( Originally Published 1907 )
IN the " good old days " when stage coach travelling was regarded as a rapid means of transit, and hot-headed gentlemen settled their disputes at so many paces, the wine-merchant's calling was a respected and dignified branch of commerce. Firms of good standing, whose members were frequently men of education and refinement, enjoyed the patron-age of a distinguished clientele, and only sound wine left their cellars for those of their customers. Their establishments, too, presented an aspect of substantiality and repose, which seemed to harmonize naturally with the stocks of rare vintages and venerable wines which were always to be found there, and which were appreciated at-their proper value by consumers whose tastes had not then been vitiated by the adulterated concoctions so liberally supplied by the unscrupulous dealer of the present day.
The old-time wine-merchant, nevertheless, had competition to face, and he could not afford to ignore the expediency of arranging his prices so that they might not, value for value, compare unfavourably with the charges which ruled in other establishments. This he was able to do legitimately, however, and without endangering his jealously-guarded reputationówithout, in short, having to substitute inferior brands for those of accepted repute. The competition, too, was fair: there was no necessity, and little temptation, to institute a policy of "cutting," such as is now so general in the wine trade, as in others, and the time had not yet arrived when the wine-merchant had to contend with the enterprise of outside traders. The eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century grocers stuck to their own trade, and did not attempt to sell wine, and during at least the first half of the late Queen Victoria's reign, other shop-keepers confined their energies strictly to the exploitation of commodities which came legitimately within the scope of their particular trade. "Off licences," too, were unknown in those days, and it would then have been regarded as quite as much a breach of the commercial proprieties for a tea-merchant to submit wines for sale, as it would be considered incongruous or something worse, for the modern hosier or corn chandler to purvey fried fish.
In a word, the old-fashioned wine-merchant of respectability and repute was a personality of some note, and he was, in his way, quite as necessary to the country squire and other people of importance, as the family lawyer or the family doctor. Unfortunately, it is rather otherwise today, although, happily, the old-fashioned merchant, even if we find him in a new-century dress, is not yet wholly extinct. There are still surviving representatives of the old wine-houses with reputations to lose and worthy traditions to maintain, who, in spite of misrepresentation, unfair methods of competition, and unscrupulous trading, decline to depart from those usages of their calling which, in some cases, have been transmitted to them through many generations of honourable trading.
It is, however, a matter beyond question that for many years past the wine trade has passed through severe vicissitudes of fortune. Its domain has been encroached up-on, more or less unwarrantably, from all sides. Retired Army officers and Civil servants have a special predilection for "going into wine," confident that the generosity of obliging friends will lend them their support, and, perhaps, ultimately prevent them going to the wall, which is the goal for which their inexperience and technical incapacity, in nine cases out of ten, best equips them. Shady adventurers, too, most naturally try their luck in a branch of business which is not without its fascinations, and on a commission basis," play havoc with legitimate wine trading. Then storekeepers, provision dealers, and shopkeepers of all sorts and conditions, add " Our Wine Department " to their already promiscuous concerns, and perhaps do more harm to the genuine wine-merchant's interests than any other branch of competition.
To begin with, apart from their all but complete ignorance of the inner side of the wine trade, such dealers are almost of necessity as poor judges of wine as they are greedy of profits. They listen to the blandishments of some unscrupulous commercial traveller, representing an equally unscrupulous principal, and readily buy the cheap, and, of course, correspondingly unwholesome concoctionsórendered none the less so by their gaily attractive labels and capsulesówhich that worthy has to offer. At these establishments wine has become a byword and the "special lines " in "Chateau," Clarets and Burgundies are only as a rule surpassed in nastiness by " our own bottlings " of " Tawny" or "Invalid " Port, which are invariably "strongly recommended," and given an air of respectability by the addition of cobwebs and whitewash to the bottle.
Nevertheless, in spite of the suspicions which one might reasonably suppose the intelligent mind would attach to "wines" which were delivered with the kitchen soap and the servants' cheese, there are numbers of people who ought to know better, who have the hardihood to set such beverages before their unhappy guests, and even take an undisguised pride in the high-sounding, if unmistakably specious, labels which decorate the bottles. Some of us have been brought up to regard certain brands of wine as names to conjure with, but, thanks to the unblushingly impudent manner in which some traders retail the most noxious mixtures under fictitious titles, it is safer in certain houses to abstain from wine altogether, if, at all events, there be any desire to treat one's palate and one's internal economy with the respect which is their due.
