How Grapes Built the World

nick musica
Published Oct 14, 2020. Read time: 4 mins

Over the course of millennia, the planet has continuously shape-shifted, from the steady slow drip of continental drift to the immediate impact of a meteor smash.

But perhaps some of the most profound changes the Earth has encountered can be traced back to something no larger than your thumb.

Grapes may be the most influential fruit in history, wielding the power to shape – and break – empires and industries across the arc of mankind. And you don’t have to hear the stories of their clout through the grapevine: they’re written right there in the pages of history.

Happy Water

From their jewel-tone pallet to their burst of sweetness, grapes are an undoubtedly special crop, responsible for so many things we love, from jams and jellies to raisins and even essential oils.

But what’s truly responsible for the grape’s great power is its most famous byproduct: wine.

The fermented concoction has been mankind’s drink of choice for centuries, with the first evidence of wine showing up in both China and Iran as far back as 7000 BC. And while most of us are familiar with the wider aspects of wine’s warm and buzzy appeal, the reason for its persistent popularity over time may be a bit less obvious.

Despite our huge dependence on it today, clean drinking water is a relatively modern phenomenon. Indeed, indoor plumbing didn’t make a widespread appearance until the 1840s, and any quality standards on that water didn’t appear in the United States until the 1940s.

This leaves roughly the history of mankind minus about 80 years for humans to have dealt with less-than-reliable water. And while wine wasn’t a perfect solution to human’s hydration needs, the type of sick that could result from drinking too much of it was far favorable to the type of sick that accompanied the nasty diseases lurking in dirty water.

In fact, wine – and, for its part, fermented beer – was considered an essential and even healthful part of the human diet practically since it was invented.

In ancient Egypt, Greece and Babylon, diluted wine was even fed to babies, for both its relative safety and perceived digestive system boost. And H2O was left with such a bad rep, it was symbolically linked to untrustworthiness, even inspiring Shakespeare to declare the Othello character Desdemona “as false as water.”

Age of Empires

Wine is, of course, more than an ancient standard of health.

Its intoxicating appeal paired with its longstanding availability and perceived importance has made it a central part of many cultures and religions over the years.

In ancient Egypt, wine was considered an afterlife essential, and the winemaking process was depicted in a number of hieroglyphic scenes. In ancient Greece, both grapes and wine were considered the food of the gods, and the fruit was even assigned its own god, Dionysus, famous for his freewheeling festivals and good times.

Ancient Rome was where wine was offered as Jesus’ own blood at the Last Supper. And both grapes and wine play a huge role in the Bible in general, with Noah even planting a vineyard as his first act in a post-flood world.  

But the humble grape didn’t just help guide these imperial forces; it helped build their very fortunes.

Grapes are one of the earliest-known traded commodities, forging trade routes – and allies – between ancient Armenia and ancient Egypt as far back as the Bronze Age. As Babylon’s power receded and Greece’s grew, the Greeks took over the lucrative trade with Egypt, with grapes supplanting olives as the European country’s cash crop of choice.

And by the time the Roman Empire rose up, winemaking was becoming a bona fide global industry – which, subsequently, was instrumental in fueling the rise of the Roman Empire itself.

Even back then, Italy’s grapes were considered among the best in the world, leading to the creation of the tastiest wine that kept both the empire’s cups and coffers full. But ancient Rome was perhaps the first civilization to see the adverse effect of alcohol, too – or, at least, the first to address it, with the government issuing a law in 92 AD that banned any future vineyards from being planted, forcing farmers instead to grow far less profitable grains.

The Romans also helped set the stage for today’s well-regulated wine industry by establishing the first appellations – the list of rules outlining which types of grapes may be officially grown in a geographic location.

The Grapes of Wrath

Indeed, appellations are one of the keystones of what has today become one of the world’s largest industries.

Once the rules were established, and vineyards protected, winemakers began getting really specific, developing many of the red and white varieties that are still popular today.

The reams of grape growing knowledge helped ensure wine – as well as jams, jellies and other grape products – were dietary mainstays of paupers and princes alike, even during the blight of the Middle Ages.

And wine’s popularity, as well as its shelf-life, made it a popular choice for sailors embarking on the cross-Atlantic voyages of the Age of Exploration. Once grape seeds met the fertile soils of the Americas, the global domination of the crop was complete.

Today, the tiny fruits are responsible for upholding huge lifestyles of luxury, with the maturity of the winemaking craft ushering in ever-finer – and more expensive – examples of the fermented drink. Meanwhile, the market is also awash in cheaper wines, which is being sucked up in record numbers.

All told, the wine industry currently rakes in nearly $500 billion a year, and most experts expect that figure will only continue to grow.

Grapes used to be the fruit of the gods, but nowadays, they’re simply the maker of kings.


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