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Avoiding another Monte Testaccio — The beginning of wine transport.

December 11th, 2018 by Jon Stein

Filed under: Skolnik Newsletter, Stainless Steel, Wine

Humans have been imbibing wine for thousands of years. But, the question of how wine got from one place to another, is fascinating to explore. While it’s relatively easy to carry vine cuttings on long journeys, bringing finished wine with you is a much more difficult task. If there’s truth to the old clichĂ© that necessity is the mother of invention, then as a species, we’ve shown a serious need to drink wine. Transporting wine is a tricky task, as your storage vessel needs to accomplish four different goals:

  • Air must be kept out of the vessel to prevent oxidation.
  • The vessel must be strong enough not to easily break, without being so heavy that it cannot be easily moved (especially when hand labor was the rule).
  • In many cases, the vessel needs to be opened and then resealed.
  • The vessel itself shouldn’t interact with the wine (though we’ll see that a very large asterisk follows this rule).

In addition to those goals, the vessel needs to be stored in an environment that has a stable temperature. If wine is exposed to heat for too long it will “cook” and lose its flavor.

Amphorae — Were the ancient world’s standardized way to transport wine, olive oil and other prized liquids. Amphorae came in many sizes, similar to both the bulk transport formats we use today as well as the world’s common wine bottle sizes. These wax-lined (pine and bees wax were common) ceramic containers, invented by the Egyptians, were gradually adopted by nearly all the wine drinking/producing civilizations throughout the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian regions. They reached their peak in usage and standardization in ancient Greece and Rome. They were easy to produce and, importantly, easy to transport. Their shape was round with a tapered bottom, two handles and a long, slim neck. The amphora’s tapered bottom also proved to be useful in keeping its contents from sloshing around during a sea journey. This was accomplished by filling a ship’s hold with sand, and then partially burying each amphora in the sand. Looking at an amphora you can see the similarities to a modern wine bottle, from the long neck, which keeps the wine away from oxygen, to the sediment-collecting concave bottom of most wine bottles, the ‘punt.’ The Romans continuously improved their physical design — the goals being to reduce weight without sacrificing strength and to pack more and more amphorae into the cargo holds of ships. This excerpt from David Stone Potter’s book Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire, shows the massive scope of the Roman ‘logistics’ system:

A year’s supply of 20,000,000 liters oil translates into about 285,714 amphorae, and 100,000,000 liters of wine would require 4,000,000 amphorae, and that’s just for the city of Rome. The author is quick to note that these are estimates based upon some consumption and population assumptions. Still, these are not unreasonable assumptions: archeologists have estimated that Monte Testaccio ‘an artificial hill’ in Rome, is composed of 53 million or so broken amphorae, discarded over the course of 150-300 years. Rome’s Monte Testaccio is one of the largest spoil heaps (landfills) found anywhere in the ancient world, covering an area of 20,000 square meters (220,000 sq ft) at its base and with a volume of approximately 580,000 cubic meters (760,000 cu yd).

Stainless Steel — While today we recognize that oak barrel aging is fundamental to the production of many wines (or oak substitutes such as chips in stainless steel barrels), the use of stainless steel has grown, from the large storage tanks to the straight sided and “barrel” shaped drums now being used to store and transport wine. Monte Testaccio? Never again, but here at Skolnik Industries, our stainless steel wine barrels are reusable, easy to clean, and recyclable at the end of their service life. check out the full line of our Stainless Steel Wine Drums here.

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