How Grapes Changed the World

farmer man in navy shirt holds large pile of dark purple grapes in soil-covered hands

Barbara Schmidt-Keller / Getty Images

Food of all kinds is so readily obtainable that it's easy to take many of the things we eat every day for granted. No matter the season, we assume that virtually every kind of food we want will always be available. At least a few, it seems, always have been.

The origins of some foods extend to the earliest human civilizations. Through the centuries, many of these foods shaped or altered the course of history. In the process, some of them took on a life of their own in religion, literature, the arts and popular culture.

This is part of an occasional series about foods that changed the world. We devised our list with the help of food historian and author Francine Segan of New York City, and it will run the gamut — from grapes to peanuts to cocoa beans (after all, what would life be without dessert?).

We'll tell the story of each of these foods – their history, current importance, anecdotes, and interesting facts. We invite your feedback in the comments, and we also hope you'll share any food secrets or lore that we might have missed. But let's start the conversation with grapes.

The Ancient Egyptians Were Wine Drinkers

Clean drinking water may top the list of things that much of the world in the 21st century takes for granted. That hasn't always been the case.

"Wine, along with fermented beers, was the preferred drink in antiquity because water was not reliably safe to consume," Segan said, pointing out that wine grapes have been cultivated in the Mediterranean region since ancient Egyptian times.

"In ancient Greece, wine was also drunk diluted, and it was up to the discretion of the host to determine the ratio of water to wine, the size of the wine cups, and how many rounds of wine would be served – the norm being a 50-50 ratio with three rounds," Segan explained. "Socrates, a frequent guest at symposia, was noted as being in favor of 'small cups sprinkled frequently, so that we will be seduced into reaching a state of amusement, instead of being forced by the wine into drunkenness.'"

The ancients considered wine essential for good health and proper digestion, according to Segan. In cities such as Athens, Babylon and Alexandria the water was so undrinkable that people, including the babies, drank wine, mixing it with water, from morning to night.

"The Greeks even called a meal without wine a 'dog's dinner,'" Segan said. "They thought wine aided civilized dining and discourse during meals."

Segan said that one of her favorite quotes about wine in antiquity is from the Odyssey by Homer: "The wine urges me on, the bewitching wine, which sets even a wise man to singing and to laughing gently and rouses him up to dance and brings forth words which were better unspoken."

Wine remained "the" reliable drink for many centuries. "Even as late as the 1600s," Segan said, "water was often symbolic of falseness and lies as noted in Shakespeare's line in "Othello," 'She was false as water.'"

Early Grape Cultivation

Humans discovered thousands of years ago that grapes – which originated 130 million years ago according to archeological finds – make wine naturally. That happens when airborne yeast and enzymes land on grape skins and cause partial or total fermentation. The earliest record of a fermented drink from grapes was in China about 7,000-6,600 BCE.

Grapes from Eurasia

The earliest known cultivation of domesticated grapes occurred in what is now the country of Georgia in the Caucasus region of Eurasia about 6,000 BCE. By 4,000 BCE, viticulture, or the making of wine, extended through the Fertile Crescent to the Nile Delta and to Asia Minor. Grapes pictured in hieroglyphics in Egyptian tombs and wine jugs found in the burial sites have been traced back as far as 5,000 BCE. Red wine was among the things the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun had in his tomb.

Grapes from Greece

Egyptians also imported wine from Greece. Like other wines of antiquity, Greek wine was coarse and had to be mixed with water, but it was better than Egyptian wine. Greeks carried their wine westward as well. They and the Phoenicians extended grape growing across the Mediterranean Sea to what would become Italy, Spain and France.

Grapes from Central Europe

Because more northern climates and soil produce better wine, wines from these regions became notably superior to those from Greece, Egypt and elsewhere in that part of the Mediterranean. With the shift of the center of wine production to central Europe and the heart of the Roman Empire, the Romans spread grape production throughout Europe. In the 2nd century CE, for example, the Rhine Valley in Germany had become a place of notable wine production. There were now more than 90 known varieties of grapes.

Establishing Crops in North America

At the fall of the Roman Empire, grape culture and wine making primarily were associated with monasteries. Later, the use of wine grew beyond religious rites and became entrenched in culture as a social custom. As Spanish and other explorers set out for the New World, they brought Old World grapevines with them, extending the wine industry and trade to North America and other parts of the world.

Grapes and Wine in Christianity

Grapes were important culturally and economically to people in biblical times. The grapevine, for example, is mentioned more than any other plant in the Bible.

According to Genesis 9:20, one of the first things Noah did after the Great Flood was to plant a vineyard. The vine is listed in Deuteronomy 8:8 as one of the plants in the good land that God promised the nation of Israel.

In the New Testament, Jesus referred to himself as the true vine. "I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener." (John 15:1). The first miracle that Jesus performed was to turn water into wine. In the biblical account, Jesus and his mother were at a wedding in Cana in Galilee when the wine ran out. Jesus performed a miracle by turning water into wine (John 2:1-11).

Even today grapes continue to have an important symbolic meaning for Christians when they take Holy Communion. Jesus instituted the rite at the Last Supper on the night before he was crucified. During the Passover meal, he gave his disciples bread and wine, referring to the bread as his body and the wine as his blood. He commanded the disciples to eat the bread and drink the wine and to "do this in memory of me." (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20.)

Discovering New Uses for Grapes

In the timeline of history, table grapes, the ones we buy in clusters for snacks or to set out with cheese trays, are a fairly recent development. Prior to the 16th century, while some doctors in Europe used wine and wine vinegar as an anesthetic and disinfectant, grapes essentially had an exclusive purpose: making wine. The first use of table grapes has been traced to the French King Francois I (1494-1547). Ruling France from 1515 until his death, he had a fondness for the Chasselas grape as dessert, thus earning him the distinction of the originator of the table grape.

Today, there are three primary uses of grapes: table grapes, raisins, and wine. Not surprisingly, more grapes are used to make wine than for any other purpose.

Today's Grape Industry

The wine, grape and grape products industries have a presence in all 50 U.S. states according to the National Grape and Wine Initiative (NGWI), which is based in Sacramento, Calif. These industries contribute more than $162 billion annually to the American economy, according to a comprehensive study by MKF Research LLC of Napa Valley.

The major player, though, is California, which produces almost all of the U.S. table grapes and raisins and approximately 90 percent of the nation's wine, according to the NGWI. The organization's statistics show that New York and Washington State each produce about 3 percent of U.S. wine with all of the other states combined producing about 4 percent. Grape juice production is concentrated primarily in Washington State, New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Globally, one-third of all vineyards are found in three countries: Italy, Spain and France. Other important grape-producing countries include Turkey, Chile, Argentina, Iran, South Africa and Australia.

With the prevalence of so many often reasonably priced fine wines available today, one can only imagine what Socrates, Homer and other ancients would think of the current state of the fruit of the vine. One thing's for sure: When their host poured them a glass of wine, they wouldn't dilute it with water.