During the 19th century, wine began being served at a new social venue, restaurants. The modern idea of a restaurant first appeared in Paris during the Age of Enlightenment, just before the French Revolution when soup vendors began selling “restorants” and other foods at fixed locations in the city. Initially, restaurants were places where local residents could purchase food to restore their strength and vigor as they went about their normal daily activities. Because restaurateurs made wine part of their menus, people who ate there slowly began to associate wine with eating and not as something that was generally consumed throughout the day, as had been the case since time immemorial. Now that other beverages were widely available, wine was increasingly perceived as something that one chose to consume at a particular time of the day and in moderation. This shift in thinking occurred primarily among the middle- and upper-class members of society, not among the poor, who still had relatively limited choices for quenching their thirst and did not dine out.

Wine’s First Golden Age

At the same time that middle- and upper-class people began thinking of wine as something that was drunk in moderation during a particular time of the day, some of these same people began to covet “special” wines that came from certain vineyards or wine estates, most often those in France. Throughout history, wine had been valued either simply as a source of nourishment or as an escape from normal consciousness. Yet, by the 19th century, certain wines became valued as possessions, raising the social prestige of those who bought them. Acquiring and sometimes even collecting high-quality wines became more and more common among the well-to-do, with certain wines—such as red wines from the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions of France —having such high cultural value that they were treated as veritable objects of art, not unlike rare paintings. This newfound reverence for high-quality wine led many historians to later refer to this time period as Wine’s First Golden Age. During this time, machines were invented to mold bottles of uniform shape and size, and by 1860 molded bottles were being mass-produced.

19th century molded wine bottles.

During these years, many members of the middle- and upper classes increasingly came to appreciate wine and food for the various taste and aromatic sensations detectable in them, with “good taste” associated with much more than physical sensations; it was a sign of being cultured. Certain wines and foods were now emblematic of “good breeding” and a new type of social commentator emerged, namely, the wine and food critic.

In France, wine was becoming a cornerstone of the economy and a source of national pride because French wine was widely recognized as the standard for quality throughout the world. Capitalizing on this perception, in preparation for the 1855 Paris Exposition, Emperor Napoleon III commissioned the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce to rank the quality of the region’s wine estates. Their report ranked in importance wine estates from First Growths (Premier Crus) to Fifth Growths. Yet while French wines were highly regarded throughout the world, beyond France’s borders, critics often delivered withering evaluations of what they perceived as thin and sour wines in countries such as Italy, Spain, and Germany, and American wines were hardly ever mentioned when it came to quality.

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)

The Discoveries of Louis Pasteur

The scientist who is generally credited with unlocking many of wine’s mysteries during this first golden age was Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), a French chemist and microbiologist. Up until 1860, the general belief was that fermentation was simply a chemical process, not biological, with dead yeast serving as the chemical catalyst (see last month’s issue). Then, in a series of experiments, Pasteur demonstrated that living yeast, not dead yeast, serves as the catalyst for initiating fermentation, and further, that it is the yeast that converts the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, and this fermentation process cannot continue unless the yeast remains alive and multiplies. Pasteur also discovered that when wine is exposed to too much air it causes the growth of active bacteria, which turns the wine sour; bacteria will multiply faster in proportion to the amount of available oxygen. In other words, a half-filled container of wine will spoil faster than a three-fourths filled one. As his discoveries became known, knowledgeable winemakers became diligent about “topping up” their barrels to prevent oxygenation. Pasteur became so knowledgeable about the microbiological basis of winemaking—he had a small vineyard himself—that he could identify a particular wine problem by observing it through his microscope. Based on this acclaimed scientist’s work, knowledgeable winemakers now knew that living organisms caused all of wine’s effects (or at least the vast majority of them): its initial emergence, its development, and its eventual demise (souring).

Crisis and Ruin

The mid-1800s was not all golden for winemakers. Mid-century, European vineyards were struck with crippling vine diseases. The first indications of something amiss was a strange, dusty substance on vine leaves in England that was first noticed in 1845 and quickly crossed the English Channel and began attacking grapevines throughout Europe. Covering vine stalks and leaves with a cobweb-like growth, oidium tuckeri—better known as powdery mildew—killed young shoots and drastically reduced crop yield. In 1854, this fungus resulted in the smallest French grape harvest in more than 60 years. Fortunately, scientists discovered that spraying the vines with sulfur dust was an effective treatment, and by the early 1860s this blight was largely eradicated.

Phylloxera vastatrix

No sooner was this problem solved then another far worse problem developed: tiny gold-colored aphid-like insects, Phylloxera vastatrix, that literally sucked the life out of grapevine roots, causing them to die of starvation. Many remedies were tried, to no avail. Europe was facing the very real possibility of losing all their grapevines to these insects.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” Well, it was a bit “before dawn” in European vineyards in 1878 when another form of oidium appeared to make matters even worse; Black Rot, which attacked leaves, shoots, and grapes themselves. By 1890 between two-thirds and nine-tenths of all European vineyards had been destroyed. European grape growers must have surely wondered what they had done to the wine gods to deserve these consecutive calamities. Yet these grape growers did not resort to trying to mollify the gods, as their ancestors would surely have done. No, it was science that came to their rescue, with the remedy being the lowly North-American grapevine rootstocks that many Europeans had ornamentally planted in their gardens. These American grapevines were resistant to Phylloxera vastatrix and the fungi.

A word of caution here for every American reading this article who may be moved to “puff out their chest” with pride at the thought that “their vines” saved European vineyards during this time of crisis. Yes, that is certainly true, but it is also true that it was our North-American grapevines that were the initial carriers of Phylloxera vastatrix and all the fungi that were destroying European grapevines. Over many years, our grapevines had built up a resistance to these vine diseases, something that the European grapevines had not done. Vine grafting of American rootstock on European vinifera grapevines was the remedy. American horticulturalists were largely credited with discovering this solution, and in 1888 Texan horticulturalist Thomas Munson was singled out by the French government and honored for his vine-saving work.

Many small-family European vineyards were driven out of business by the vine diseases of the 1800s.

Although disaster was averted, these grapevine diseases caused many small-family vineyards to cease operations because the costs of replanting with new grafted rootstock was not financially possible. Many of these farmers moved to the cities or emigrated overseas. The result was that European winemaking suffered greatly because the acreage devoted to grapevines shrunk by 25 percent while the production volume actually increased. In other words, farmers tried to recover yield by not pruning their vines adequately, resulting in a great deal of over-cropped, low-quality grapes that made thin and unappealing wine. High volume poor-quality grapes now replaced the low-yield acreage that produced fine wine during the First Golden Age. Some vintners and merchants were also undermining the public’s confidence by trying to pass off wine made with hydrated raisins as fresh-grape wine, while others fabricated fake Premier Crus wines. Not surprisingly, vintners’ incomes plummeted because consumers noticed the difference in wine quality. Just as consumers had done during the latter years of the Renaissance when faced with poor-quality wine, many members of the European middle class began drinking more distilled alcohol and beer.

World War I and World War II severely disrupted European winemaking.

Beyond the negative effects of these vine diseases, European winemaking was also severely damaged by a World War in 1914-1918 that was fought in some of the greatest wine-growing regions, then a worldwide economic depression followed by another World War that spanned 1939-1945. One interesting anecdote in this part of our story is the role that French wine and French winemakers played during World War II. Because the best French wines were highly coveted by the Nazis, U.S. and British Intelligence agencies were often able to track the movements and troop strength of the German Army by monitoring French wine shipments. Further, in an attempt to keep their best wines out of the enemy occupiers’ hands, France’s winemakers regularly switched labels and dumped their poorest wines on the Germans. They also helped hijack 250 trainloads of materiel headed for the Germans and smuggled Résistance fighters and arms across the Occupation Line in wine barrels.

Lackluster American Winemaking

Napa Valley winemaking in the late 1800s.

Although the destruction of many of Europe’s vineyards during the latter part of the 19th century caused an increase in American wine sales both in this country and abroad, American winemaking never enjoyed a Golden Age during the 1800s. American wines never rose to the popular heights of many European wines, largely because American-produced wines were not of particularly high quality and also because wine was often perceived by many Americans as foreign and not respectable. It is true that American grapevines avoided for a time the diseases visited upon European grapevines, but it is also true that cultural prejudices and early 20th century Prohibition effectively kept American winemaking in a decidedly inferior state for many years.

Wine’s Second Golden Age

At the end of World War II, European winemakers had endured hardships for close to 100 years and many had been driven out of business. In the United States, Prohibition had similarly decimated wineries in California and in other isolated winemaking pockets. In Europe and in virtually all other industrialized countries, municipal water was now clean and safe, and refrigeration was bringing milk and other perishable beverages to people on a daily basis. In order for wine to survive as a viable product in this post-war period, winemakers needed to once again reshape consumers’ perceptions and beliefs so that wine was not thought of as something common and bland, but was once again a sought-after product that reflected cultural refinement. Further, for wine to be resurrected in this manner, many visionary winemakers realized that their product must generate enthusiasm not just among the rich, but also among the growing middle-class masses, many who were interested in both new taste sensations and in possessing and consuming products associated with higher social status. Many of you reading this article undoubtedly recall the Paul Masson wine commercials of the 1970s in which the aging yet refined actor/director Orson Welles looks into the camera while holding a glass of Masson wine and affirms its high status with the words, “We will sell no wine before its time.” This is but one example of a concerted effort during the past half century to redefine wine and wine drinking as an indicator of cultural refinement.

