Medieval Vineyard

The wine trade has been a significant part of the human experience for thousands of years.  In many ways it has progressed (particularly in regards to sanitary practices and quality assurance), but in other ways it remains familiar to its original roots.

Take the cost of setting up a profitable vineyard, for instance.

A spreadsheet provided by Iowa State University Extension provides the estimated cost of establishing a one acre vineyard would be $4846.40 at the end of year one.  If we use the average size of a vineyard in Missouri as reference (at 4 acres), that cost would be around $19,385.60.  Compare that to figures pulled from the records of the abbey of Saint-Romain in the Saone valley totaling the cost of maintaining a vineyard for a year in the late 15th century and we see a familiar picture.

  • manuring (cost of dung & baskets for transport): 17 florins
  • digging: 19 florins
  • staking (cost of stakes included, ties, transport, pruning, food for workers and pay): 52 florins
  • Harvest (62 pickers, 48 porters, 11 men on winepress): 17 florins

Average total cost = 105 florins

In today’s dollars that would be around $21,000.

Cato the Elder

De Agri Cultura, written by famed Roman soldier, author and statesman Cato the Elder around 160 BC, is among the earliest manuals covering the growing of grapes and the making of wine.  In it he writes detailed instructions on the proper establishment of a profitable farm and vineyard.  He emphasizes the careful selection of vines, taking into consideration the specific type of soil of the vineyard site.

“In soil which is thought to be best adapted for grapes and which is exposed to the sun, plant the small Aminnian, the double Eugeneum, and the small parti-colored; in soil that is heavy or more subject to fogs, plant the large Aminnian, the Murgentian, the Apician, and the Lucanian. The other varieties, and especially the hybrids, grow well anywhere.”

He gives a complete list of the staff needed to manage a vineyard of 100 iugera (66 acres), including “an overseer, a housekeeper, 10 labourers, 1 teamster, 1 muleteer, 1 willow-worker, 1 swineherd — a total of 16 persons,”  and his list of equipment is comprehensive, listing even the number of candlesticks and pruning-hooks the prospective vineyard manager will need.

The 1st century B.C. manuscript reads almost like a modern instruction manual for vineyard management, exhibiting a sophistication that is hard to believe existed over two thousand years ago.   Cato encouraged vineyard managers to take an active role with grapevines with vigorous training, pruning, and fertilization.

“Tie a well-knotted vine straight up, keeping it from bending, and make it grow vertically, so far as you can. Leave fruit-bearing shoots and reserve stubsat proper intervals. Train the vines as high as possible and tie them firmly, but without choking them… In an old vineyard sow clover if the soil is lean (do not sow anything that will form a head), and around the roots apply manure, straw, grape dregs, or anything of the sort, to make it stronger.  When the vine begins to form leaves, thin them. Tie up the young vines at frequent intervals to keep the stems from breaking, and when they begin to climb the props tie the tender branches loosely, and turn them so that they will grow vertically. When the grapes begin to turn, tie up the vines, strip the leaves so as to expose the grapes…”

Nicholas Herbemont: Viticulturalist, Winemaker, Innovator

Technology and knowledge have evolved over time, enabling the process of winemaking to become streamlined, easier, and better able to produce a higher quality product.

Despite these many changes revolutionizing the wine world throughout the years, one thing remains the same: the passion and drive of the winemaker for producing good wine. Although a gap of more than 150 years separates the wine visionaries of today from Nicholas Michel Laurent Herbemont, a winemaker originally from France living from 1771 to 1839, he possessed the same passion and pride in his creations as the winemakers of today.

“If Bachus himself could condescend to pay us a visit and drink some of my wine, he would readily acknowledge that he never had drank better in his lifetime, and not often as good” –Herbemont, 1832.

Herbemont changed the way many people viewed the practice of growing grapes and making wine in the early 19th century. His revolutionary ideas for grape growing included using high trellises to increase air circulation and keep black rot under control, as opposed to the common practice of growing grapes near to the soil, in the fashion of growers out of his native Europe. In the realm of wine production, Herbemont tried to lead his American peers away from strengthening their wine with Brandy and from using large amounts of sugar to increase the alcohol content.

“The vine has been given to man that it may enliven his spirits, gladden his heart, produce cheerfulness and good fellowship in society, and enable him to support unavoidable afflictions, under which he would frequently sink in despair.” –Herbemont, 1828

He believed in the taste and power of the grapes grown in American soil, and wanted wines to be the vessel of showcasing these grapes. He advocated for a light touch rather than a heavy hand,

The vintner and wine maker published 60 writings in his lifetime including his article “Wine Making” which was published in American Farmer in 1833 and explained his process of wine production. This article was reprinted and reissued many times, making it the most popular and trusted instruction in the process of wine making in America for a generation.

Although he did sell cuttings of his vines and bottles of his wine to the public, Herbemont focused most of his attention on experimentation in order to produce the best possible product. Fame and fortune never seemed to drive his work, rather a simple desire to gain more knowledge and be able to share that with the public spurred him forward.

“The culture of the vine is an art which cannot be easily acquired from the mere analogy with other objects of cultivation; neither can it be learned, except by very few, by books alone.” –Herbemont, 1827.

All of these factors contributed to the Frenchman being recognized as “the finest practicing vigneron of the early United States.” Many of his philosophies and practices are still used today, and many still regard him as a vital forefather in the history of American viticulture and wine making.

Although the last bottle of Herbemont’s wine was consumed in 1915, his legacy lives on through the small grape that bears his name and the winemakers of the day who read his writings.


For additional information about Herbemont, refer to the book Pioneering American Wine: Writings of Nicholas Herbemont, Master Viticulturalist, edited by David S. Shields.