From Vineyard to Wine Press to the Boccale
Although now nearly extinct in the wild, grapes (vitis vinifera) grew throughout the Mediterranean world and in Italy, grapes were cultivated both in northern and central Italy by the Etruscans and in the south (Magna Grecia) by the Greeks.
The grapevines often intertwined in trellises as in this Roman mosaic of Cherchell, Algeria (3rd- 4th-c. A.D.):
In the early years of the Republic, the production of wine was less important to the Romans, fighting to expand their domination of the peninsula. By the middle of the 2nd-c. B.C., with the defeat of the Samnites, Greeks, and Carthaginians, Rome dominated the Mediterranean. Wealth and new markets for wine sparked an investment in vineyards, though the pruning of vines and vineyard tasks were usually done by slaves – as in this Algeria mosaic:
The earliest treatises on agriculture were written in Punic and translated into Latin in about the 2nd-c. B.C. The first treatise of Roman viticulture (and the first prose work in Latin), De Agri Cultura, was written by the Roman agronomist Catone (Cato) who had pushed for the destruction of Carthage in the Punic wars.
The huge horizontal 17th-18th-c. wine press from Gubbio in the Museo del Vino in Torgiano, Umbria is called the “Catone” after Cato.
Last used in 1973, the massive press was operated by just two men: by turning the horizontal bar at the base of a large wooden screw, leverage was applied to the oak beam. The oak beam – about 40 ft long – was lowered slowly, wooden wedges preventing a sudden drop of the beam.
As the beam was slowly lowered, it pressed the grapes in the wooden keg (made of vertical slats) below it. Il mosto (“the must”), flowed out of the openings between the slats and flowed into the space beneath, where it was then collected and poured into barrels.
For the storage of wine, the Romans would have used olle, large terraacotta jugs – as you can see pictured in the photo above, to the right of the press.
In this view of the same press here below, the huge terracotta olla is to the left of the press:
Near the Catone press in the Wine Museum of Torgiano, you’ll also see a vertical press, called ” il Plinio,” as it was first described by Pliny the Elder in the 1st c. A.D.
Both types of wine presses have been found in the archaeological excavations of Pompeii and also in Roman Cosa (Ansedonia, Latium).
This 18th-c vertical press is the type of press widely preferred as it requires more limited space for its use – and the Wine Museum vertical press is similar to the ones that most of our rural neighbors have in their wine cellars:
On the horizontal bar of this vertical press, the date 1750 flanks IHS, the 3rd-c. A.D. Christogram, the letters standing for “Iesus Hominum Salvator” (“Jesus, Savior of Mankind”).
IHS was carved into the wooden plaque which a follower of St. Francis of Assisi, San Bernardino da Siena, held up as he preached throughout Umbria in the 15th c.
The IHS appears all over Assisi near doorways, above windows:
..and in the Wine Museum, too, on a 15th-c Roman terracotta wine boccale (wine pitcher):
And as i looked at that boccale in the Museo del Vino, I wondered how many feasting friends must have enjoyed sharing the wine poured from that pitcher over the years…..
In a way, a blessed wine.
Read about wine in the art of ancient Rome