Fun facts about wine

It’s summer, a time to keep things light and casual. 

In that spirit, I offer some fun wine trivia you can impress your friends and family with during the backyard barbecue:

In ancient Greece, the dinner host would take the first sip of wine to ensure it was safe to drink, giving us the phrase to “drink to one’s health.”

The tradition of a celebratory “toast” began with the ancient Romans, who would drop a piece of toasted bread in their wine to buffer unpleasant tastes and excessive acidity. The Romans also boiled wine in lead pots and mixed lead with wine to help preserve it and impart a sweet flavor. There is much debate among historians about how much lead poisoning contributed to the decline of the empire. 

The alcohol bill for a celebration party for the 55 drafters of the Constitution was 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of Bordeaux, eight bottles of whiskey, 22 bottles of port, eight bottles of hard cider, 12 beers and seven bowls of alcohol punch large enough that “ducks could swim in them.”

In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson spent $3,000 on wine, 12 percent of his annual salary. To put that in modern context, that would be like President Obama spending $48,000 on wine this year alone.

When Tutankhamun’s tomb was opened in 1922, wine jars buried alongside him were labeled with the year, the name of the winemaker and descriptions about the quality of the wine. The labels could actually comply with modern wine label laws of several countries today. In ancient Egypt, the ability to craft wine that improved with age was considered alchemy and was a privilege reserved for the pharaohs.

One glass of wine consists of juice from one cluster of grapes. Seventy-five grapes comprise one cluster. One grape vine produces 10 bottles. One acre can contain 400 vines, resulting in five tons of grapes. On average, five tons of grapes can be made in to 300 cases or 3,600 bottles of finished wine. 

Wine grapes rank first among the world’s fruit crops in terms of acres planted. You’ve probably never heard of the world’s most widely planted grape variety, Airén. It is grown primarily in Spain where it is used to make white wine and brandy.

California, by itself, is the world’s fourth largest producer of wine after France, Italy and Spain. Washington, D.C., consumes more wine per capita than any state in the nation.

A few vine cuttings from the New World brought to Europe spread a tiny insect called Phylloxera vastatrix, which feeds on the roots of vines. The only way to save all of the European grape vines was to graft native American vines to the European rootstocks. While some European vines are justifiably hallowed, none of them are pristine and without an American element after the mid 1800s.

The average age of a French oak tree harvested for use in creating wine barrels is 170 years.

The Whistler Tree is the most productive cork oak tree on record. It grows in the Alentejo region of Portugal and is more than 230 years old. Harvested on a 9-year cycle, in 2009, it yielded enough cork for 100,000 bottles. As a comparison, the average cork oak produces material for 4,000 bottles. Named for the countless songbirds that occupy its dense canopy, the Whistler Tree is in excellent condition and is well on its way to produce a total lifetime production of more than one million corks.

Finally, less a fact and more of a polite admonition: please pronounce the “t” in Moët & Chandon Champagne.

Derek M. LaVallee, partner at Kemp Goldberg Partners and certified wine buff, can be reached at