Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Wine consumption then and now

by Kathryn Hadley

Motoko Hori’s study The Price and Quality of Wine and Conspicuous Consumption in England 1646-1759, published in the December issue of The English Historical Review, provides a fresh insight into the consumption of wine in England in the later 17th and early 18th centuries. There were set patterns of wine consumption and consumption increased despite rising prices. The rise in consumption was primarily caused by a general rise of wealth in England. His study is particularly timely in the light of the Christmas festivities and the current financial crisis.

Hori’s research is based on a treatise written in 1723 by John Oxenford, clerk to the inspector general of imports and exports, about the balance of trade in England between the Christmas of 1698 and 1719. Oxenford notably observed that:
‘near as much wine [is] drank now as formerly at double the price to the consumer by reason of the high duties’.

According to Oxenford this rise in the consumption of luxury goods (despite higher prices) could be explained by a general increase in wealth amongst the English population. Hori’s study aims to assess the extent to which wine consumption was sensitive to prices and incomes and thus how far Oxenford’s explanation carries conviction.

Detailed and systematic studies of prices and price movements for the period are relatively few. Hori attempts to expand upon existing studies by examining account books kept by gentry, London merchants and members of professions which cover the period from 1646 to 1759. He compares these account books with the account book of Latham, a yeoman, in an attempt to uncover evidence for the purchase of wine in England from 1646 to 1759.

The figures reveal three general trends. The duties on wine, first of all, increased over the period: between 1600 and 1714 customs duties multiplied threefold. The volume of wine that was also imported increased over the period; nevertheless, prices also continued to rise. This thus suggests that rising prices were a result of increased demands for wine. Lastly, rising prices of wine in the second half of the 17th-century did not lead to a decrease in consumption. It thus appears that there were relatively set patterns of wine consumption, which were independent of price variations and fashion trends.

According to Hori, wine consumption was undoubtedly affected by cultural factors. Wine consumption was fashionable and, as an expensive imported good, was a sign of social status. Consumption by the new rich, especially in London, was particularly visible and was consequently given particular prominence in contemporary accounts. The author argues that what mattered the most was, nevertheless, landowners’ consumption and expenditure on wine because they remained the wealthiest population group in England.

Wine consumption amongst the landowning group responded to set patterns of consumption. Hori thus reaches the same conclusion as Oxenford: increased consumption of increasingly expensive wine was the sign of a general increase in wealth in England.

In the context of the current economic difficulties and festive season, it is interesting to consider the extent to which the reverse is true. Does wine consumption today, in particular over the festive season, follow similarly set patterns? Will wine consumption, this Christmas, fall as a result of the current economic difficulties?

Motoko Hori is a Professor of economic history at Reitaku University situated in the outskirts of Tokyo.

For more information about the history of wine consumption, read our article
Wine & Adulteration

For more information about the consumption of whiskey over the Christmas period, read our article
Scotch Comfort and Joy

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