What are the big themes in wine today? High rates of duty loom large, as does their impact on prices. There are some concerns for consumption, but no one seems too keen to keep a lid on it (not least among the Fourth Estate).
Discovering the next big thing becomes ever more competitive as the wine world expands too; and we are (rightly) living through a fetish for rare grape varieties. The bravura new Spectator Archive, cataloguing every magazine from 1828 till 2008, tells us little has changed. Wine duty was a hot topic in Victorian times. In March 1860, a correspondent wrote:
“'Of all the articles in the long lists of Customs and Excise, there is not one which has so often, and to such a degree, been experimented upon, as the single item of wine.'
That year William Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer, reduced the duty on foreign wine. 'The duties,' he claimed, 'stood like a wall of brass between the poor man and a glass of wine.' The Victorian Liberal vision of New Labour’s café culture. Eight years earlier, another correspondent wrote the following, albeit it seems to me not with a straight face:
“'Although but slightly discriminating, the present wine-duties, as we have shown before, limit both the quantity consumed and the choice: they have, however, found a defender in a correspondent of the Times, ‘whose position and experience’ as a wine merchant… ‘are unquestionable’. He does not, like Mr Shaw, the able advocate of lowered duties, who is in the same business, append his name to his arguments, but signs himself ‘Ex Vino Pecunia’; and indeed he seems to think cash both the test and the true product of a good grape. We have the advantage, therefore, of the strongest and most orthodox arguments to be advanced on that side.
'Mr E.V. Pecuina…does not altogether oppose alteration of the duties; but in lieu of a change beneficial to the pocket of the consumer, he proposes a reform which shall induce a declaration of permanency in the present high duties, abolition of the drawback as conducive to fraud, and abolition of the difference in favour of Cape wines, the duty on which should be raised. In keeping off cheap wines, Pecunia professes to be defender of the stomach of the Englishman.'
Thick put-downs run deep in Spectator blood. The magazine has always had a taste for the finer things, but knows how to rubbish a snob when it sees one. 'Mr E.V. Pecunia' warded his countrymen off cheaper wines self-interestedly, to safeguard his ‘finer’ plonk.
These days, wine merchants take a different and more honest tack. As a result of high wine duties, which are fixed, your cheap supermarket wines are the worst value wines money can readily buy. This much is blindingly obvious, though we’ve been saying it for decades, as this magazine’s literary editor Geoffrey Wheatcroft did in October 1978:
“'It can, of course, be demonstrated mathematically that the less you pay for a wine the worse value, in a sense, it is. The duty is the same on a bottle of Chateau Margaux as on a bottle of Algerian Undrinkable, about 60p per bottle at the current rate. Thus, for a bottle costing 90p (such as it is possible to find), only a third of your money is spent on wine; two thirds goes to the Government to be spent in some displeasing way. With a £6 bottle there is at least the consolation of knowing that nine-tenths of the outlay is going on the wine. It follows that in England very cheap wine is to be shunned, while in countries with a less wicked taxation rate on wine the cheap wine can be treated as we treat beer.'