Posts Tagged ‘history of wine’

Musical Wine Glasses

July 22nd, 2011 1 comment
Benjamin Franklin playing on the glass harmonica

Image courtesy of

When was the last time you ran a moistened finger along the rim of a crystal wine glass, making it sing?  Perhaps, after reading this post, you’ll give it a try tonight! Concerts of “glass music” produced by this same technique used to be all the rage in Europe.  There were even performers, like the blind Marianne Kirchgessner, with entire careers that consisted of playing musical glasses.  Benjamin Franklin, after attending such concerts in London, invented and perfected the “Glass Harmonica,” an instrument made of concentric glasses mounted on a rod, turned by a treadle, the size of each glass determining its pitch.  Touching the rims of the turning glasses produced audible notes, and several glasses could even be touched simultaneously to produce chords.  Although it was something of a novelty instrument, many prominent composers wrote music for it, including Beethoven and Mozart.  In fact, Mozart’s Adagio for Glass Harmonica, K.365, is one of the last pieces Mozart composed. But, like the clear beverage craze in the early 1990’s that faded by the middle of the decade, the glass harmonica’s popularity came to an end around 1815, with few instruments built after 1820.  Today, there are special manufactures who do make glass harmonicas, but professional glass harmonica players are very rare.  Still, the ethereal, haunting, otherworldly sound of the glass harmonica can be heard in several films, including Interview with the Vampire,  Mesmer,  Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and popular recordings like Björk’s “All Neon Like”.  If you want to know what this instrument sounds like, all you need to do is run your finger across the rim of a wine glass.  Crystal wine glasses, like those produced by Riedel, often work best.  Be sure, however, that you use a glass with a stem, otherwise the hand holding the glass will stop the tone.  Have fun!

Riedel Wine Collection Shiraz/Syrah Wine Glasses

Wine… and Song!

April 15th, 2011 No comments

Beethoven was quite fond of his Wine

Aside from Beethoven’s well-known drinking habits, and Mozart’s love affair with wine bottles as “romanticized” in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (1984), few people realize how great a role wine has played in the history of Western classical music.  During the late 16th to early 18th century, over 250 books containing “Serious” and “Drinking Songs” were published in Paris, not to mention the rest of Europe.  Many of these drinking songs, as you can imagine, are quite humorous.  Even opera is not free from references to the drink!  Take, for example, Verdi’s exuberant “Drinking Song” from La Traviata!  There even exists a comical CD entitled Opera’s Greatest Drinking Songs!  The classical masters are known to have frequently indulged in the good stuff of life, including wine.  In addition to Berlioz, Brahms, Debussy, and Lizst, Tchaikovsky relied on wine to ease his troubled nerves, Mussorgsky was rarely found without a glass in hand, Erik Satie enjoyed wine for its simple pleasure, Jean Sibelius spent large sums of money on gourmet dinners and fine wines, and the list goes on.  While some composers chose to write humorous music about stimulants–have a listen to J. S. Bach’s Coffee Cantata–a great body of secular music written by the classical masters includes direct or indirect references to wine and spirits.  Ponder this the next time you hear Carl Orff’s famous Carmina Burana, used in many Hollywood movie previews, which is primarily a setting of medieval drinking tunes!

American Wine “Newbies”: Blame Prohibition

March 28th, 2011 No comments

Contrary to what you may think after reading a recent article about wine “newbies” in Wine Spectator, Americans have been enjoying their wine for quite some time.  Historically, the first Europeans that explored this land dubbed it “Vinland” because of the massive grape vines they saw covering the terra firma.  In fact, the early American colonies included “wine making” as one of their goals in their founding charters.

The first commercial vineyard and winery of the infant United States, named First Vinyard, was established by an act of Kentucky Legislature in 1799 (Two oaken casks of wine produced at this site were sent to Thomas Jefferson in 1805).  Prior to this, Franciscan missionaries established vineyards in California, the first being near San Diego in 1769 (Yes, the toponym “California” was used on maps as early as 1562!).  And let us not forget about the wineries that appeared in the Finger Lakes region in 1860s, the Rocky Mountain wineries, and ones in the Midwest.  Today, in fact, there are almost 3,000 commercial vineyards in the U.S., and each state is home to at least one commercial winery, to say nothing of private wineries.

