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A Winemaker's Journal

A QUICK HISTORY OF THE WINE IN YOUR GLASS

By Elias Fernandez

As a winemaker for 20 years I have tried to share my love of wine with every bottle I’ve helped create.

So it was with great pleasure that I accepted the invitation of Latino Leaders magazine to write a column about wine. To have a new way of sharing that enthusiasm with a wider group of people, especially my friends in the Latino community, is an honor and a thrill.

Whether you’re a serious collector or someone who doesn’t yet know the difference between a corkscrew and a screw cap, I hope this column can help you learn more about the world of wine and in learning more, add even more enjoyment to your next glass.

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In spite of wine’s image as something that is reverently stored for years in dusty cellars, most wine is consumed within about four hours of being purchased. Only about five percent of a given vintage survives to see another year.
Yet even wine that’s made for quick consumption is part of one of the longest traditions known to humanity.

Archeologists tell us that winemaking has been part of human life for at least the last 7,400 years. The cradle of winemaking appears to be located in a small region between the Black and Caspian seas and claims can be made both by northern Iran and the tiny Republic of Georgia, a former Soviet Block nation. Early wine lovers in this area originally stored their favorite reds in clay containers and often buried them in the ground where temperatures were more stable. Georgians claim that their ancient word ghvino is the root term for vino.

The understanding that vintages offer different characteristics and that some wines are better than others seemed to have taken hold early in history. The Egyptian king Tutankhamun, for example, was buried with wine casks that indicated a vintage date, the winemaker’s name and notes about the wine’s quality.

Researchers in Bulgaria are unearthing an early temple site, which they believe is the ancient "home" of the Bacchus, the Greek world’s god of wine. (When Bacchus later joined the pantheon of Roman gods he changed his name to Dionysus.)

Romans loved their wine and took their knowledge of vineyarding and fermentation with evangelistic zeal to every territory they conquered. Back home it was fashionable for wealthy citizens of ancient Rome to advertise their good fortunes by building villas in the outlying countryside, planting vineyards, and becoming part-time vintners. (A similar tradition continues today in Napa Valley.)

Even in the so-called Dark Ages, winemaking thrived, often with the aid of the Catholic church and its need for sacramental wine. Monks are typically credited with originating the first sparkling and boytritis wines.

When the Spaniards created New Spain in what is now Mexico, they started planting vineyards as early as 1524. In fact the oldest winery in the Americas was established in 1596 and is located in Parras, at Mission Santa Maria in the state of Coahuila.

Spanish Mission fathers cultivated the first vineyards in California in 1778. A hearty soul named George Yount planted Napa County’s first wine grapes 60 years later in 1838. Native Americans crushed the fruit and the wine was fermented in large cowhide bags strung up between trees. From that crude beginning sprang up quite an industry. California now has some 900 wineries with another 2200 scattered through every state in the country.

Today winemaking has spread throughout the world. Even in tropical climates, such as Vietnam, enterprising vintners are learning new ways to coax good fruit out of inhospitable environments. One winery in India grows and harvests their wine grapes during the winter months, avoiding the blazing heat of summer.

As a winemaker I have the privilege of being part of a tradition thousands of years in the making. Many basic techniques of transforming grape juice into wine are essentially unchanged since the day King Tut aspired to take his favorite reds into the afterlife.

Better still, anyone who simply enjoys a beautifully made glass of wine shares in one of most treasured parts of being human.

 

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