The then and now of Grape Stomping

by Jana Harvey on October 5, 2010

Those of us who are Baby Boomers have etched in our memories the image of Lucy and Ethel stomping grapes in large wooden vats. For many of us, it’s the epitome of winemaking. Life throws many challenges at winemakers as we wrestle with transforming those beautiful grapes into a wonderful bottle of wine.

This year, at our Scott Harvey Grape Stomping Competition at our home in Napa Valley, the competitors got down and dirty for the title of Grand Stompers. Thirty-five competitors vied for the title and most looked a bit like Lucy and Ethel – their faces, arms, feet and legs were spattered with bright red grape juice. Scott got the brilliant idea to use alicante bouschet donated by Martella Vineyards of Amador County–one of the few varietals that run red juice. This made for a very dramatic effect for the stompers.There were probably lots of red feet the next day.  Grape stomp 032

Techniques varied and foot sizes were measured. Many who won were convinced that the scrapers were actually the most important. Several fouls were called on those who tried to tilt their barrels or use their hands instead of their feet. At the finals, four barrels with eight competitors were a study of technique. Many were convinced right up to the end that they were winning – their hopes dashed by a couple of tiny, feisty young women from San Francisco.

Well people still tread grapes by foot today although many regions have outlawed it for health reasons. Foot treading has been around almost as long as wine and has certain advantages. When you are in the vat treading the grapes you can feel the clumps and break them up avoiding hot spots in the must and your foot has a different motion mechanical crusher destemmer which is essentially a giant auger.

The art and science of viticulture is thousands of years old and grape stomping was an important processes in the creation of wine for many civilizations. Over the centuries, crushing was done by foot with people stomping (or treading) the grapes to crush open the fruit. From ancient Egypt on, artifacts such as treading vessels have been found.

In Mesopotamia, the area of present day Iraq between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, grapes were first cultivated and viniculture first practiced 5000 years ago. The Code of Humarabi, inscribed about 4000 years ago, was earth’s first written code of law and this code contains edicts governing the making and selling of wine.

During the time of Pharaohs, the god Osiris, who was considered as the son of Earth and Heaven, was being worshiped by the ancient Egyptians. They linked his yearly resurrection to the blooming and budding grapevines every year. Nile River was another thing that was being worshiped by them because of its priceless gift of rich, fertile soil just after flooded over its banks and receded. The Egyptians discovered that they could cultivate flourishing grapevines utilizing this opportunity.

The Greeks became the first recorded people in history to plant commercial vineyards and market their wine in other countries, around 3500 years ago. There is documentation that in ancient Greece, the Greeks stomped while listening to a flute.   The Greeks in order to maintain balance would hold onto overhead ropes or supports.  Obviously, labor costs became very high utilizing this method. The advent of industrial age with its new technology rendered the practice almost extinct, except for festivals and the making of some ports. The Romans borrowed and adapted much of Greek culture to their own as they conquered the older culture. Viticulture was included in this legacy of Greece to Rome. As the Roman Empire grew, viniculture grew with it, vineyards being planted in areas which were to become the modern nations of France, Germany, Italy, and England. Many of the vineyards established under Roman rule are still wine producing areas today.

Roman might failed in 476 AD, the empire falling to Germanic invasion. Europe suffered a major setback both politically and scientifically, with institutions and learning coming to a halt. Viticulture survived this catastrophe because of the importance of wine in the newly ascendant Christian religion. Monks helped preserve the methods of winemaking and the vineyards necessary to practice it.

In ancient times, good drinking water was a thing that can’t be found anywhere and as people needed to drink something with their meals, a wonderful alternative was wine. Several indications like markings on tomb walls and stone tables were found of producing wine in Mesopotamia as far earlier as 6000 B.C. The wine that was produced by the Mesopotamians was possibly very rough compared to recent wines that we drink at present, but it was lot better than the available drinking water. In learning how to make homemade wine, it is important to know who first produced wine and learn how far it has come.

With the advancement of technological procedures, the industry of winemaking developed better techniques for production, which generated better and various kinds of wines. New techniques of storage such as refrigeration produced a brand new process. The process of fermentation could be controlled by changing temperatures at decisive times. All these procedures results better wines.

Watch the fun!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Connie & Bill Schlelein October 6, 2010 at 8:19 am

This event was so much fun and the wine was really phenomenal. We loved the barbera, the zinfandel, the syrah, the rose, the riesling, the One Last Kiss, the InZinerator, the Vineyard 1869… Thanks for sharing it and the day with us. We are now Scott Harvey Wine groupies!


toasty redhead May 10, 2011 at 11:39 am

I never thought of it that way, well put!


Lai Mccargo May 10, 2011 at 11:53 am

I wish more people would write blogs like this that are really fun to read. With all the fluff floating around on the net, it is rare to read a blog like this instead.


Jana Harvey October 12, 2011 at 11:48 am

Thanks for your comments. A lot of interesting history behind the fun event of a grape stomp.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: