The World of Fine Wine
Wine and the Market
Part 1: Classical Antiquity
In the first of a new series exploring the marketing of fine wine, Rod Phillips identifies the first separation of discernment from nourishment.
“Marketing” is one of those widely used terms that has many different meanings. For some people, it means little more than advertising or promotion, and marketing departments in wineries are seen as doing little more than devising what they hope are the most effective strategies for selling their wine. A more expansive and comprehensive definition, though, would include not only promotion, but also activities such as product development, pricing, and distribution.
Anyone familiar with the modern wine industry will have a good idea of how these processes work in the 21st century. Some wineries use focus groups to develop wine styles and packaging; others rely on winemakers to create and hone styles for specific groups of consumers; and there are also those that clearly just hope for the best.
Some producers advertise their wines vigorously by means such as special promotions and sponsorship of sports and cultural events. Many producers devote time and money to developing brands and designing labels that they hope will distinguish their Chardonnay from the rest. Yet others, such as producers of small-volume, high-quality wines, rely on the reputations they have established and on wine writers to remind consumers of them on a regular basis.
But how was wine marketed in the past? Did the wine producers of Ancient Greece simply produce wine as farmers did any agricultural product—expecting (and hoping) that, as staples of the contemporary diet, their produce would easily find buyers? How did the producers of Bordeaux in the 13th century decide which wine to ship to England and which to the Baltic area? Who decided which wine was good enough for a royal court and which should be sold to the masses? Were 18th-century Port producers aware of shifting tastes among wine consumers, and did they change the style of their product to suit, as Champagne houses did in the 19th century?
In a series of articles, of which this is the first, we will survey the ways in which wine, and particularly fine wine, has been marketed in the past. We will touch on the various facets of marketing—from decisions regarding style and volume, to the issues of promotion and popularity. We will ask questions such as how markets were developed and how and why some wines established reputations for quality so that, even though long-distance shipping might raise their prices considerably, they found receptive buyers.
Marketing can, of course, only be understood in terms of the market—the complex set of relationships that link producer and consumer. Thanks to the relentless surveying and statistics gathering of modern states and private enterprises, we are aware of many of the characteristics of the current wine market. We know that it varies by country (France consumes more wine, on a per capita basis, than Canada) and regionally (Quebec has higher per capita consumption than Ontario). We know that, in many countries, wine consumption is related to specific demographic groups, defined by age, gender, income, and educational level. Modern wine marketers, whether they are concerned with creating a style with mass appeal or a label to attract women consumers, take these variables into consideration.
Historical wine markets are somewhat more difficult to define, and we often fall back on generalizations. In many ancient societies, such as Egypt, wine was the almost exclusive beverage of the wealthy and powerful secular and religious elites. This was partly a result of the small volumes of wine produced, but it was also because wine was a social marker—a commodity with religious and other associations that served to distinguish those who had access to it from those who did not.
For many historians of wine, it has become an axiom that, throughout the ancient world, wine consumption was largely confined to adult males from the wealthier strata of society. There is plenty of contemporary advice that young people should not drink wine, like Plato’s stricture that boys should not drink wine at all until they were 18 years old, and that until they reached 30, men should drink wine only in moderation.
Girls and women, on the other hand, were advised not to drink wine at all, largely for fear that inebriated women were given to immorality. For a married woman to be found drinking wine was grounds for divorce in Rome, and the story is often told of the Roman man who killed his wife because she was found in possession of the keys to the wine room.
Some of these notions about the extent of wine consumption need to be reassessed. Wine and beer were consumed as part of the daily diet for thousands of years because, in the face of widespread contamination of water supplies, they were safer than drinking water. Workers, soldiers, and slaves were provided with wine of sorts—thin and low in alcohol, but wine, nevertheless. Euripides had written that Dionysus had given wine to “rich and poor alike.”
It is important not to confuse prescription and description—to think that what was advised was actually observed. It seems unlikely that women and children of the upper classes should have been systematically exposed to the hazards associated with non-alcoholic beverages.
This issue brings to light what we might think of as the segmentation of the ancient wine market. Clearly there were markets for wines of different quality and price, and what we would think of as the fine wine of the period (always bearing in mind that these notions of quality are historically relative) had a more limited market than wines made for everyday drinking by the masses.
There were undoubtedly distinctions in the appreciation of wine—not simply in levels of appreciation but the very fact of appreciation. The bulk of wine consumers in the ancient world, like those in the millennia that followed, drank wine (and beer) as part of their daily diet. Quantity—simply having enough each day for hydration—was the important thing, rather than quality; indeed, no more attention was paid to its quality than to the quality of the cereal that made up most of the rest of their nutrition.
Among the elites, however, there appears to have been some concern for quality. The host at a Greek symposium—the wine-centered gathering of well-off males that featured cultural and sexual activities—undoubtedly wished to please his guests with fine wine. It was the host who decided on the degree of dilution when the wine was mixed with water in the krater, and it is logical to think that a man who laid on music and entertainment would not pinch drachmas on wine.
