The winemaking process starts by placing the harvest of fruit in a vessel of the winemaker’s choice. Yeast cells on the skins of the grapes are added by the winemaker to metabolize the grape’s sugar producing ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. In the fermentation process, the grape’s natural color, aroma, and flavor are changed. 

This stage of winemaking requires specific tools. I want to share the historic tools in the Wine History Project collection which were used in this early stage of the process. The tools which are in our collection for breaking the cap are made of wood or cast iron.

The cap is a term that describes the fruit skins, pulp and stems that float to the surface of the must during fermentation. Must is defined as the soupy mass of pressed skins, seeds and pulp that are fermented together when making wine from grapes or from other fruits. If the pulp and other solids are pressed off before fermentation, the liquid is defined as juice.

Punch Down the Cap

Many different types of vessels can be chosen for the fermentation process;  the choice of vessel may influence the color, aroma and flavor of the wine. The vessels include amphorae made of clay, tanks made of concrete or stainless-steel, and wooden barrels; these vessels control temperature, or allow in oxygen, or impart flavor in different ways. The grape skins and the solids (known as must) rise to the surface in the vessel. This is caused by the carbon dioxide gas created during the fermentation process.

Regulations in the Wineries

The Food and Drug Administration is the oldest comprehensive consumer protection agency in the U. S. federal government. Since 1848 the federal government has used chemical analysis to monitor the safety of agricultural products — a responsibility inherited by the Department of Agriculture in 1862 and later by the FDA.

Although it was not known by its present name until 1930, FDA’s modern regulatory functions began with the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act, a law a quarter-century in the making that prohibited interstate commerce in adulterated and misbranded food and drugs. Harvey Washington Wiley, Chief Chemist of the USDA Bureau of Chemistry, had been the driving force behind this law and headed its enforcement in the early years, providing basic elements of protection that consumers had never known before that time.

Since then, the FDA has changed along with social, economic, political and legal changes in the United States. Examining the history of these changes illuminates the evolving role that FDA has played in promoting public health and offers lessons to consider as we evaluate current regulatory challenges. According to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), a winery is a food processing facility and subject to federal regulations, especially Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) listed in Title 21 CFR 110. These regulations include sanitation and processing requirements for the production of safe food.

The term “punch down” is what winemakers call the breaking up of this cap of skins and solids which forms over the fermenting wine. Winemakers, or workers assisting in the winery,  break up the cap and push it back down into the wine so that this cap will stay moist. This breaking or punching of the cap creates many benefits – richer color, flavor, and tannin structure. 

Why punch down the cap? This big soup of grape skins and juice, or the must, is punched to develop better flavor. Winemakers make the decision on the frequency of “punch down” which also influences the tannins developing in the wine. 

Historically “a punch down tool” was developed. The process was definitely  a workout. The grapes form a solid mass. The winemaker could lean on the tool and the mass of grapes might not even move. The winemaker continues to try to mix air into the must. The process gets easier as the skins break down and less gas is produced. 

In this article I will discuss a variety of early tools in the Wine History Project collection; some made of wood, others of cast iron, and steel. Winemakers stopped using the wooden tools a long time ago as the wood is porous and for that reason not easily sanitized, ending up with the wine sometimes contaminated by this unsanitary tool. 

This punch down in France is traditionally known as pigéage (pronounced peej-AHJE) or the traditional stomping of grapes. Historically, punch down involved placing a wooden beam across the lip of the tank and a person with the punch down tool, balanced above the tank of grape must. CO2 rises so these workers historically were sometimes overcome by the CO2 fumes. Today, vats are smaller, and accidents are less likely to occur.

Automated pump-overs, or remontage, are the technologically advanced method of breaking the cap. Each tank is equipped with a mechanism which breaks up the cap and is controlled by a push of a button to start and finish, and many can be preprogrammed. This allows for timely execution of cap management and minimizes cross-contamination between tanks. It also reduces water use, reduces cleaning chemical use, and provides a cost savings for labor.

The Wood Wine Vat Scraper Tool in the Wine History Project Collection

The Wood Wine Vat Scraper Tool in the Wine History Project Collection

PLACE France
PERIOD 1870-1890
MATERIALS Iron, Oak Wood
DIMENSIONS 55” length

This is an iron-tipped wood vat scraper from the George Dos Santos Collection which is about all I know of it.

The Wine Cap Axes in the Wine History Project Collection

These tools from our collection were mostly created during the nineteenth century and were designed to deal with the solid remains of grapes (pomace) left in a wine press but were also used to punch down the chapeau (the cap) of the fermenting wine in the tank. Pomace is the solid residue, primarily skins, seeds, and stem left behind after juicing or fermenting grapes. 

Also referred to as a wine cap ax, a coupe-marc, or a grand coupe-marc these were used for cutting up the marc or residue from wine presses. The separation was put back into the center of the press for more juice, by punching down the cap, or chapeau of the fermenting wine in the tank as discussed earlier in this article 

The fermenters were usually only filled halfway. If full the wine would have spilled over as the carbon dioxide expanded. The chemical process is this: the wine is “cooked”, and the grape juice converts the sugar to alcohol. These same types of tools were used in apple growing regions of countries in making cider.

