Why Wine Is Made
Updated: Apr 12, 2021
Wine authors have a clear focus on personalities, reviews, and stories about wine because it gets their articles noticed. A case can be made that writing about specific wines is essential because the point of reading about wine is often finding a wine to drink, though that is rarely the case for me. Understanding how wine is made is useful as a precursor to making better wine or as an exploration leading to greater appreciation. However for me, the most intriguing aspect of wine is why it is made, given its history and the economic challenges usually involved.
Grapes are a unique fruit in that when ripe they largely consist of flavorful juice and sugar enclosed within a skin covered by yeast, a combination that naturally results in wine. We don’t know when the first wine was intentionally made but it is likely that juice from berries with broken skins fermented without intervention and had a noticeable effect on the animals and people that drank it. The earliest archeological evidence of intentional grape winemaking was found in Georgia, where a pot fragment with traces of tartaric acid dates to 6,000–5,800 BC. Credence to this view that the Transcaucasia region was the birthplace of grape wine is bolstered by the discovery of the world’s oldest winery in modern Armenia and of the world’s oldest town in modern Turkey. Evidence of an even earlier fermented drink was found in 2001 in Jiahu, China, with seeds and pottery dating to around 7,000 BC. However, given the Chinese proclivity for tea, rice, honey, and fruits other than grapes, I'll wait for further evidence of grape winemaking earlier than 8,000 years ago.
Regardless of where wine was first made, it is likely that the first intentional winemakers were trying to reproduce what they found in nature. The intoxicating effects gave comfort and inspiration to a privileged few in a world where many struggled to survive. The vineyard cycle of harvest, death, and rebirth, coupled with the spirited action of fermentation, would instinctively lead to an association with the divine. Once alcohol’s abilities to provide pain relief and act as a disinfectant and preservative were discovered, it is not surprising that wine played a major role in trade as civilization spread.
Of course, civilization spreads through conquest as well as through trading and the vine would be brought along with the soldiers so wine could be made and shared in celebration or defeat. Skills growing grapes and making wine were transferred to conquered cultures and traditions developed as wine production became part of the local economy. Religious and temperance movements both advanced and arrested wine production as civilization progressed into the modern age.
Most activities can be pursued as a way to earn a living or be elevated by the individual to an art form. Grape growing and winemaking are no exception though culture and family tradition can play a major role. Today, corporations and investors focus on return on investment while consumers obsess over ratings, social media exposure, and prestige. Some people, myself included, find wine appreciation is furthered by study.
So why has wine been made? Initially for nurishment or its intoxicating effects and to achieve a spiritual connection. Later as a consequence of trade and conquest by nations and religions which have morphed into regional traditions. Today, companies are primarily concerned with economic metrics while individuals also embrace passion, social, and coping motivations.
The graphic below delineates why wine is made for grape growers, wine makers, enthusiasts, professionals, owners, students/interns, and researchers/historians -- most of whom are also consumers. I do not mean to say that wine is normally produced to study it or publish results about it; I note for completeness that there are academic researchers that experiment with winemaking for these purposes.
McGovern, Patrick E., https://www.penn.museum/sites/biomoleculararchaeology/, accessed 2019-11-19
Wagner, Paul, Wines from the Ancient World, Wine Scholar Guild member webinar, 2019-11-06
Lukacs, Paul, Inventing Wine, First Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012
Johnson, Hugh, Vintage: The Story of Wine, Simon and Schuster, 1989