Although the wine industry is a hot topic to some investors, wine itself has been around for at least 5,000 years. And yet it is still considered one of the most complex of all consumed items to produce. There are hundreds (some would say thousands) of variables involved in getting a glass of wine on the table. Wine’s long history has resulted in whole libraries of studies devoted to individual aspects of its production, such as the type of grape, soil, sun, water, temperature, time and method of harvest, fermentation, aging, and handling. Even today, the sheer number of variables involved in the production of wine continues to make it as much an art as a science. In fact, wine has been compared to the stock market, because, despite the use of advanced analytic methods, there’s always a significant element of risk.

All this, of course, is what has made wine the source of more discourse, analysis, and argument, than just about anything else we consume. And we do consume. The per capita consumption of wine in the U.S. has nearly tripled over the past 50 years, though it’s still far below countries like France, where the average person goes through over 6 times as much. The United States is also one of the top producers of wine, behind Italy, France, and Spain. There are over 6,000 wineries in the U.S, with nearly half being in California. Other major wine producing states include New York, Washington, Oregon, Texas, and Virginia, although their combined production is still but a fraction of California’s.

However, in spite of the growing interest and use of wine in this country, only a relatively small percentage of Americans know even the basics about where it comes from or how it’s made. Here then is a very small taste.

There are thousands of different grape varieties, but only a handful are considered classic (basically meaning that they’ve been enjoyed by people all over the world for a fairly long time). Of these few classic grape varieties, the best known are:

• Cabernet Sauvignon
• Chardonnay
• Merlot
• Pinot Noir
• Riesling
• Syrah (called shiraz in some places)

There are other well known grape varieties, but the classic grape varieties have the greatest history and range of acceptance. (While most of the world chooses to name wines based upon the variety of grape, European wines are often named based upon place of origin. Burgundy, a region in eastern France, produces wines from principally chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, but all are considered Burgundies: Burgundy red, Burgundy white.)

Grapes, largely just water and sugar, get much of their flavor from their skins. Skins are also responsible for the most obvious difference between red and white wine. Although there are red grapes and white grapes, the juice of almost all grapes is colorless. Only when the juice is fermented with the skins of the red grapes does wine come out red. Fermentation occurs over days or weeks, these days often in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, as yeasts (natural or added) convert most or all of the sugar into alcohol. The wine can then be aged in oak barrels, though some wines are not aged at all. Oak is the only material that has been shown to suit the wine aging process, imparting and enhancing flavor for certain wines in a process that usually lasts from 1 to 10 years.

Although there are thousand of wineries in the U.S., below are some of the few that are publicly traded.

• Andretti Wine Group – Napa, CA (PINKSHEETS: AWGL)
• Scheid Vineyards – Salinas, CA (PINKSHEETS: SVIN)
• Willamette Valley Vineyards – Turner, OR (NASDAQ: WVVI)

And lest you think that the wine industry is so locked in tradition that there are no new opportunities, consider the Sutter Home Winery, a privately held company in California, who not that many years ago took a standard hearty red wine and lightened it by removing the grape skins earlier in processing. The grape was the zinfandel, and the new wine they created, white zinfandel, is now one of the most popular wines sold in America.