Jennifer Regan-Lefebvre, Imperial Wine: How the British Empire Made Wine’s New World. University of California Press, 2022.
Imperial Wine is a serious academic study of how imperial economic, political, and social relations between Great Britain and three of its colonies — South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand — shaped their wine industries and New World wine more generally from the time of the first plantings through to today.
This is an argument that I am glad to see examined in depth. In my books Wine Wars and the forthcoming Wine Wars II I nominate Great Britain as the center of the wine universe, so powerful, I think, is its influence on wine and the wine trade.
Australia and New Zealand were British colonies that developed wine industries that were shaped to a great extent by the ebb and flow of trade with the United Kingdom. Although South Africa and its wine industry have roots in Dutch colonial trade, the decades under British rule had powerful effects.
It is a fascinating study, but I admit that I struggled at times because I really wanted this to be a book about wine first and foremost and the author is really focused on imperialism, with wine used as a lens. I think that authors earn the right to define their works, so I cannot really complain. This is a story that can be told several ways.
Most people will be surprised at the poor reputation of Australian wines in the UK market in the early post WWII period, for example, given how popular they are today. There are many ways to demonstrate this, but the author highlights a lame Monty Python joke that compares and aroma of Aussie wine to the smell of an Aborigine’s armpit, which invites a discussion of imperial racist attitudes in the post-colonial era.
“Some wine lovers might protest that colonialism is a distant historical footnote to the history of wine, and that dredging up colonial history is a buzzkill, a weary intrusion on our enjoyment of wine,” the author writes in the concluding chapter, suggesting that she’s run into people like me before. “Can’t we just enjoy a glass of wine without someone introducing controversy? Is colonial history designed to make wine lovers feel guilty?” Imperial Wine, the author argues, makes the case that ignoring the history of wine distorts our understanding of both it and the complicated processes that have shaped it.
Fair point. Understanding the forces that conditioned what is in your wine glass, how it is made, and who it is made for deepens the wine experience, don’t you think? And that includes the forces of empire and the long shadow that they cast.
The author’s deep dives into historical documents drew me in again and again. During World War II, for example, Old World wine pretty much disappeared from store shelves, replaced for the most part by “colonial wines” from South Africa, Australia, and Algeria (not a British colony, but a colony nonetheless). The author traces changing wartime wine patterns though a study of the detailed records of the King’s College off-license store, called the buttery, which provided wine for fellows and sold it to students. Algerian red wine and South African sherry sold well to penny-pinching students, who would turn their backs on colonial wine after the war in favor of the French wines returned to the market.
Imperial Wine teaches wine enthusiasts about the role of empire in shaping the wine world of the past, present, and probably the future, too. And it teaches students of imperialism that the influence of those forces continues even in something as seemingly simple as a glass of wine.
Interesting. Well-written. Thought-provoking. I learned a lot. Did Imperial Wine change the way I think about wine? Yes, at least a bit. Well worth your consideration.
Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham is one of my favorite books about cultural globalization. Imperialism is a strong force in this account (which includes historical recipes at the end of each chapter). I was reminded of Curry when I noticed that Collingham wrote one of the cover blurbs for Imperial Wine.