The unscrupulous wine-dealer of these new-century times may be, and generally is, many things, but he is seldom an absolute fool. He is fully conscious, poor judge of wine as he may be, that his own vinous wares are, not to put too fine a point upon it, not quite all they should be. And so he permits the world-famous names of a few proprietary brands to appear on his wine-lists, and these are often priced at a figure that commends itself to economically-minded buyers. The latter very naturally argue that if they can obtain a certain brand of Champagne at, say, eighty shillings a dozen, for which they would have to pay a hundred shillings elsewhere, it would be folly, and the height of extravagance,not to purchase at the cheaper rate. If these buyers stopped short at these particular brands, and left the others of more questionable repute severely alone, all might be well for them, if not for the other side; but, as has been suggested, your unscrupulous wine-seller knows his business, and the presence of a few good names on his wine-list is part of the trick. He knows very well that the average man or woman does not want to be troubled with more bills than are necessary, and if the first purchase gives satisfaction the chances are that the next order will, in all likelihood, include one for some "specially recommended" beverage which he bottles at considerable gain to himself. Fortunately, however, discrimination in the selection of wines is still observed by a good many people who do not yield to the blandishments of a gaudy label, and treat the fetish of mere cheapness with the contempt it deserves. Competent judges of wine such as these are proof against the deception and trickery of the most enter-prising of unscrupulous trades-men, and adopt the more dignified course of sending their orders for wine to the proper quarters, knowing that they will then get what they want, and what they pay for, with immense advantage to their friends and themselves in the way of health and enjoyment.
Of recent years a somewhat new departure has been taken by certain traders against which a word of caution is needed. Furniture dealers, drapers, and even mil-liners, have now entered the field of the legitimate wine-trader, and periodically advertise, in language more or less alluring, although not devoid of an element of shoppiness which rather discounts its convincing value in the estimation of the discriminating mind, that they have acquired " parcels " of wine with which they are in a position to part at prices which offer a strong temptation to the ordinary purchaser. They circularise the public at large; booklets and wine-lists are scattered broadcast; and, in short, money is generously spent in making known their special offer. This manoeuvre is, of course, mainly intended to advertise the business of the firm, for the advertiser assumes that the publicity thus secured will bring to his establishment purchasers whose requirements are not necessarily confined to wine.
The sale of these precious "parcels" of frequently worthless wine will of itself probably yield the tradesman a very good profit, but whether it does or not is immaterial. His other wares sell at figures which amply compensate him for any "sacrifice" he may make in the interests of his customers; so if the unfortunate individuals who have acquired a certain number of miscellaneous articles plus the "wine" find the "special vintages" undrinkable, the vendor of the "parcels" does not much mind; the other purchases will probably have given satisfaction, and the simple-minded customer may come again.
The astute tradesman has played up to the ignorance and cupidity of the bargain-hunters, and readily bluffed them into transferring money from their own pockets into his own capacious maw. The "parcels" of wine were the decoy, and were the means of his regular stock "going off" at a convenient moment.
The foregoing are a few of the rather numerous pitfalls into which the confiding and the unwary may find themselves precipitated in the matter of their wine purchases.
Under such circumstances it is hardly a matter for surprise that the consumption of wine, and especially of good wine, is seriously declining. The most recent statistics go to show that Great Britain now stands sixth on the roll of wine-consuming countries. An analysis of these statistics indicates that for every glass of wine John Bull takes, his French neighbour, with whom he is on such good terms, consumes no less than one hundred and twenty-five. In Belgium there is a wine consumption equivalent to four glasses to the Britisher's one, and in Germany it is six to one, beer-drinking not-withstanding. It would be interesting to know how much of this inequity on the part of the British consumption can be traced to the injurious influences already mentioned.
However this may be, it is some slight consolation to know that a ready remedy is at hand. The old and honourable trade of the wine-merchant is still existent, and men of repute, whose wines are as irreproachable as their business methods and personal probity, are to be found in every city, and, be it added, in nearly every town of even modest pretensions as to population and trade. When the shrewd, hard-headed, well-meaning British public come to realise and recognise this truism, and also the significance to pocket and importance to health represented by the ability to procure sound wine from proper and re-liable sources, the unholy reign of the unscrupulous and incompetent outsider, and the unprincipled and mendacious foreigner will alike have ceased. Honest, wholesome wine will then be restored to its former prestige and popularity, and the respectable wine-merchant will once more come into his own, and be able to perpetuate the sterling traditions of his calling.