Marie-Francois-Regis Gignoux’s “American-Landscape”

Given America’s rich wine history, how can it be that the author of the article in Wine Spectator calls Americans “newbies”?  Drawing on his own experience, he states, “Most of us didn’t grow up with wine. My parents never drank wine. Indeed, they didn’t drink anything alcoholic except an occasional cocktail at a party in order to be “sociable.” I’ll bet you anything that the same could be said for most of your parents, too—at least if you’re old enough to be in the Baby Boomer cohort.” The “Baby Boomer cohort” gives us clue about why the author’s parents may have adjusted to a life without much wine: Prohibition.  Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, America’s once thriving vineyards had deteriorated, left unattended for over a decade.  Expert winemakers had passed away, unable to pass knowledge of their craft on to their children, and thus a generation of people grew up unexposed to wine.  What took a few hundred years to develop was destroyed in the blink of an eye (okay, a decade!).  It took many years for commercial American vineyards to recover, reaching almost 3,000 in number by 2003.

Prohibition Makes the Press

After such a drought, it’s no wonder many American people were slow to imbibe after adjusting to a life without wine or spirits. Many families did resume drinking after Prohibition, but now they often bought inexpensive, less-than-ideal jug wines.  In many ways, because of the lasting effects of Prohibition, the claim that “Most American wine lovers are almost as new to wine as most Asian wine lovers” may not be far from the mark in some parts of this country, but the article does not address why this may be so, and also fails to inform the casual reader about America’s previously-rich wine history that is, once again, thriving (and nowhere more so than here in SoCal!).

Wine Storage Tourism?

February 10th, 2011 2 comments

Wine cellar in an old mine in Cricova, Moldova

Image source:

This morning, I was doing something that you may very well have been doing just seconds ago: Browsing the web for wine-related news. I came across an article (a well-illustrated one, too!) about the underground wine cellars of Moldova.

Now odds are good that you can’t find Moldova on a map (I can’t), and you may never have even heard of this tiny eastern European country. However, Moldova is apparently the 7th largest wine exporter in the world, and the limestone-mines-turned-wine-cellar house hundreds of bottles of wine. These cellars have made the town of Cricova a tourist attraction worthy of being visited by wine enthusiasts in particular, although the beauty of the area attracts a variety of tourists.

This all got me thinking about wine storage tourism. We’re all pretty familiar with the idea of wine tourism–Napa Valley, French wine country–but you don’t hear about wine storage tourism, by which I mean travel aimed at seeing historic wine storage sites. The mine-cellars of Moldova cannot possibly be the only historic wine storage site worthy of tourist traffic.

Have you ever been on a wine-storage tourism jaunt, or included a wine storage site in your itinerary? We’d love to hear about where you went and what you saw!

6,000-Year-Old Winemaking Site Found

January 11th, 2011 No comments

Today, the media reported that archeologists in Armenia have unearthed the world’s oldest known winery.  They think that the 6,000-year-old winemaking equipment, which includes a wine press and desiccated grape vines and seeds, was used to make special wines for funeral ceremonies held nearby.  Very cool!

Read the full story on here.

Click here to learn about the winemaking process.

A Toast to Champagne!

December 31st, 2009 No comments

Happy New Year from the crew at Vintage Cellars!  We’d like to remind you that tonight, when you’re raising your glass with family and friends, to not forget a small, personal toast for that beverage of celebration: champagne!  If you’re looking for a great new bubbly to try, here’s the San Francisco Chronicle’s 100 Top Wines list, headed by seven great champagnes.

