Those of you old enough to remember the TV hit show I Love Lucy might remember an episode where Lucy goes to Italy. Trying to help with the tradition of making wine, Lucy, with her shoes and socks off, dances around in a giant wooden vat with Teresa to help crush the grapes and ends up covered head to toe in juice after a few slips and falls. It sure looks like fun to crush grapes that way, but do people still use their feet to make wine? If they do, don’t their feet become sweaty (and smelly) from working so hard?
The History of Wine Treading
In ancient Egypt, people used their feet to crush grapes; this practice was clearly depicted in their artwork. This isn’t an efficient way to make grape juice, though, so it’s not surprising people invented a wine press to get their fix of the good stuff as early as the year 4000 B.C. Using the feet fell out of favour in Europe sometime during the Middle Ages; today, only a few small wineries around the world practise some treading for tradition’s sake. Generally speaking, though, grape stomping has been replaced with mechanical processing since the 1960s.
Nowadays, grapes travel directly from the fields to specialized machinery that makes wine making easier and more sanitary. The grapes are placed in a destemmer to remove green stems that contain bitter tannins. From there, the grapes move to a modern wine press, which crushes the grapes and forces the juice out through a mesh cage; the mesh helps keep out lumpy grape skins and seeds (called pomace). These powerful, modern machines are much more efficient than foot treading, and none of the juice is lost.
Yeast is added to the juice, which then begins fermenting in large vats. During this process, the yeast, a living organism, consumes the sugar in the grape juice and emits carbon dioxide and alcohol as a byproduct, turning juice into wine over time. Once fermentation is complete, the wine is filtered and aged to allow the flavours to develop. Finally, the finished wine is bottled and labelled. It’s now ready to drink!
Modern Wine Treading
Although no longer part of the commercial winemaking process, many modern winemakers recognize the public’s curiosity and desire to learn about the old grape-stomping ways. If you’re interested in feeling the grapes beneath your feet, there are organized grape-stomping events in wine regions. Most are in the autumn, during the grape harvest, and they’re designed to celebrate the season rather than produce a batch of wine for sale.
If you’re itching to see wine treading in action, the Annual St. Catharines Mayor’s Invitational Grape Stomp is being held every September. This fun event is sponsored by the Grape Growers of Ontario and the Jaycees and is part of the Niagara Wine Festival. Mark your calendar and head over to Montebello Park in St. Catharines to give a local grape stomp a try!