Beyond the propaganda of advertisers, the first hurdle in redefining wine following World War II was to more systematically identify particular regions as the source of particular wines and, in many instances, also specify how particular wines should be made and how they should taste. Although this type of regional designation of grape (and wine) quality—the appellation system—was first developed in 1855, it now became more detailed and spread beyond France to other European countries and to the New World. Any country that desired to be recognized as producing fine wine adopted variations of this appellation system, but not always with positive results. Italy is an example of a country whose new appellation rules actually constrained its most innovative winemakers from improving wine quality because the adopted rules favored entrenched, traditional winemaking techniques that had long produced mediocre wines. Similar appellation problems plagued German winemakers, and it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that these two countries’ winemaking reputations began to improve, often due to winemakers ignoring appellation requirements.

Modern wineries employ a wide variety of techniques to ensure that the resulting wine is of the highest possible quality.

In concert with the adoption (or intentional rejection) of appellation rules, many grape growers and winemakers began to use new techniques and materials, such as various chemical treatments to prevent vine diseases, temperature management and nutrient additions during fermentation, fermenting wines in new oak barrels, and regular chemical analysis throughout the winemaking process. As these winemaking innovations led to improved quality, they were followed by additional technical manipulations, such as removing excess water from otherwise weak-tasting wines, removing excess alcohol from hot or heavy wines, and adding Tartaric acid and oak chips and sawdust to create consistency. These vineyard and winery procedures reflected a major shift in winemakers’ thinking, namely, that they could and should exert control over their vines and their fermentations. The seeds for such thinking can be traced back to the scientific insights of Lavoisier, Chaptal, and Pasteur, but now winemakers were widely adopting this “hands on” approach to improve wine quality. More than anything, this embracing of control over all phases of the winemaking process was the most important factor in ushering in the Second Golden Age of Wine.

The person most recognized as leading this call for control was French wine

Émile Peynaud (1912-2004)

researcher Émile Peynaud, who is justly considered the father of modern enology. He not only spread the word that malolactic fermentation was not a wine sickness, but that it was often beneficial and that winemakers needed to encourage and control it, especially in red wines. Peynaud also promoted the idea of harvesting grapes up to two weeks later than usual, and to complete the harvest as quickly as possible. Largely based on his advice, many winemakers abandoned the practice of picking underripe or rotten grapes, which resulted in the best possible wine.

An Assessment of Wine’s Second Golden Age

Unlike during the First Golden Age, where superb wine was an island in a vast ocean of thin vin ordinaire, post-war winemakers have been much more dedicated than their predecessors to significantly raising the quality of the ocean of wine that surrounded the one island of superb wine (French Burgundy and Bordeaux wine). It is not an exaggeration to state that their efforts resulted in the ocean becoming a much tastier source for good-quality wines. Contemporary wine critics would largely agree that over the past 10-15 years the quality of inexpensive wine is better than it’s ever been. Even the quality of one-gallon jug wine is far better than it was 10-15 years ago, and the quality difference between a $100 bottle and a $10 bottle is much smaller than it used to be. In addition to this quality rise in generic wine, Wine’s Second Golden Age is even better identified with the emergence of many more superb wine islands from the vast wine ocean. Many of these islands are in New World countries, such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, and South Africa.

Despite this most recent reinvention of wine, not everyone is ecstatic about the wine results during this Second Golden Age. Some critics believe that the strong hands-on approach of the vast majority of contemporary winemakers, combined with their desire to appeal to specific taste sensations, has led to a herd mentality in winemaking. They believe that the globalization of wine has resulted in a sort of boring homogeneity due to the loss of individual character in many world wines associated with their terroir, or region-specific quality that gives each wine its personality. These critics place the blame for this alleged loss of individual character at the feet of large, greedy multinational wine producers and at the feet of the highly influential wine critic Robert Parker. They contend that both wine corporations and Parker have championed the American wine style of ripe fruit flavors, lush textures, high alcohol, and an oaky flavor imparted by new wood barrels that overpowers the wine’s unique personality. If this criticism is just, your own current perceptions of what is “good” wine may well be shaped by this standard.

In response to the globalization trend, a growing segment of contemporary vintners are renewing the focus on their wine’s terroir through organic and biodynamic viticulture that stresses the health of the soil and the well-being of the entire environment. Where all of these recent trends take us in the coming years is anyone’s guess. In the 21st century, wine is no longer in decline as an alcoholic beverage. However, if this four-part series tells you anything, it is that wine is a cultural invention and, as such, it is often reinvented every few generations. As vintners, we are part of this creative process, and the better we understand wine’s history, the better we can help in setting the stage for wine’s next reinvention.

Wine’s Two Golden Ages

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