In honor of New Year’s Eve, we bring you a few interesting tidbits you might not have known about the world’s most beloved sparkling beverage:

  • Champagne was associated from the beginning with the anointment of French kings.  Since then, the word “champagne” has been synonymous with luxury and power.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Dom Perignon did not invent sparkling wine.  It was invented by English scientist and physician Christopher Merret in 1662, when he presented the Royal Society with a paper in which he detailed the “méthodePicture 6 champenoise,” basically, how to add sugar for a secondary fermentation that produces bubbles.
  • In France, the first champagne was created by mistake.  Accidental secondary fermentation caused bottles to spontaneously explode from the pressure of carbonation.  Because of this, the French called champagne “the devil’s wine.”
  • Champagne was always sweet until 1876, when Brut was first created.
  • Bubbles occur when the liquid contacts small imperfections in the glass.  These “nucleation points” are often added to champagne glasses with acid, a laser, or a glass etching tool.
  • Bottling champagne in magnum-sized bottles is said to produce a higher quality beverage, as there is less oxygen in the larger bottle, and the volume-to-surface area ratio creates bubbles of a perfect size.
  • Champagne corks are originally shaped like cylinders.  Pressure forces them into their distinct mushroom shape.  The longer champagne has been in the bottle, the more mushroom-shaped the cork.
  • Champagne is usually served in a champagne flute.  The shape of the other common glass, the Victorian flute, with the wide, short bowl, is said to have been modeled from the breast of Marie Antoinette.
  • When opened correctly, a bottle of champagne won’t make a loud popping sound, as this means you might be spilling-and wasting!  The sighing sound of a properly opened cork is called “le soupir amoureux” (the loving whisper).

“A Case for Wine” Exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute

September 15th, 2009 No comments

I’ve often found that wine lovers and art lovers are the same people. After all, the two are a significant portion of what makes up the “finer things” in life. This view was confirmed for me this weekend when I was in Chicago and took a trip to the newly-expanded Art Institute, where a special exhibit, A Case for Wine, is currently on display.

Wine has been an important part of the Art Institute’s prestigious collections since the beginning of the museum’s history in 1879. Some of the first classical antiques the Institute acquired included jugs for storing wine, and the first collection of Dutch master paintings they purchased included a familial scene that portrayed wine drinking.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the museum was fortunate to purchase a portion of Jacque Muesum’s collection of European glass and a similar collection that had belonged to J.P. Morgan. A Case for Wine, currently on view at the museum, features many beautiful drinking vessels from both of these collections.

What struck me the most is how skillful artists can bring new beauty to everyday activities such as drinking wine. Paintings and tapestries displaying wine drinking, winemaking and simple motifs of grapes and vines were an impressive reminder of the muse-like qualities of a great glass of wine.

The exhibit, subtitled “from King Tut to Today” also reminded me of the great heritage all wine drinkers share, as wine has been an essential part of human culture for thousands of years. I was most interested to learn about the development of the different shapes of wine bottles, and to see examples of innovations in glass technology that make wine storage possible today.

If you happen to live near Chicago, or to be visiting anytime soon, the Art Institute and A Case for Wine are both well worth a visit!

Learn more about the history of wine cellars.

Plastic Wine Bottles?

August 11th, 2009 2 comments

If you haven’t seen it, I’m sure you might be ready to jump out of your seat. On Saturday (8/8/09) I came across and article in the LA Times Business section, “Plastic bottles aim to remold wine industry”. This article has brought up recent memories for the cork versus screw top debate. Now, no one who knows me would consider me a wine “snob” but I do have my opinions on the subject… Plastic wine bottles are a short term solution!

Reading about these plastic wine bottles, I don’t think wine collectors and wine cellar owners are going to budge from the traditional glass bottle. Plastic wine bottles will come with a “use by” date. The serious wine enthusiast and wineries that produce wine that is designed to be aged will have no use for plastic. Can you imagine a Vintage Port that could easily age 25 to 30 years in a plastic bottle?

So you really see this trend as a true change is the wine industry? No, I don’t. I see this as a way to get mass consumed product to the mass consumer. The plastic wine bottles are lighter making shipping costs less; they hold more, allowing for a few more glasses on a per bottle basis. This is a trend that can affect wines that are designed to drink right off the shelf. I just don’t see this as a major change in the industry. 

High end wine stores, where the wine collector shops, probably will not carry wine in a plastic bottle. I’m positive you won’t find a Premier Cru available in a plastic bottle unless it’s done by Chateau de Plastique.
This article may surprise you and it may not. If you still have plans to build a beautiful wine cellar, don’t stop. Good wine in a bottle is still meant to keep at a constant 55-57 degree temperature with a relative humidity around 60%. Some traditions will never go away. Maybe another time we will discuss the screw top!