Wine and the Vine: An Historical Geography of Viticulture and the Wine Trade

By Tim Unwin | Go to book overview

10

THE DOMINANCE OF CAPITAL IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY: DEMARCATION, SECTORAL INTEGRATION AND THE CREATION OF FASHION

There is a notion gone abroad that there is something fixed and unchanging in an Englishman's taste with respect to wine. You find a great number of people who believe, like an article of Christian faith, that an Englishman is not born to drink French wines. Do what you will, they say; argue with him as you will; reduce your duties as you will; endeavour even to pour the French wine down his throat, but still he will regret it… What they maintain is absolutely the reverse of the truth, for nothing is more certain than the taste of English people at one time for French wine. In earlier periods of our history French wine was the great article of consumption here. Taste is not an immutable, but a mutable thing.

(The Chancellor of the Exchequer, W. E. Gladstone, Hansard, 10th February 1860:847)

During the late nineteenth century the wine industry was plagued by recurrent crises of overproduction, which created short-term collapses in wine prices. However, the continuing global increase in demand for wine meant that prices recovered relatively quickly, particularly when an abundant grape harvest was followed by a period of relatively low yields. The critical factor influencing the price of the lower quality wines produced for the mass market was the variable quantity of the annual grape harvest, whereas, in contrast, the price of higher quality wines was determined largely by the quality of the vintage. Indeed, in its susceptibility to price variations caused by annual fluctuations in the weather, wine is notably different from other alcoholic beverages, such as beer and spirits. Many of the changes that have taken place in the wine industry during the twentieth century have been designed to reduce this level of variability in order to guarantee the successful accumulation of profit by wine producers. This has

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