On July 3, The Corning Museum of Glass opened a new exhibition, Fire and Vine. The subtitle of the exhibition is The Story of Glass and Wine. So, what is the story of glass and wine?
To many people, the story of glass and wine is a tale of hedonism, about the experience of tasting wine from a fine piece of hand-blown stemware. To others, it is a story of strength, of the glass bottles that make champagne and other sparkling wines possible, because they can contain the pressure of carbonation. And to others still, glass tools are critical to the process of winemaking, helping to ensure a successful harvest and fermentation.
This exhibition tells all these stories and more, as it traces the journey of the grape from the vineyard to the goblet. Glass touches wine at almost every step of that journey. The exhibition contains over 100 objects from the permanent collection of The Corning Museum of Glass, and loans from the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum, Pleasant Valley Wine Company, and Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery.
Glass is a major component of many tools used in modern winemaking. In the vineyard, grape growers use a tool called a refractometer, which contains a glass prism, to measure the amount of sugar present in the grape and determine the precise moment to harvest. After the grapes are harvested and pressed, the resulting juice ages in barrels. As the wine ages, winemakers extract small samples for tasting with a glass tube called a wine thief. The Volatile Acid Still tests for the presence of harmful bacteria that could turn wine into vinegar, and a glass hydrometer measures the sugar and alcohol content in the wine. By floating a glass hydrometer in the fermenting liquid, winemakers can determine when aging is complete.
While most of us are accustomed to purchasing wine by the bottle (or box!), until the development of the modern wine bottle in the early 1800s, wine was primarily shipped and stored in large ceramic containers or wooden casks. It was a race against time to get the wine from the producer to the consumer before it spoiled due to oxidation. Those who could not afford to purchase wine in bulk instead filled their own containers at local wine shops or taverns, similar to the way we fill growlers at breweries today. In the early 1600s, glass was becoming a more common material to conduct those purchases. As John Worlidge pointed out in his treatise on glass bottles in 1676, glass was stronger, less apt to leak, less likely to taint the contents than ceramic jugs. Glass was also transparent, and so easier to monitor the contents and determine if the vessel was clean.
“Glass bottles are preferred to stoneware bottles because stone bottles are apt to leak, and are rough in the mouth, that they are not easily uncorked; also they are more apt to taint than the other; neither are they transparent, that you may discern when they are foul, or clean.”John Worlidge, 1676
The robust British glass wine bottle of which Worlidge spoke was helped along by a quirk of glass history: early in the 1600s, King James I of England forbid glasshouses to use wood-fired furnaces in glassmaking. Glass houses switched to coal as a fuel source. Because coal burns hotter than wood, glassmakers could increase the ratio of silica to sodium in the glass batch, resulting in a stiffer, stronger glass. Coal furnaces are also reducing environments, which has the effect of deepening the green color of the iron in the glass. Stronger, thicker, and darker glass than what had been available previously contributed to a bottle that was more conducive to long-term storage of wine.
By the early 1800s, wineries themselves began to store and ship their product in glass bottles, with paper labels with information about the winery and vintage replacing the stamps with names of individuals and taverns who used the bottle. The introduction of a three-part molded bottle in the 1820s solidified the standard cylindrical shape of the wine bottle which is still recognizable 200 years later.
A third story of glass and wine is the enjoyment and satisfaction to be had when drinking wine from a glass drinking vessel. The Roman satirist Petronius noted around 60 CE that he preferred glass because it doesn’t smell and provides a better tasting experience even than gold, although it is prone to breakage. People have drunk wine from glass for more than 2,500 years, and the first stemmed goblets were made more than 1,500 years ago. Beyond the general endurance of the stemmed shape, wine goblets appear in all shapes, sizes, colors, patterns, glass techniques, and more, speaking to the wide variety of drinking customs and the various role of wine in different societies.
In the 1700s and 1800s, a standard service of glassware for a wealthy person in western Europe or America may have included different glasses for cordials and spirits, brandy, punch, sherry, champagne, ale, and cider, but only one glass designated for wine. Occasionally, glasses may have been marked for popular wines like claret or Madeira. Red and white wine glasses start to appear around the turn of the 20th century. In the post-World War II economic boom, the Austrian glass company Riedel paired up master glassblowers with wine experts to create a series of stemware that would optimize the tasting experience for different varietals of wine. The resulting “Sommeliers” series of glasses is a refined and elegant service that showcases the talents of glassmakers and winemakers alike.
As curator of Fire and Vine, I had the opportunity to speak with many people involved in the robust wine industry of the Finger Lakes region, from the owners of historic vineyards to the scientists at the Cornell AgriTech facility in Geneva, NY. I came to appreciate the economic impact of the wine business (estimated at $6.65 billion across New York State in 2019, according to the New York Wine & Grape Foundation), the ways legislation like the New York State Farm Winery Act of 1976 allowed farmers to sell wine directly to consumers from their own property—the foundation of the wine trail experience—and the pride and endurance of these family-owned and operated wineries here in the Finger Lakes region. It was an honor to share their stories in the exhibition.
Fire and Vine: The Story of Glass and Wine will be open in the Gather Gallery at The Corning Museum of Glass until December 31, 2022.
To further explore the exhibition, The Rakow Research Library has created an accompanying research guide.
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