Of the many contributions the Romans made to the world, both ancient and of those passed on to modern society, perhaps the most lasting was the art of wine (vinum) making. Wild grapes, though now nearly extinct, grew in abundance throughout the Mediterranean and were cultivated in earnest throughout the region. The Etruscans and Greeks were the preeminent wine consumers in Italy prior to the rise of Rome, and though wine was an important part of the Roman diet, it didn't become the cultural icon of their society from the very start. The Carthaginians who dominated Mediterranean trade prior to the Romans, were the wine connoisseurs of the time, and the earliest ancient references prior to Latin was provided in the Punic language.
As Rome expanded, and eventually defeated Carthage in the mid 2nd century BC, Roman vineyards began to spring up in earnest throughout Italy. No longer overwhelmingly dedicated to the art of warfare in Italy, local farms were able to flourish. The wild grapes that once formed the basic wine culture of Italy were cultivated and farmed in abundance. Prior to this, Italy was an agrarian culture based predominantly on sustenance farming, but as expansion into fertile lands such as Sicily and Africa occurred, the door was opened to other agrarian pursuits. Wine and grape production in Italy soared in the 2nd century BC, and large slave run vineyards dotted the coastlines. Wine production so replaced that of traditional food farming, that the Emperor Domitian was forced to destroy several vineyards in 92 AD, while putting a ban in place on the growth of new vines.
Several ancient authors dedicated lengthy documentation on the production, economics and cultural value of wine. Cato the Censor provided the first Latin work involving Roman wine, among other agricultural pursuits, 'De Agri Cultura'. Varro provided a rather cursory review of wine production in a greater work on overall farming in 'Res Rusticae' (Country Matters). Perhaps the best example of all Roman sources on wine production comes from one of the least known Latin sources. Columella, in his own 'De Re Rusticae' (On Country Matters), provided a highly detailed look at the Roman art of grape growing, wine production and consumption. Pliny the Elder, adding in his own great work, Historia Naturalis, that wine production in Italy by the mid 2nd century BC surpassed any other place in the world. The cultivation of wine and grapes was disallowed, at least by Roman farmers outside of Italy during this period, and wine became a great export commodity. While it would remain a treasured piece of Roman daily life, its export value would diminish as the Empire expanded. As Gaul and Hispania (essentially France and Spain) came under Roman influence, massive vineyards were established in these provinces, and Italy would eventually become a major import center for provincial wines.
The Romans drank wine as a staple part of their diet, preferred over anything else. In fact, the quality of drinking water was such that, wine was a typical drink at any time in the day. However, unlike today, ancient wine was almost always consumed mixed in with large percentages of water. The ancient wines were stronger, both in alcohol content and perhaps in flavor, making the watering down of their drinks necessary. In so doing, not only was the longevity of a serving secured, but the alcoholic effects also slowed. They enjoyed wines of many varieties and flavors, and mixed the original grape product with an exhaustive list of flavor changing properties.
From honey to salt water, herbs and/or spices of all sorts, the Romans seemed willing to try anything. Even chalk was added to reduce acidity. The flavor of the wine was even altered through its storage method. The typical method of storage was in the classic Roman amphorae (a handled jug with a cylindrical container area, and small long neck and spout). In these, they might coat the inside with resin, not only for preservation, but to effect the taste of the final product. The boiling procedures too affected the taste, and the Romans were well aware of the various taste properties gained by using lead, iron, copper, etc. cooking pots.
Wine production varied, of course, depending on the quality of the product intended. For any wines, grapes were gathered and trodden with feet, but generally pressed sent to a press for further refinement. The Torculum or the Roman press could sometimes be a sophisticated piece of machine driven parts, but was most commonly a heavy wooden beam. The juices were strained generally through colander like object called a Colum to separate any thick skins or other undesirable objects. To ferment, the juices were poured into amphorae or similar pots called dolia, under varying conditions. Some amphorae were buried in sand, others in dirt, and some were allowed to rest in bodies of water.
Some juices were boiled before being poured into amphorae for fermentation. High quality vintage wines could be left for considerable lengths of times in this storage process. Though the required length of time seems to have been anywhere from nine days to a couple of months, depending on the desired final product, vintage wines were preferred to be aged anywhere from 10 to 25 years. In fact, the Emperor Caligula was once presented with a 160 year old vintage that was considered a supreme treat. Unfortunately, as the Empire began to collapse, both vineyards and the wine industry as a whole fell into a similar state during the so called "Dark Ages." Though wine production continued, it didn't regain its immense popularity until the resurgence of classical culture in the European Renaissance.