Do Wine Makers Really Walk Over Grapes With Their Feet?

Melissa K. asks: Do high end wine makers really have people walk all over grapes with their bare feet?

woman-pressing-grapesPerhaps no image is more synonymous with the act of wine making than that of a person smushing grapes with their bare feet to extract the precious juices contained therein (in the grapes, not the inevitably sweaty feet). But did winemakers ever commonly do this?

The answer to this question largely depends on who you ask. Today, certain winemakers, usually ones that have some sort of a financial interest in it, (at least publicly) maintain that grape stomping was an integral part of winemaking history. However, historians tend to think it was a relatively rare practise. To be clear, nobody is saying that ancient people didn’t crush grapes with their feet to extract the juices; rather, it is known that man has had a much more efficient alternative to this method for at least 6000 years. We know this because in early 2011 archaeologists uncovered the remnants of an archaic winery, complete with a wine press dating back to 4000 BC in Armenia.

Wine itself can be traced back to at least 5400 BC, which would suggest that early man must have had a more rudimentary method of crushing grapes before someone invented a wine press; and, indeed, probably involved the use of feet. This is supported by the existence of numerous pieces of artwork and other references from history illustrating people curb stomping piles of grapes while they stood in giant vats. Perhaps the most prominent pieces come from ancient Egypt where it’s largely believed that stomping grapes was a common part of winemaking, as evidenced by numerous pieces of artwork depicting exactly that.

However it’s important to note that this was by no means the only step in the juice extraction process. You see, treading grapes is a remarkably inefficient method of extracting juice from them, and up until very recently in history, humans were all about not wasting anything food related (See: A Brief History of French Toast). After stomping grapes, the ancient Egyptians would then put the leftovers into a large sack, at which point: “Poles were tied to the sack’s four corners and by turning them the rest of the grape juice was squeezed out.”

A thing to keep in mind is that pressing grapes is a deceptively difficult task and the amount of pressure you use to squeeze grapes must be closely monitored to avoid accidentally releasing bitter tannins from the seeds, which can, obviously, negatively affect the taste of the final product. With this in mind, pressing grapes by using simple bodyweight seems like a good way to avoid applying too much pressure. However, it’s just too inefficient to be used on a mass scale unless you were earning Egyptian Pharaoh levels of money and had a fleet of slaves or workers to do it for you.

Not surprisingly, in almost every civilisation in which wine presses were used, there appears to be little evidence that they also stomped wine; they simply didn’t need to and had a much more efficient process in the wine presses. An exception to this can be found in Ancient Rome where grape stomping was common to extract the initial juices from grapes, which they believed to have special properties the rest of the juices did not. Even in this case, the Romans are still noted to have used presses to extract the bulk of the juices after this stomping took place.

As for why treading grapes seems to be so synonymous with winemaking in general, despite being inefficient, unsanitary, rarely used in history, and time-consuming, that may have a lot to do with the winemaking industry itself playing up to the allure of romanticised old timey imagery. If there’s one thing the wine industry is great at, it’s making wine seem grandiose, when, in the end, it’s just fermented fruit juice.

Beyond the mystique, there’s an entire industry based around selling people vacations during which they will stomp grapes to make wine “the traditional way”, even though it’s currently illegal in America to sell any wine made in this way for hygiene reasons and it has been for over a century. It’s just good marketing for the people advertising these events to play up to the fact that grape treading is a supposedly common ancient way of making wine, even though we’ve been pressing grapes in a vastly more efficient way for many millennia; and with extremely rare exceptions, these better methods were always how wine was made.

Another factor that has played into the popularity of wine treading is the now iconic 1956 episode of I Love Lucy, Lucy’s Italian Adventure, which features the titular character stomping grapes in an Italian winery. The episode led to a surge in interest in the practise, despite the fact that the Californian grape farmers who supplied the grapes for the episode did so under the condition that a character would explicitly mentioned that grapes aren’t really pressed by foot by wine makers. It should also be noted that, as alluded to, in rural Europe where most of the imagery surrounding this practise is sourced from, the use of feet has been wholly absent from the professional wine making process since the Middle Ages.

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Bonus Facts:

  • During Prohibition, Grape growers of the day began selling “bricks of wine”, which were primarily blocks of “Rhine Wine”.  These often included the following instructions: “After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine.”
  • Although selling the wine produced as a result of grape treading has been outlawed in the states for about a century, this hasn’t stopped grape stomps becoming a popular way of celebrating the end of the harvest season in certain American towns.
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  • Dan

    just so that you know, i crushed grapes with my bare feet when i was younger, and i’m 36 with a phd. and so did everyone, in my region, that made wine for personal consumption throughout the year until the next crop. it used to be pretty common in Portugal and Spain, and I presume all other mediterranean countries. And while it’s definitely an acient practice, it’s a tad short-sighted to say it was only done by “ancient people”

    • cosmos

      crush grapes with their feet that’s very unsanitary! even if they wash their feet the grape juice will no doubt perspiration from their smelly sweaty feet yukee! Don’t give me a glass! :(((((((

  • Boris

    Dan, why is relevant that you have a phd?

    • Mike

      It’s relevant because he is showing that even educated people stomped grapes. Stop being jealous.

  • michael

    Boris, im sure he wants eveyone to know he has a PHD. He’s proud of his 8-12yr accomplishment & shares it regaradless of its relativity. Im sure he still has a monthly reminder that comes out of his pocketbook too. About the grape stomping, i usually see women doing it rather than men. I think its makes the wine making process sensual & more appealing. Though it may not immediately apear that way, but, who wouldnt want to see a beautiful woman stomp grapes?

    • DJ

      What’s so sensual about an old lady stepping on your grapes?

  • David Staudacher

    “curb stomping” – rather an odd phrase to see used in print here.

    Wikipedia calls curb stomping – “a form of assault in which a victim’s mouth is forcefully placed on a curb and then stomped from behind, causing severe injuries and sometimes death.”

    A pointlessly violent image I’d just as soon do without, in an otherwise intelligent article.

  • Wine Mule

    Efficiency isn’t everything. Pigeage (using the foot) is an excellent tool for crushing grapes, because it does not crack open the pips that result in excess tannin.

  • iamserious

    Such an unsanitary practice. Glad there are other ways to make wine now.