Flavor and color
Yet the character of fine wine in ancient cultures must remain fairly elusive. Contemporary Greek writers described methods of winemaking, many of which seem designed to produce dark-colored, high-alcohol, and sweet wines that had good keeping potential. For example, they prescribed harvesting grapes late and drying them on mats before pressing them, which would have increased sugar (and alcohol). They recommended keeping the must in constant contact with skins during fermentation, which would have provided deeper color.
There was a reason for attempting to produce wine that was full of flavor and color: Greeks and Romans diluted their wine and regarded anyone who did not as a barbarian. Greeks preferred a wine-water beverage that was between 30 and 40 percent wine, while Romans seem to have preferred about one third wine to two thirds water. To whatever extent it was diluted, it was important to start with wine that had substantial flavor and color.
Additionally, and no matter what their intrinsic quality and character, all wines were mixed with herbs, spices, and other additives. The water used for dilution was generally saltwater, which would have added some briny tanginess to the texture. Honey and lead added sweetness. All manner of spices were blended in to provide intensity and complexity of flavor.
Yet despite the fact that these additives might have made thin, insipid wines more palatable, they were also blended into the premium wines of the time. Few consumers seem to have heeded Pliny’s comment that the best wine is one that gives pleasure “by its natural quality,” which seems to mean “without additives.” We might shrink at the idea of adding sugar, brandy, and spices to a fine wine to make mulled wine, but not so the Ancient Greeks and Romans.
Some of the ancient world’s most highly reputed wines were manufactured in this way. The island of Thasos produced a distinctive red-black-colored wine made by drying grapes in the sun, plunging them into a mixture of boiled grape juice and saltwater, then pressing them, fermenting the juice, and finally adding a little boiled must. This rich, tangy wine (said to taste of apples) was highly prized—and not only for sensory reasons. It was said to be a cure for insomnia (perhaps a function of the alcohol level), a successful abortifacient, and, when mixed with vinegar, very good for the eyes.
It is important to remember that wine was frequently judged on its medicinal properties and that health benefits were probably integral to the overall evaluation of wines as premium or fine.
There is no single list of fine wines, but various contemporary authors alluded to wines that had gained a reputation for quality. In the 1st century ad, Pliny the Elder provided Romans with a veritable catalog of wines from their empire. It included 91 varieties of wine, 50 kinds of quality wine, and 38 foreign wines, as well as salted, sweet, and artificial wines.
The most famous Roman wine—the Pétrus of its time—came from the slopes of Mount Falernum, near the coast north of Naples. It was made from the Aminean grape, a quality variety said to have been brought from Greece by colonists who settled near the Bay of Naples. Falernian was served in Rome at the imperial court and was traded as far afield as Arabia and India. Other wines from the Italian peninsula that attracted the attention of Roman writers came from Amyclae (which may now be Sperlonga)and Alba.
For the Greeks, the islands of Chios, Lesbos, and Thasos seem to have been the appellations that excited most interest among well-off consumers. Other islands, such as Kos and Rhodes, were reputed to produce more mundane wines for everyday drinking and even wines poor enough to be used for military rations.
One of the strengths of these premium wines was that they aged successfully. In his Satyricon (which dates from the 1st century ad), Petronius writes of a banquet where wine was served from vessels labeled “Falernian. Consul Opimius. One hundred years old.” Even allowing for literary license, the story does seem to suggest a preference for aged wines, and we can understand that this was certainly a way in which a few wines (and their consumers) were clearly distinguished from the masses. The Roman physician Galen writes of tasting Falernian wines more than 20 years old that were still sweet and showed no signs of bitterness.
Despite the production of quality wines in Italy, there was still a niche market for imports—a niche market because, of course, the price of imported wines was inflated by shipping costs. In the 1st century bc, well-off Romans sought out some Greek wines, notably from Smyrna (in northeastern Turkey) and regions of the eastern coastline of the Aegean Sea.
Most of the wine produced in the ancient world was probably low in alcohol and other natural preservatives, and it probably went off within a year of vintage. This was the same centuries later, in the medieval period, and there is no reason to think that the Greeks and Romans had developed the means to make long-cellaring wines and that the knowledge had been lost.
As for grape varieties, some generically known as Apianis were popular, but a highly prized variety called Aminean produced long-lasting wines that were sweet and high in alcohol—in other words, wines that had the qualities that were most desired at the time. Aminean wine seems to have sold at prices that were roughly four times those of ordinary wines.
There is a sense of the ranking of wine in the famous wine list in one of Pompeii’s taverns, where prices varied for wines of different qualities. The least expensive wine was priced at one ass for a sextarius (about half a liter), while the most expensive, a Falernian, cost four asses. (As a point of comparison, a loaf of bread cost two asses.)
