Wine economics

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Book Review: Oceans of Wine

The blog "The Wine Economist" has a short review of a new book on the history of the Madeira wine industry and trade.


Diese Nachricht wurde Ihnen von RAEM via Google Reader gesendet.


via The Wine Economist von Mike Veseth am 06.09.09

David Hancock.  Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste. Yale University Press, 2009.

As the author of a book called Mountains of Debt I am predisposed to like a book called Oceans of Wine based on the title alone. In fact, it is a masterpiece. I wish I knew as much about anything as David Hancock clearly knows about the Madeira wine trade between 1640 and 1815. This serious social and economic history is filled with interesting facts, detailed analysis and thoughtful insights. What a delight!

America's First Wine

Madeira was America's wine in the 18th century, when we were a wine-drinking country but before a domestic industry had taken root. Wines from this small island found their way into shops, taverns and cellars throughout America, one element among many in what this book reveals to be a surprisingly complex network of trade connections that supported an unexpectedly cosmopolitan consumption culture.

Wine exports became a trade necessity when Madeira lost its comparative advantage in sugar production in the 17th Century and, unlikely as it may seem,  its wines soon dominated the Atlantic trade. Madeira could be found just about everywhere in America, from the cellars of wealthy families in big cities to humble country taverns and shops.

Although it would be nice to be able to say that its great success was the result of a unique terroir, in fact Madeira wine evolved into a highly manipulated manufactured product, blended, fortified, heated, agitated and tailored to the preferences of specific consumer markets. It was, in short, everything that wine snobs today hate and fear about wine, but it was treasured and enjoyed by the societies that created it. Give up romantic notions of wine's pure and glorious past all who enter here!

Atlantic Commodity Chains

The wine trade evolved, in Hancock's deft telling of the story, through complex formal and informal networks where information was successfully exchanged via "conversations" between buyer and seller and between and among network members at each stage of the complex production and distribution process.

If you think that the interactive, diffused global commodity chain of today is a new thing, you need to read this account of how the Madeira trade worked 300 years ago!

Hancock is not content to simply paint a landscape of Madeira trade. He uses each link in the commodity chain (from Madeira viticulture all the way to American country tavern) as an opportunity to drill down into detailed (and generously illustrated) essays on the economic and social institutions of the time. The result is a work of remarkable scope and depth — a noteworthy accomplishment.

Seriously Interesting

This is a great book of economic and social history told through the wine trade. It is a serious book of history that offers many lessons. Like Madeira itself, it will give much pleasure to many audiences, including historians, wine drinkers and economists. Bravo!

Note: Thanks for Francine Graf, my editor at CHOICE magazine, for suggesting this book.




Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Cal-wines in the old days

Here is a delightful characterization of winemaking in early 20th century California. A friend found it in a 1914 article, "Utilization of Grapes for Non-intoxicating wines: The Processes employed" which appeared in Outwest magazine.

"The ways of the wine men, like the ways of the Chinese, are "peculiar." They make "pure California grape wine" out of decayed grape peelings, potato alcohol, dye stuff, sulphur, tartaric acid, saccharine matter, and other chemicals. They call this junk manipulation an "industry" and when their secrets leak out, they serenely deny everything with the abandon of a chicken thief when the feathers are sticking out of his pockets."

This is my translation into German:

"Die Wege der Winzer sind, wie die der Chinesen wundersam. Sie machen "reinen kalifornischen Trauben-Wein" aus vergammelten Traubenschalen, Kartoffelalkohol, Farbstoff, Schwefel, Weinsäure, Saccharin und anderen Chemikalien. Sie nennen die Herstellung dieses Mists ein "Gewerbe" und wenn ihre Geheimnisse ans Licht kommen, denn leugnen sie ungerührt alles mit der Unverfrorenheit eines Hühnerdiebs ab, bei dem die Federn aus den Taschen herausgucken."