Winemaking is an 8,000-year-old tradition, and the first wines tasted ... well, terrible. People added ash, resin and even lead to "enhance" the flavor [source: Lukacs]. Luckily, most wines today are pretty darn tasty on their own, thanks to modern fermentation techniques and innovations in packaging that help your wine stay fresher longer, and you certainly don't have to worry that a wine-maker used lead to improve his product's flavor!
We've also seen a big shift in where we produce wine. Once considered a hoity-toity European beverage, wine is made and drunk all over the world, and you're as likely to find a decent glass of red at your neighborhood pizza joint as at a fancy French restaurant.
Winemakers have also gotten more conscious of their environmental impacts. Since a good wine starts with the grape, and good grapes start with good soil, the wine industry has stayed on the cutting edge of sustainable agriculture. Any vintner worth his salt knows that protecting the environment is more than just good for the planet -- it's good for his wines.
With such a long history, there have been lots of innovations through the centuries, from how winemakers grow grapes to how they market those bottles. Let's look at 10 of them.
You've heard of organics, but what about biodynamics? Biodynamic agriculture and organic agriculture have a lot in common, but while organic farming focuses on limiting synthetic inputs, like chemical fertilizers, biodynamic farming looks at the farm and surrounding land as an ecosystem to determine the best ways to control pests and get the best yields. Basically, biodynamic farming uses organic methods, but is more big-picture focused, treating the land and the farm's micro-climates as living things that need to be nurtured [source: Morganstern].
More and more winemakers are turning to biodynamic viticulture (aka grape-growing) because not only does it help conserve precious soil, but many believe that biodynamically grown grapes just plain make better wine. At a 2004 tasting that put biodynamic wines up against conventional wine varieties, the biodynamic wines won eight out of 10 times and tied once [source: Morganstern]. That means conventional grapes only outshone biodynamic ones one out of 10 times in that blind taste test!
Biodynamic agriculture got its start in 1924, but it started gaining hold in the wine world in the early 2000s [source: Morganstern]. French vineyards were some of the first to start producing biodynamic wine, such as Domaine Leroy and Chateau de la Roche-aux-Moines [source: Reilly].
Since then, biodynamic wine has taken off in wine-growing regions all over the world. Ceágo, founded by Jim Fetzer -- formerly of Fetzer Vineyards -- was one of the first American biodynamic vineyards [source: Isle]. These days, you can find biodynamic wines in all tastes and colors.
Wine fermentation has gotten a lot more scientific, and techniques like micro-oxygenation are changing the taste of our wine. After it's in the bottle, oxygen is wine's enemy, but adding oxygen during key parts of the fermentation process can actually improve a wine's flavor.
The first experiments with micro-oxygenation took place in the 1990s, but it really started catching on in early 2000s in France, the U.S. and South Africa [source: Work]. Called microOX for short, this process adds oxygen to the wine as it ferments to help control the taste. MicroOX can help mellow the taste of wines from a poor crop of grapes, for example, as it softens harsh tannins.
It's very much a "feel it" method. You start adding a bit of oxygen after fermentation, then taste and adjust for weeks -- sometimes up to three months -- until the wine's flavor is just how you want it [source: Work].
Critics say that microOX is a scourge on the world of winemaking, and that wines made using this technique lack "character," while wine experts argue that the technique actually mimics the same process that happens naturally when you age wine in an oak barrel or in a bottle with a cork stopper. Oxygen comes in naturally through tiny openings in the wood or cork [source: Crosariol].
Winemaking in Napa Valley was nothing new in the 1960s, but it was around this time that California wine started getting some global cred, thanks to Robert Mondavi's marketing efforts.
Napa's first vineyard dates back to 1836, and some of the region's most well-known vineyards, such as Beringer, have been around since the late 1800s. Prohibition put a bit of a kink in the California wine industry, but after its repeal in 1933, winemaking in California began to make a comeback [source: Golden Haven]. Groups like Napa Valley Vintners tried to market Napa wines to a larger market, but it was Robert Mondavi who truly put Napa Valley and California wine on the map.
Mondavi launched his winery in 1966, and what set his wines apart from other Napa varieties was his use of European winemaking techniques [source: Robert Mondavi]. Mondavi didn't keep these methods close to the vest, either. He happily taught other regional winemakers these techniques, and that education paid off.
The seminal moment for California wines was probably a 1976 international wine tasting event in Paris. Two California winemakers won first prize in that competition, and both of them trained under Mondavi [source: Robert Mondavi].
California is now one of the major wine-producing regions in the world. It produces 90 percent of the wine made in the U.S. [source: Napa Now].
While it may not be up there with fostering a new winemaking region or conserving precious natural resources, those wine bottles with cute or downright sassy labels on grocery store shelves represent a fascinating innovation in wine marketing.
Winemakers wanted to buck the stereotype that wine was a fancy drink for refined palates only. One of the first wineries to try this technique was Boony Doon [source: Loutherback]. Back in the mid-'90s, they ditched their traditional wine label for an image of a man fishing, but hooking the boot-shaped country of Italy rather than a fish. When you turned the bottle around, you got a view of the same scene from behind.
Later, marketers began targeting millennials (those born after 1980) with modern label designs featuring logos like cupcakes or cute animals or with sassy names like Fat Bastard [source: Schultz]. Before that revolution, wines usually featured a bunch of grapes or a chateau on the labels. Appropriate, but not very relatable for younger consumers. The idea behind the quirky labels is to put consumers in the mindset to feel positive about the wine by associating it with something they already feel good about. This technique is called "priming" [source: Labroo].
Wine sales in general have been increasing in recent years and marketers are finding that an animal on the label often means a much bigger increase. A 2006 study found that wines with those adorable animal labels actually outsold other types of wine by a margin of two to one [source: Kakaviatos]! .
When you think of wine in a box, you probably picture your teeth turning pink as you drink yourself ill on Franzia, but more quality winemakers are beginning to embrace the box when it comes to packaging their wines.
Box wine first came around in the mid-1900s, but it didn't hit the stores in the U.S. until the '80s as an alternative to jug wine [source: Lefevere]. In the early 2000s, winemakers started putting premium wines in a box, and the box wine revolution began. The environmental benefits of the box are a big reason this packaging is making a resurgence.
Organic winemaker Yellow + Blue is a prime example of a sustainable wine company embracing the box and filling it with good-quality wine. (When my husband first came home with a box of their Malbec, I was skeptical, but this wine is just as tasty as similarly-priced wines in a bottle.)
That box might not look as sexy as a glass bottle, but because the paper box weighs so much less than its glass counterpart, box wines are lighter to ship. That means fewer greenhouse gas emissions associated with shipping [source: Yellow + Blue].
Wine boxes also help keep oxygen out after they're open, which reduces waste by increasing the wine's shelf life [source: Lefevere]. While some oxygen during fermentation can be good for wine, once that wine is finished, oxygen equals bad. Box versus bottle wine might taste the same when you first crack it open, but the benefit to the box is that by keeping oxygen out it keeps your wine fresher longer.
While it's not quite as prevalent yet as wine in a box, canned wine is another packaging innovation that's changing how we consume this alchololic beverage.
Australian winemaker Barokes Wines developed and sold the first wine in a can in 2003. The key to packaging wine in a metal container is a special can liner. Without this liner, your wine would taste like the can it came in, and it would erode the container as it sat on the shelf [source: Tsui]. . The first U.S. winery to offer canned wine was that of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. His line of canned wines named after daughter Sofia hit store shelves a year after Barokes Wines [source: Tsui].
Like box wine, one of the big benefits to canned wines is that you're limiting the finished wine's oxygen exposure. Unlike the box, though, cans of wine accomplish this with a little bit less technology: Canned wines are usually single serving, so you don't expose a whole bottle's worth to oxygen just to have one "glass."
The single-serving nature of canned wine also makes it great for taking wine on the go, especially in places that don't allow glass. Think picnics, attending sports games, and even the pool. And there's no need to pack plastic cups, since you can sip your vino straight from the container.
Another thing canned wine has in common with the box? Those cans also weigh less than glass bottles, which means a lower carbon footprint for shipping.
Wine still has a bit of an air of intimidation for some people, and that's where the wine on tap model comes in. Lots of hip, urban areas have wine bars where patrons can taste or serve themselves tap wine.
Bars can have bartenders pouring the tap wine, but I've been to a few wine bars where customers can hit the taps themselves. The most common self-serve model I've seen is where the customer buys a card, then swipes it at whichever wine tap she wants. You can buy a taste -- a 1 to 2 ounce (29 to 59 milliliter) pour -- or a whole glass.. The self-serve model feels very accessible, because you can taste the wines and decide what you like without the pressure of a wine pro standing over your shoulder.
Like so many other new serving methods, wine on tap comes with some environmental benefits. It reduces the amount of wine that a restaurant wastes, because the tap's design preserves the wine longer. Once you tap a bottle, it hardly comes into contact with oxygen at all. Store owners like that, because wasted wine is literally money down the drain. Switching to tap wine can save up to 25 percent of the wine a bar purchases [source: Wine on Tap].
Tap wine can also help reduce packaging waste. While I've seen single bottles on tap, often tap wine is from a keg, rather than a bottle. That means less packaging, lower shipping costs, and a lower carbon footprint.
Marketing and packaging aren't the only innovations in the wine world. As you've probably noticed as you read through this list, winemakers tend to be a pretty environmentally minded bunch, so it's no surprise that wineries are trying to use all of that waste from pressed grapes (more than 100,000 tons or 90,718 metric tons in California alone) to create alternative fuels.