With olive oil and grain, wine became one of the main commodities traded in the Mediterranean. As early as 2500 bc, commercial links between Egypt and Crete began to include wine. Grapes were then cultivated on Crete: A wine press found at Palaikastro dates from the period 1100–1600 bc, as do references to wine in records of agricultural products controlled by the royal palaces on the island.
From Crete, viticulture spread to the other islands of the Aegean and to the mainland. Markets were clearly critical for the location of vineyards. Initially they were concentrated close to main centers of population, such as Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Argos, which were major markets for wine. By the 5th or 6th centuries bc, however, increasing demand necessitated the establishment of wineries farther afield, many on the more distant islands, such as Thasos, Lesbos, and Chios. In all cases, the vineyards seem to have been planted near water, close to transportation.
By the 3rd century bc, a real wine industry had been established in Greece. It reflected the facts that the Greeks had entrenched wine consumption in their culture and diet to an extent not realized by any earlier society, and that they had begun to export it to many areas of the Mediterranean world. Wine had been traded for millennia, but the Greeks took it to new levels, shipping considerable volumes to various parts of France, Egypt, the Black Sea region, and along the Danube. Coastal and river shipping proved to be the preferred transportation methods because they were less expensive than moving heavy wine-filled amphorae overland.
The scale of Greece’s wine trade was astonishing, its extent demonstrated by the remains of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of pottery amphorae throughout Europe and in its coastal seabeds. Amphorae were used to transport products other than wine, of course, but assuming that perhaps half of those recovered or known about did contain wine, they give us an idea of the scale of Greece’s wine exports.
Tens of thousands of amphorae lie on the seabed off the Mediterranean coast of France, where the ships carrying them sank in storms or as a result of striking rocks. One sunken ship excavated by marine archeologists carried 10,000 amphorae, and if only half contained wine, the cargo would have been as much as 150,000 liters of wine (or 200,000 standard bottles). It is thought that there are hundreds of thousands of amphorae in the bed of the River Saône alone, representing at least 5 million liters of wine.
As absolute figures, these are impressive, but we do not have records of the actual volumes exported and what they might have meant on a per capita basis for the importing populations. Nor do we have a clear sense of the place of wine in the diet in importing areas like southwest France and the Danube region at this time. There was clearly a consumer market that justified a considerable trade, but it is not clear how much impact wine had on the predominantly beer-drinking populations of southwestern Europe.
Consumption and transportation
Rome provides us with a slightly clearer picture of wine consumption. The city itself soaked up vast volumes— some estimates suggest that enough wine was shipped to supply every inhabitant with a pint a day. At first, Rome imported wine from Greece and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean to supplement local production. Over time, wine production on the Italian peninsula outstripped demand, and Rome joined the wine-export trade, particularly in the western Mediterranean.
Roman wine was shipped to the western provinces, where it was sold and traded. Little is known about the quality of the wine, but the sheer extent of the commerce meant that the great bulk of the wine had to be of the everyday drinking sort.
But supposing a resident of Gaul—or anywhere else, for that matter—purchased what was offered as fine wine. What guarantees were there that the wine he (it was probably a male) was buying was premium, that it came from the Greek island or the region of Italy it was purported to? We should assume that, then as now, there were unscrupulous producers and merchants at all stages of the marketing chain, willing to profit from the misrepresentation of their goods. The quality of the wine is the best test of authenticity, of course, but we know that it is not difficult to fool consumers who wish to believe that they have bought the best.
Amphorae were used to transport wine through to the 1st century ad (when they were replaced by wooden barrels), and they were often good indicators of the provenance of wine. Amphorae were made one by one, so that each was unique in size and detail, but each region made its amphorae in a characteristic style. Amphorae varied in the shape of the rim and toe and in the arc of the handles. In addition, some were imprinted with distinctive stamps: Wine amphorae from Mende showed Dionysus on a donkey, while many from Rhodes featured the sun god Helios.
Although historians can now trace the broad outlines of wine marketing in the ancient world— the development of an appealing style, and the general contours of demand—little is known about some aspects. The specifics of importing and warehousing are still hazy, as is detailed information on retailing. If that is so for wine in general, it is even more so for fine wine, which is often difficult to define and to identify. What is clear is that some regions and wines were identified as being of superior quality, that quality was defined by style and longevity, and that these wines found a market.
The details of the marketing process in the ancient Mediterranean world are frustratingly unclear in many respects. It did, however, establish the basis for the complex marketing system that emerged in the Middle Ages, whose operations are much better understood.
This article originally appeared in Issue 23, 2009 of The World of Fine Wine magazine, a quarterly magazine devoted to wine and all thing vinous.
It boasts an authoritative cast of writers—including Huon Hooke, Andrew Caillard MW, James Halliday, David Schildknecht, Jancis Robinson MW, and Oz Clarke—contributing some of the most original writing published today, under the editorial baton of Andrew Jefford, and the said Mr Johnson. Find out more at the magazine website : www.finewinemag.com
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