Making wine and drinking wine have always been ritualistic traditions—and rituals need their tools and instruments. A generation or two ago, a winemaker would descend into his dank, dimly lit cellar carrying a candle and a shallow metallic tastevin, perhaps wearing it on a chain around his neck and sporting a bib apron to fend off wine stains. From a barrel head, the vintner would grab a wine thief (a glass or pipette) or possibly a long-handled dipper with a tiny cup, then go about the day’s work of monitoring how the aging wines were progressing.
The candle would be lit, the wine withdrawn and the sample slowly poured into the tasting receptacle. The vintner would smell the wine, then use the flickering light to check its color and clarity as the dimples in the tastevin reflected the liquid. Once satisfied, he’d slurp the wine and spit it out into a ceramic cup or onto the dirt floor.
Somewhere in a nearby town or perhaps at the winery’s cellar door, an oenophile would buy a bottle, take it home and lay out his panoply of wine tools—a knife to cut the lead foil, a corkscrew, a funnel, a decanter and perhaps a lit candle much like the one used by the master of the cellar. The cork would be withdrawn and sniffed to see whether the contents were still sound. Then the wine would be funneled into a decanter held at eye level in one hand with the candle behind it in the other. In a time when most wines weren’t filtered, the sediment would stay in the bottle’s shoulder and avoid the decanter.
Today, there’s still an astounding number of vintage tools out there. In addition to the many tasting cups, corkscrews and other pullers, funnels, decanters and wine candles and their holders, there’s an array of vintage wine glasses. At one time, every wine region in Europe had its distinctive glass—Champagne’s flutes and coupes, Bordeaux’s large bowl and Burgundy’s smaller one, the small glasses with colored stems for the German white wines, small port glasses and so on. Many can still be purchased at estate auctions or online.
Sometimes a winery will display an old-fashioned screw wine press or sell aging barrels to be cut in half and used as patio planters. And for the wine student, there are many books to pore over—like Sainsbury’s Notes on a Cellar Book and Michael Broadbent’s The Great Vintage Wine Book.
For those interested in learning more about vintage wine gear, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library is a great place to start. Ten years ago, Leslie Grigsby, senior curator of ceramics and glass, mounted the popular wine-related exhibition Uncorked in the museum’s galleries. It can still be accessed online. “Changes in decorative wine glasses are often a product of advances in technology,” says Grigsby.
Decanters are also an interesting subject. Not just an elegant serving vessel, they allow the wine to get a few gulps of oxygen. “It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that wine bottles disappeared from the table during elegant dinners,” Grigsby says.
Grisby can also chart the evolution of bottles. Early on, they were brown, bulbous “onion bottles” that would never fit a modern wine rack. “Today’s cylindrical wine bottles didn’t come along until the 18th century,” she notes, pointing out one advantage of the bulbous bottles. “Because they were somewhat flattened, they had more surface area, and wine could be chilled more quickly.”
Those who’ve toured the world’s wine regions also know that many feature extensive wine museums. One of my favorites is the Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture in Rioja, Spain. Its thousands of items are exquisitely displayed over three floors, and there’s a delightful restaurant awaiting you afterward. Downtown Bordeaux’s La Cité du Vin, with its stunning architecture, is another.
And, of course, there’s a far more modest (and personal) vintage memento—a label removed from a bottle of wine at some memorable event, pressed away like a spring flower and rediscovered years later.