The history of wine charts the drink’s evolution throughout human civilization, from an important source of nutrition in and of itself to a vital complement of food and lifestyle.

From Fermentation to Wine

In 2011, National Geographic reported that the oldest known winery in the world was discovered in Armenia. Constructed at a prehistoric burial site more than 6,000 years ago, the people who inhabited the area may have used the wine in their burial rituals. Archaeologists unearthed a wine press for squeezing grapes, vessels for fermentation and storage, cups, decayed grape vines, skins, and seeds. Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that the presence of the winery was “important and unique, because it indicates large-scale wine production,” which implied that grapes had been domesticated as far back as 6,000 years ago.

It may be that human beings were evolutionarily destined to gravitate toward making alcohol. Numerous scientists have theorized that our primal ancestors were attracted to the powerful smell of rotting fruit, the result of microscopic yeasts eating the sugar in fruit and leaving carbon dioxide and ethanol behind. This process of fermentation has existed ever since fruit first appeared on the planet, some 120 million years ago, and it might have been the best thing that could have happened to the human race. Researchers believe that the ethanol produced via fermentation not only tasted good to our primate predecessors, it also provided them with vital calories and boosted their immune systems. Over hundreds (perhaps millions) of years, primates became preadapted to seek out the ethanol that kept them nourished and healthy (and gave them a pleasant buzz as a perk, which also compelled them to seek out more ethanol).

According to Scientific American, the result of this adaptation is seen in modern-day human biology; 10 percent of the enzymes produced in the human liver are “solely dedicated to turning alcohol into energy.”

The Universal Drug

In one way or another, alcohol has been a vital component of human evolution and civilization, and wine has been an integral part of the story. The first wine-tasting, says National Geographic, may have been a group of Paleolithic humans “slurping the juice of naturally fermented wild grapes from animal-skin pouches or crude wooden bowls.”

The oldest (intentionally) fermented beverage that has ever been discovered is a 9,000-year-old rice and honey wine. Sixteen pieces of pottery in a village in China tested positive for containing a liquid that was a “mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey and a fruit.” Around that same period of time, humans in Central Europe were just beginning to experiment with the common grape, and evidence suggests that around 7,400 years ago, those people may have hit on a formula to intentionally ferment such fruits.

Even further beyond that, deep into the Paleolithic period of the first use of stone tools, winemaking may have originated with a quest for medicine. “Alcohol was the universal drug,” Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania told Scientific American, because not only did it taste good and make people feel good (for reasons they could not understand), it had key medicinal properties. Again, the humans of the Paleolithic era (and subsequent periods) had no concept that the ethanol they were drinking from rotting fruit (and then intentionally fermented grapes) had any health benefits, but those who did drink it tended to live longer (and better) than those who didn’t; those who did partake might have attracted more mates, reproduced more copiously, and risen in social status as a result than those who didn’t. Over time, the humans who drank wine became dominant (and, through evolutionary genetics, passed down the taste and inclination toward wine and alcohol to their descendants); the humans who didn’t died off.

…those who did drink it tended to live longer (and better) than those who didn’t

Wine played an important role in Ancient Egypt, with royalty and nobility being entombed with vessels of grape wine. Scientists of the day knew that the active compounds in plants work best when they are dissolved in an alcoholic medium and then consumed. Tutankhamen, perhaps the most famous of all the pharaohs of the Kingdom of Egypt, was buried with wine jars for his enjoyment in the afterlife, and chemical analyses of the jars showed that the young king had a taste for red wine.

Wine as ‘Health and Wealth’

The Ancient Egyptian nobility set a high standard for enjoying wine, and over time, every layer of various societies has looked at wine as a source of pleasure and aesthetic (almost artistic) appreciation. Most cultures look at wine positively, as an important augmentation of social functioning. Simultaneously, wine is inexpensive and widely available, effective as a relaxant and an accompaniment to cuisine (whether simple or fine). In most Western countries, the presence and consumption of wine are typically met with approval, not scorn.

