Wine bottles and wine snobs

It's the new year, I'm taking a little break from imbibing spirituous liquors, and so have been reading a lot about wine (instead of just guzzling it.) One of the things that I admire about wine snobbery is its claim to make time and place sensible to the palate: the terroir of the grape and its vintage. Reading up on the history of wine, I came across a nice example of how the emergence of wine connoisseurship depended on the most humble of technologies: the cylindrical glass bottle. 

(I'm basing all the below (mostly) on tidbits gleaned from the all-you-can-eat buffet of interesting facts that is the Oxford Companion to Wine (highly, highly recommended) under the entries: "bottles" and "aging.")

So -- the ancient Greeks and especially the Romans enjoyed old vintages, but for the thousand years after Rome fell, people in Europe mostly stopped drinking aged wines. This wasn't just because they lived in the dark ages and didn't know any better. Vineyard production had largely shifted to Northern Europe, and the kinds of wines that were customarily made there had to be drunk fresh, or else they got sour. So how was the European wine snob reborn in modernity?

Enter... the cylindrical glass bottle.

The thing contained is always somehow shaped by its container. What changed in the 18th century was: glass. Although glass existed in the ancient world (think of the Egyptian pulled glass bottle in the shape of a fish), the spread of new glass-making technology in the 17th century made it possible to produce glassware in commercial quantities. But before the 1730s, wine bottles were not the familiar cylinders that we hoist around today; instead they varied from bottle to bottle, and were usually squat or onion-shaped or bulbous. The Oxford Companion speculates that these were buried in beds of sand for storage. Then in the 1730s, this happened:  

"While it was known that some vintages of wine were better than others even in prehistory, their keeping and consequent maturing qualities were not realized until the introduction of binning, the storing of wine in bottles laid on their sides.... All this was achieved by the abandoning of onion-, bladder-, and mallet-shaped bottles in favour of cylindrical ones which stack easily."

Cylindrical bottles meant stackable bottles, stored in wooden bins in the cool dark subterranean cellars of urban wine merchants. This standardization of the container allowed for the biochemical processes of maturation to occur in the bottle, revealing a world of nuance and difference in the thing contained. Wine merchants didn't set out to find a way to bottle-age wine. It just happened. Maybe it happened in the hold of ships as wine was transported from one place to another (as was the case with vinho da roda, a kind of Madeira that had made a cross-Atlantic round trip through the tropics). But once it happened, bottle-aging become part of the process of production and consumption for many kinds of wine.

One of one of the best things about doing history is how it shakes your faith in straightforward causality. The closer you look, the less history seems like "one damn thing after another," the more it seems like big messy clots of phenomena getting pulled into relationships -- and then suddenly everything has changed. So, if I were to claim "cylindrical bottles made wine snobbery possible" it would not only be an oversimplification; it would violate (I think) the spirit of good history. Because it wasn't just cylindrical bottles that made modern connoisseurship possible, but the whole social and technical system in which they were enlisted and put to use: the wine merchants who needed a convenient storage solution for their increasingly crowded urban cellars, merchants who also kept systematic records, which allowed them to evaluate wines and value them differently -- and to discover that they could create value (and profit) with time. And none of that could have happened without customers -- the growth of a consumer economy and the emergence of a market for wine where people were willing to pay more for vintages and varietals that they perceived to be better or more prestigious. Which in turn depended on people who believed that money spent tastefully was money well spent. And there we have it: the bottle in the cellar is all tangled up in the story of the history of capitalism. 

Turning back to the Oxford Companion:

"Demand for mature wines transformed the wine trade. Aside from a few wealthy owners, most vine-growers could not afford to keep stocks of past vintages. Only merchants could do that, and their economic power and hold over the producers increased during the 18th and 19th centuries. This was most demonstrably the case in Bordeaux, Beaune, and Oporto, where merchants amassed huge stocks, vast fortunes, and powerful reputations."

A change in the shape of wine bottles -- and the new appetites that it makes possible -- is a crucial element in reshaping the agricultural and economic landscape of Europe, the set of social relations between merchants and producers. And out of this welter, the wine snob, fastidiously training his (or her) senses to discern the distinctions between vintages, to name those differences, to place a new kind of value on time, to enrich (if not prolong) the fleeting sensation of flavor.