ine enthusiasts take it for granted that the sweet vintage in their goblets is stored in a glass bottle secured with a cork and a protective sleeve until they are ready to drink it.
But it wasn’t always that way. You can thank a glory-seeking pirate named Sir Kenelm Digby for the wine bottle — but I’ll get back to Digby in a couple of minutes.
First, a little history of wine, and what it was like to partake in it before Digby’s invention — which allows us to store wine for long periods, without it spoiling.
Wine Is Ancient; Bottles Are Not
For most of the beverage’s history, wine genies kept their concoctions in vats or barrels that were of dubious use for long-term storage. Transportation for trade was all but impossible.
And wine has been around for a long time.
I know this is hard to believe, but there was a time when Greeks and Romans had no Coca-Cola, so they drank wine instead.
In fact, archeological evidence suggests that the forefathers of today’s sommeliers were transforming grapes into wine as far back as 5400–5000 B.C. in the Zagros Mountains of Iran, according to Arena Flowers.
That might have been a good thing, since at least the ancestors of modern Iranians knew what was like to get smashing drunk while they were living in a college dorm, far from home. (A quick Google search tells me that the today, Iranian collegians are stuck drinking Doogh, a Persian yogurt drink ).
Where To Store the Wine?
Winemakers of old had a problem. Storing wine is a tricky task, as your storage vessel needs to accomplish four things, according to Vinepair:
• Air must be kept out of the vessel to prevent oxidation.
• The vessel must be strong enough not to easily break, without being so heavy that it cannot be easily moved (especially when hand labor was the rule).
• In many cases, the vessel needs to be opened and then resealed.
• The vessel itself shouldn’t interact with the wine.
Additionally, wine needs to be stored in an environment that has a stable temperature. If wine is exposed to heat for too long, it will lose its flavor. Some 6,000 years ago, the people of Georgia — the country at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, not the Peach State — invented kvevris, a storage device that made it easier to transport wine.
Later, other cultures rubbed their brain cells together to come up with their own innovative technologies to store wine.
For example, in 2013, archeologists unearthed a rudimentary wine cellar in a Canaanite (modern-day Israel) palace. Though a lot of the vessels used to store wine were shattered, the jars contained many of the ingredients that were popular in ancient winemaking including honey, mint, cinnamon bark, juniper berries, and resins used as a preservative, The New York Times reported.
Archeologists determined the structure that stowed the wine was destroyed 3,600 years ago by some violent event, perhaps an earthquake. That storage room held the equivalent of 3,000 bottles of wine, but experts who studied the site are pretty sure those Canaanites had more wine socked away elsewhere, just in case.
In the Middle Ages, wine was sometimes stored in a barrel — but that wine frequently deteriorated in taste and aromatic quality. Yet, drinkers of wine stored in barrels were the lucky ones, according to the Inquisitive Vintner. “For the lower-caste serfs and laborers, they typically drank wine stored in animal hides, which imparted rancid flavors that competed with the already existing vinegary taste,” writes The Inquisitive Vintner. But since smelly wine was often more sanitary than water, people drank about three liters of it a day — sometimes as a breakfast soup.
Keeping Wine Sealed
Preventing wine from oxidizing remained a problem, even in the Middle Ages. But even as far back as ancient Rome, winemakers knew that keeping the wine in airtight containers was a necessity to keep it from spoiling. To solve the problem, Romans used heated resin to line their jars so they weren’t porous and plaster to patch them where needed, according to Academic Wino. Eventually, wooden barrels were used for storage, but the wood did not provide an airtight seal, which is why wine drinkers in the Middle Ages were stuck with a beverage with a smell and taste that tested wine-lovers’ sanity. Even fine wines had to be drunk quickly before they turned into vinegar.
In the 17th Century, winemakers started trying to put wine in bottles, but the glass of those days wasn’t strong enough to hold the liquid without shattering. Around that time, some people started to use corks to keep bugs and dust out — but the corks weren’t well-fitted enough to keep an airtight seal. Cork alternatives in early bottles included leather or cloth, sealing wax, or wooden plugs. Even so, early glass bottles were expensive, and only the nobility and extremely wealthy could afford them.