 Tool maker’s marks traditionally have played an important role in the manufacturing process as they identified the maker of the tool and stood as a permanent promise of quality and workmanship. In some cases, these maker’s marks are the only way to identify the origin of a tool.

Coupe marc

PLACE France
PERIOD 1824-1836
MATERIALS Cast iron, fruitwood
DIMENSIONS 27”H x 25”W with 12” blade

This was from the George Dos Santos collection originally. Long-handled, short-handled and no-handle pomace cutters were uniquely crafted by a toolmaker to fit the needs of a particular winemaker or winery worker. The edge-tool maker or le taillandier, manufactured or repaired sharp objects used in agriculture. 

This coupe marc has the maker’s mark of Laurent Remy. Laurent Remy (1824-1836) was a toolmaker with the location of the shop identified as 15 Cour de Harlay, Paris. The Harlay court (Cour de Harlay) was an old court, first called “Cour Neuve” surrounded by shops for merchants. The court was accessible from the rue de Harlay, located in the Cite district on the Ile de la Cite.

Coupe marc

Coupe marc  

PLACE France
PERIOD 1820-1850
DIMENSIONS 24”L x 7 ½”H x 7 ¾” blade

Marked with Paris, Belleville, the tool has a center punch mark. Belleville has always been a working-class neighborhood, with immigration generating much of the area’s zest. Parisians would come on Sundays because there was plentiful tax-free wine. By the time it was annexed to Paris in the 1860s, Belleville was already heavily populated. Belleville is sandwiched within four Paris arrondissements (districts) – the 10th, 11th, 19th, and 20th. Belleville was a wine-making village, independent from Paris, and lay outside the walls. It was especially popular for its guinguettes, or country cafes. Residents of Belleville were considered some of the most rebellious, resisting fiercely during the Paris Commune of 1871, a popular insurrection that ended when the Versailles Army came to reconquer the city.

Coupe marc  

PLACE France
PERIOD 1840-1870
MATERIALS Cast iron, fruitwood
DIMENSIONS 31”L x 8”W blade

This one is marked by incised symbols on the blade. Marked with the term Beune it is also from the George Dos Santos collection.

It is marked or decorated with a series of cuts into the surface as incised symbols on the blade (as shown). I attempted to research what the symbols meant, but I could not find any reference that explained their meaning. Beune, now known as Beaune, and recognized as the wine capital of Burgundy in eastern France, is a walled city centered on the wine industry. It was already a prosperous wine-growing region by the thirteenth century.

Coupe marc

Coupe marc  

PLACE France
PERIOD 1840-1860
MATERIALS Cast iron, fruitwood
CONDITION Blade is good but the stick is not
DIMENSIONS 44”L x 17” blade

Resembles a medieval battle weapon with its termite-eaten long stick, that is attached to a 15-inch hand-forged knife-like sword.

Grand Coupe marc

Grand Coupe marc  

PLACE France
PERIOD 1800-1825
MATERIALS Cast iron, fruitwood
DIMENSIONS 45”L x 18” blade

This grand coupe marc is marked with the Rhone Region of France and is another of the tools originally from the George Dos Santos collection.

Primitive Methods Change

The differences between cleaning, sanitizing and sterilizing?

  •  Cleaning – the physical removal of dirt, debris or unwanted material (solid or liquid) from a surface
  • Sanitizing – a 99.9% (3 log) reduction of microorganisms
  • Sterilizing – the complete removal or inactivation of microorganisms

Courtesy of Dorothy Tchelistcheff found at

“Andre’ Tchelistcheff in Napa in 1938, he was both surprised and dismayed by the primitive conditions of grape growing and winemaking. To raise the standard of wine production, he insisted on better sanitation, new equipment, and the adoption of scientific methods. He established an important laboratory at Beaulieu Vineyard, one of Napa’s oldest wineries.”

The tool has the maker’s mark of Bordelaise, Groh. Bettzers is in the Rhone Region of France; one of the most prominent areas for red wine production in the country. The Rhone Valley is a key wine-producing region in the southeast of France and follows the Rhone River between Lyon and the Rhone Delta near the Mediterranean coast. 

During the 1800s, Syrah from this valley was sold to Bordeaux and Burgundy to help improve their wines, giving them more structure, backbone, and darker color. Near the end of the nineteenth century, Phylloxera devastated the Rhone Valley vineyards: in fact, Phylloxera was first discovered in the Rhone Valley. A tidbit of historical information: For quite some time after the devastation from Phylloxera the growers were able to make more money planting apricots and cherries than they could earn from their vineyards.

Don’t you think that these wine cap axes resemble medieval battle weapons?


Modern Era Wine Cap Punch Down Tool

Punch Down Tool

Punch Down Tool  

STYLE Capped/sealed ends (easy cleaning and sanitizing)
PLACE World-wide
PERIOD Modern era
MATERIALS Polished finish, 10 gauge thick stainless steel
DIMENSIONS 48” – 72” height, about 7 lbs.

This one is not in our collection. The modern-day punch down tool looks like a giant potato masher on steroids; do you agree?


We also have some old wooden tools in the collection which were used to mash grapes and scrape the wine vat. That’s a tease for upcoming articles about our objects. And, if you have any questions regarding old tools which you have seen but don’t know what they were used for, let me know.