Generations before Prohibition struck wine from the public sphere, colonial American parents would give small amounts of wine to their children, continuing the tradition of using wine for medicinal purposes. Even for children in good health, wine was permitted for its wholesome properties; while beer was preferred by adults, wine was considered to be a more universal, almost family-friendly beverage. Colonial Americans drank far more alcohol than contemporary Americans do, and even Benjamin Rush, a Founding Father and the architect of American psychiatry, gave wine his “health and wealth” seal of approval.

Adore God and Drink Wine

Wine was present at both festive and somber occasions. It was popular among soldiers and politicians, and even priests enjoyed a drink as a source of inspiration (again hearkening back to wine’s initial use for its mystical properties). Indeed, wine has been at the center of religious rituals for millennia, in faith systems both long extinct and practiced actively today. “Let us adore [God] and drink [wine],” Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1779, speaking to what The Conversation calls the “intimate connection” that exists between celebration and worship.[8]

“Let us adore [God] and drink [wine],” Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1779

The Ancient Greeks venerated Dionysus as the god of the grape harvest, winemaking, wine, ritual madness, fertility, theater, and religious ecstasy. Nearly all the religious festivals in Ancient Roman were timed with important phases of the grape-growing and wine-producing agricultural cycles. So important was wine to the Romans that they believed Jupiter, the great god of everything from air, light, and heat, also bestowed wine to the human race.

On the other side of the world, Shinto shrines in Japan often have large casks of sake (rice wine), and adherents (as many as 80 percent of the Japanese population) offer sake as a rite of ritual purification.

Of the three major Abrahamic religions, wine has been a central component of Jewish and Christian practice for thousands of years. In the ancient Mediterranean world, wine was not simply a luxury, it was a diet staple, consumed by people across all levels of society. Many Biblical references are made to wine as a sign of God’s blessing, and the first documented miracle performed by Jesus Christ in the Christian New Testament is at a wedding where he turned water into wine. The sacrament of communion (where wine is consumed as a symbolic reenactment of the Last Supper, itself a celebration of the Jewish Passover festival) “illustrates how fully the subtle pleasures of wine drinking became associated with the spiritual urge,” writes The Conversation. As a result, winemaking was a skill among Catholic priests for centuries.

Wine in Early America

The close link between wine and religion was furthered by the first American colonies. The Pilgrims started making wine soon after they touched down at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, and wine was used at the first Thanksgiving celebration in 1623.

…wine was used at the first Thanksgiving celebration in 1623.

In 1697, a Jesuit missionary led a small group of priests on the other side of the country, from Mexico to the Baja region of California, where they planted grapes to provide the mission with a trustworthy source of wine for sacramental communion and to give the priests something more flavorful to drink with their otherwise bland meals.

In San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco, more and more missionaries sprung up, eventually leading to the California region becoming “the wine-producing nucleus” of the United States. Today, California produces 85 percent of all the wine in the country, and it is the fourth leading producer of wine (behind France, Italy, and Spain). The estimated retail value of California’s wine sales in the US is $34.1 billion, and the state also sends 46 million cases to 138 countries every year. Wine is one of California’s top three agricultural commodities.

Beyond California, the religious settlers in the American Midwest also caught the wine bug, which they used as a way of building community in states like Iowa and Missouri. The German Protestants who settled there used wine to foster a sense of camaraderie and festivity that brought believers closer together. In the early days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, LDS authorities promoted wine because the altered states of mind it induced were conducive to religious fervor.

Turning Sour on Wine

America’s love affair with wine (and alcohol in general) didn’t last very long. Temperance advocates, concerned about intoxication and uncivilized behavior, called for the total banishment of alcohol from public life. During the 18th /and 19th centuries, anxieties about economic efficiency, public health, and racially charged claims (such as protecting America’s Protestant heritage from Irish Catholic immigrants) were used to cast alcohol as a social poison. This was in complete contrast to centuries of tradition that presented alcohol (especially beer and wine) as a vital and necessary elixir of life. After Benjamin Rush published a document in 1805 that identified alcohol as the catalyst for uncivilized behavior, the tide started to turn. Even though Rush supported moderate alcohol consumption (and even wrote of the beneficial effects of wine), the temperance movement adopted an uncompromising position, persuading more and more people and politicians to get behind the anti-alcohol banner.