A lot like making biofuel from other agricultural waste, creating biofuel from grape leavings -- called "grape pomace" -- uses microbes to break the sugars down into water and hydrogen, and the hydrogen is converted into energy [source: Choi].
Researchers from Penn State teamed up with the Napa Wine Company to turn their wine waste into fuel, a project they began in 2009 and continue today [source: Gangi]. The process produces hydrogen -- which they use to create biofuel -- and waste water. After a little bit more processing, the wastewater goes back to the fields to irrigate grape vines. Even cooler? Visitors to the vineyard can now see alternative energy demonstrations as part of their wine tour experience!
The problem with converting wine waste into fuel is that those grape stems, seeds, and skins don't have a ton of sugar, since most of the sugary juice goes into the wine. Those leftovers would be a lot more valuable if scientists could convert more than just the sugars into biofuel, and researchers are working on that. Instead of creating hydrogen fuel from the scarce sugar in grape pomace, Danish chemist Yi Zheng is developing a way to turn the cellulose from the skins and seeds into ethanol, which would significantly up grape pomace's efficiency as a biofuel feedstock [source: Schrope].
Do you pop a bottle to ring in the New Year? You can thank a long line of sparkling winemakers, from the ancient Romans to an innovative French monk.
Sparkling wine has actually been around much longer than proper Champagne [source: Galante]. The first sparkling wines were probably produced around 1600 years ago, when ancient Romans began growing grapes in the Champagne region of France.
Dom Perignon may not have technically invented Champagne, since sparkling wine had been around long before he started experimenting with fermentation in a Benedictine abbey during the late 1600s, but he did come up with a method to create white wine using red grapes, which is a key part of the Champagne-making process [source: Long]. Around 1693 the monk was also trying to develop a Champagne without bubbles, because -- as all good winemakers know -- oxygen is wine's enemy [source: Long]. Luckily, he didn't succeed! Perignon's Champagne-making techniques are some of the same ones used to produce the bottles we drink today.
Champagne -- and other sparkling wines -- gets those bubbles from a special two-step process. Instead of just fermenting the wine once, winemakers add yeast and sugar, allowing the wine to ferment again. The bubbles that tickle your nose in a glass of champagne are carbon dioxide from all of that yeast metabolizing the sugar in the second part of fermentation [source: Polidori].
Over the centuries, winemakers in Champagne became extremely protective of their growing and production methods and the use of their region's name on the bottle. Only sparkling wines from France's Champagne region can bear the name "Champagne" [source: Galante].
We have diet sodas and diet cookies - why not diet wine?
Companies like Weight Watchers have started creating low-calorie wine to appeal to the diet-conscious crowd. The trick with low-cal wine is that fewer calories usually just means a lower alcohol content, since alcohol makes up the majority of calories in wine [source: Tepper]. You'd think that sugar would be the major calorie-contributor in a drink like wine, but since alcohol contains more calories per gram than sugar -- almost twice as many! -- cutting the alcohol content is the most efficient way to cut the calories in a bottle of vino [source: Noelcke].
Weight Watchers wine, which launched in the U.K. and Australia in 2012, is around 8 percent alcohol, which is very low for wine [source: Tepper]. The company hasn't released calorie information for their wines, so it's hard to say exactly how many calories wine consumers are saving [source: Evon].
In the U.S., Skinnygirl, which you might know from its line of low-calorie cocktails, got in on the diet wine action also in 2012. It touts a 100 calorie glass, but it turns out that most 12 percent alcohol wines are already around 100 calories a glass, and 12 percent is a pretty common alcohol content for a bottle of wine, though some varieties can have higher alcohol levels and higher calories [source: Kaplan]. So, you can find a low-calorie wine without necessarily looking for a diet one.
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Author's Note: 10 Innovations in Winemaking
I love a good glass of wine, and I've got to admit that a nice glass of red at the end of a tough day is one of the things I'm missing the most during my pregnancy. Maybe this is totally nerdy, but if I can't sip a glass of wine, reading about winemaking seems to be a pretty good consolation prize. It was a lot of fun to learn more about this ancient beverage's rich history and some of the innovations -- past and present -- that have shaped winemaking and wine drinking.
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- Morganstern, Adam. "Wine quality, organic viticulture and vine systemic acquired resistance to pests." Organic Wine Journal. November 11, 2008. (December 31, 2012) http://www.organicwinejournal.com/index.php/2008/11/wine-quality-organic-viticulture-and-vine-systemic-acquired-resistance-to-pests/
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- Work, Henry. "Micro-Oxygenation: Innovation for the winemaking toolbox." Practical Winery & Vineyard Journal. November/December 2007. (December 31, 2012) http://www.practicalwinery.com/novdec07/page1.htm
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