Corks started to become the sealing material of choice in the late 1600s, but it took until the late 1700s to create easy-to-use corkscrews for the wine enthusiast to use, according to The Wine Cellar Insider.
Enter Sir Kenelm Digby …
This brings us back to Sir Kenelm Digby, the pirate I mentioned in the second paragraph of this article.
Digby, who was born in 1603, was the son of Sir Everard Digby a conspirator who aimed to assassinate King James I, and paid for it with his life, in the most violent of ways. Unlike his father, the younger Digby seems to have had a knack for impressing royals — at least at first. In 1623, he was knighted by James I, the same king who the elder Digby had tried to eliminate, according to Britannica. Digby held other various roles in royal courts, including “gentleman of the privy chamber” for Prince Charles — a relative of James I — who would eventually become king.
To win brownie points with the king’s court, Digby embarked on a series of adventures as a “privateer” — which is piracy that is officially sanctioned by a government (albeit, with a nod and a wink.) Beginning in 1627, Digby set sail to attack French ships that were anchored in the Venetian harbor of Scanderoon (now Iskenderun, Turkey). In his travel journals, Digby referred to his misadventures as a “brilliant exploit”), according to the introduction to a 1910 translation of a cookbook Digby wrote when he wasn’t terrorizing the French. Digby returned to England in triumph — but the pirate’s success was also his downfall. After loud threats of reprisal echoed through the halls of the royal palace, the government felt obligated to disavow Digby’s attacks, reports Britannica.
Digby Sees Tragedy
In 1633, Digby’s wife fell ill.
As an amateur chemist, Digby made a concoction known as ‘Powder of Sympathy’ that was said to have magical healing properties, but it probably was responsible for killing her. (For background knowledge, the ingredients of Powder of Sympathy varied, but typically included iron or copper sulfate — so it’s no surprise that Digby’s magical potion didn’t work and McGill University refers to Digby’s medicinal concoction as “silliness.”)
Quackery Leads To Breakthrough
After his wife died, Digby withdrew to Gresham College in seclusion, where he continued his strange alchemy studies. Nevertheless, when James Howell, a former manager at a glass producer came to Digby with a serious wound that he incurred during a duel, the one-time pirate treated the ailing man with the same medical quackery that killed his wife, according to Unbound.
Miraculously, Howell survived, and the two men became pals. Because Howell’s former employer had a royal monopoly on glassworks, Howell knew something about making bottles. With that knowledge, Howell was able to apply Digby’s laboratory experiments on an industrial scale. Together, Digby and Howell worked out the physics of developing stronger glass.
The two men learned that building tunnels into a coal-fired furnace would increase the heat, and the higher temperature would make the glass stronger. This technique worked because it drew oxygen into the fire, making it burn more fiercely, adds Unbound.
Like his father, Digby just couldn’t stay out of trouble. He spent a couple of stints in jail and was banished several times, but Digby never strayed far from his scientific studies. Joined by a gaggle of polymaths — including Robert Boyle — Digby co-founded the Royal Society in 1660. While he published a dubiously titled cookbook — ‘The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Opened’ — in 1669, Kenelme is best remembered as the inventor of the modern wine bottle. In fact, a British winery, Digby Fine English, owes its name to the scoundrel. So next time you open a bottle of fine wine, you can talk like a pirate, whip up one of Kenelme’s culinary concoctions and give the man a round of applause for his ridiculous experiments that now allow you to partake of this pleasure.
When I was a kid, my mom thought that I’d have my own talk show because I was always asking people lots of questions about themselves. When I graduated college, I began living my own dream as a reporter for a news media outlet. As a journalist, I spoke daily with public affairs officers who represented diverse government and corporate clients.
I soon realized that public affairs combined the best of both worlds of journalism and television talk shows — I get to learn interesting and unusual things about people who worked with me, I then get to tell their story. With this thought in mind, I spent two years at CIA, where I was a supervisor in the Public Communications Branch at the Office of Public Affairs.
As a strategic communicator, I juggle many balls — but I’m a writer first. Writing is my first love. You can say that I’m addicted to it.
On a personal level, my parents taught me the value of travel when I was young, and since then, I’ve been an avid traveler — I have visited 20 countries. Though I’ve learned important lessons from each of my trips, my trip to Chile — the string bean-shaped country — was my favorite.
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