After Benjamin Rush published a document in 1805 that identified alcohol as the catalyst for uncivilized behavior, the tide started to turn.

Ironically, much of the opposition to alcohol came from churches. Conservative Protestants claimed that original Bible texts had been mistranslated, and that the passages that were initially thought to refer to wine in a positive light (such as the miracle of Jesus Christ turning water into wine) had instead referred to ordinary, unfermented grape juice.

While that claim has since been disproven and ignored by both science and mainstream Christianity, some churches still use grape juice for wine, continuing the relatively recent tradition of holding all forms of alcohol as a source of sin and temptation. Other churches found the middle path, acknowledging that wine had been used in historical times, but preferring to use grape juice out of consideration for recovering alcoholics in their communities.

Wine and the 18th Amendment

The culmination of the temperance efforts was the 18th Amendment in 1920, which outlawed the manufacturing, sale, and transportation of alcohol. While breweries and bars were shuttered, churches thrived; the Volstead Act (which enforced the 18th Amendment) made provisions for the continued production of wine for Jewish and Christian houses of worship, specifically naming sacramental wine as an exception to the general rule of Prohibition. Smithsonian magazine writes of an Italian man, Santo Cambianica, living in Los Angeles, who “transformed ordinary table wine into something sacred, into the altar wine used in Mass.” Wineries were not only allowed to function during Prohibition; they made a fortune selling wine to churches and synagogues, which saw an uptick in attendance as disgruntled citizens came to receive the only alcohol they could find. Cambianica’s winery was a small institution before the 18th Amendment passed, making 5,000 cases of red wine. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, his winery was producing 20,000 cases. Today, it is the largest supplier of sacramental wine in the United States.

Such was the impact of what churches and synagogues did during Prohibition that “the church saved the wine industry.”

While breweries and bars were shuttered, churches thrived

Rebuilding the Wine Industry

Carla de Luca Worfolk, a documentary filmmaker, told the Huffington Post that the alcohol industry is the only business that has ever had to deal with two Constitutional amendments (the 18th and the 21st) “that significantly changed the manufacture and distribution of its product.” As one of the standard bearers of the alcohol industry, wine was at the forefront of the losing battle against the temperance movement and Prohibition, and the triumphant return to mainstream culture.

The return was championed by immigrants, many of whom grew up in countries and families where wine was part of their everyday life. Despite their astonishment that wine was included in the 18th Amendment, they never lost their perseverance and optimism for their way of life. Most of them, coming from big families where wine was served every day, believed that Prohibition would come to an end, and they all dreamed of reopening their wine businesses.

Some were creative at home, buying grape products from wineries, which sold grape juices, grape jams, and grape jellies with clear instructions to not add water and sugar for “risk” of causing fermentation and the creation of wine.

When Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933, wine merchants and makers had to rebuild their industry from scratch, but they never lost sight of their dream. However, they needed a little help; in cooperation with professors of enology (the study of winemaking), viticulture (the science of grapes), and chemists, vintners were not only able to revive their industry; they improved it, laying the foundations for the wine industry to become an economic and culture juggernaut. It also helped that Amadeo Giannini, the founder of Bank of America was Italian; he provided the loans and resources to small farmers in California.

Prohibition was doomed to fail, but no one could have anticipated how successfully the alcohol industry would recover. In 1976, the world was rocked when unknown California wines were chosen over “some of the finest wines in France,” by French judges in a blind tasting. There was virtually no press at the event, since everyone considered the result a foregone conclusion. “Obviously the French wines were going to win,” said the only journalist in attendance. The result of the tasting, popularly known as “the Judgement of Paris,” showed that France no longer had the monopoly on great wine, and America – the country that had banned alcohol just 50 years prior – officially produced the best wine in the world. The upset “opened the door for this phenomenon today of the globalization of wine.”

The Future of Wine

Wine has a sparkling past and present, but the future remains challenging. The 21st Amendment’s repeal of Prohibition allowed states to set up their own individual laws to regulate alcohol policy, sales, and shipping. The result is that each of the 50 states has its own alcohol laws, and each county within those states might have its own law. Wine retailers can only ship to 14 states, and just 42 states allow out-of-state wineries to ship directly to consumers (an increase from 31 in 2005).

Wine retailers can only ship to 14 states, and just 42 states allow out-of-state wineries to ship directly to consumers (an increase from 31 in 2005).

Traditionally conservative regions of the United States exist in a gridlocked limbo of what to do about wine; acknowledging that Prohibition failed and that alcohol is part of mainstream life while simultaneously adhering to strict religious interpretations of vice and sin. Arab, a city that lies in both Marshall and Cullman counties of Alabama, is “wet” in that the service of wine and beer is legal; Marshall County is dry. In the words of the local sheriff, “It gets complicated.”

The complications arise as a result of Alabama state law not criminalizing the sale of alcohol, and “the working policy” of being in a dry county, which considers any form of alcohol service, and profiting off the service, a violation of the law. For the dry counties in Alabama, the legal cap with regards to wine is three quarts; the general counsel for the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control Board noted that the only other exception is “sacramental wine,” a clause that hearkens back to the days of Prohibition.

Wet Cities in a Dry County

The comparisons don’t end there. A state enforcement agent noted that people who have a wine cellar in a dry county are breaking the law; the reality, says The Arab Tribune, is that unless those people are running a black market out of their wine cellars, the state does not care what they do with their private wine stocks and has no intention of conducting search and seizures of private homes. Having a combination of wet and dry counties leads to local and state law enforcement and regulatory bodies getting tangled up in “what-if” questions, “especially when you have three wet cities in a dry county.”

Even outside Alabama, wine, for all its cultural and economic might, does not enjoy universal acceptance in America. In Tennessee, it was not until 2016 that the legislature approved a bill that allowed grocery stores to sell wine; even then, the wine had to be sold “in a separate distinct area, which sometimes includes a wall, and possibly even use a different sales operating system.” The Republican who sponsored the bill said it was necessary to establish an environment that was receptive for business; the Democrat who opposed the bill was concerned that allowing wine in grocery stores sent a message to children that drinking is permissible everywhere: “at some point our children are going to realize that we’re just winos,” she said, “even at the grocery store. Somewhere we got to stop.”

European and American Ideas about Wine

In Europe, the idea of “protecting” children from wine may seem baffling, even ludicrous. In 2016, an Italian senator proposed a bill that would require schools to have weekly classes on the subject of wine culture. The senator insisted that the proposal was not about teaching students to drink; instead, he said, children aged 6 and up would learn about the “cultural importance of wine in Italy.”

While such an idea would be instantly controversial in the United States, The New York Times pointed out that children are constantly learning about what adults and their parents eat and drink; they see how people drink alcohol, whether wine is drunk with food, whether it is taken in regulation or abandon, or whether it makes people feel good or bad.

The World Health Organization found that countries where drinking wine during meals is normal practice (such as Italy, Spain, and France) have the lowest risk for problem drinking.

In France, a meal without a wine would be considered a faux pas, a tradition borne from the history of wine. A teacher at Cornell University notes that with more education about wine, people tend to become pickier about the wine they drink; this, in turn, reduces their consumption.

In America, however, the ghosts of Prohibition still linger, like in Arab County, Tennessee, and Texas, where alcohol cannot be sold on Sundays, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, and Christmas Day, “in a nod to the Christian origins of many state laws.” Nonetheless, liquor can be ordered and served at restaurants on Sundays, but only before noon and only if food is ordered with the beverage. A publication put out by Texas college students concludes that “Texas alcohol laws make no sense.”

Or, in the words of The Conversation, there still exist “negative sentiments” concerning alcohol consumption, even in the country that stunned the world by having better wine than France. Such sentiments exist despite Americans drinking more wine than they have in the past (and the United States being the largest wine-consuming nation in the world), with more than 7,700 wineries in all 50 states. At this point in history, more Americans than not have “embraced wine as a beverage to complement food,” and a social elixir to enjoy with friends and family alike.

…more than 7,700 wineries in all 50 states.

Carla de Luca Worfolk, the documentary filmmaker speaking to the Huffington Post, referred to the present state of wine being “a complex cultural, social, economic and political issue,” but her words unknowingly echoed the remarkable history of wine in the human story.