Och aye, the noo: wine and the Scots; who knew?

When we think of alcohol and the Scots we usually think of whiskey. But Scots were active in the British wine trade. Rich traders and Scottish Enlightenment intellectuals alike favoured grape over grain. And Scots exerted a largely forgotten influence on wine growing in colonial Australia.

So, as Scotland squares its shoulders for a September referendum on independence from the United Kingdom of Great Britain, let’s reflect on Scots and wine.

I propose that we begin with the Francophilia of philosopher David Hume in the 1750s and thoughts on wine by his dear friend Adam Smith, the ‘father of economics’. Then we’ll catch the currents of late eighteenth century British-American trade networks before pausing to explore the politics of consumption in Georgian Britain. From there we’ll accelerate around the world to colonial New South Wales, travelling part of the way on board ship with colonial Australian Scot John Dunmore Lang to land in the Hunter Valley vineyards of Lang’s brother Andrew and his fellow Scottish neighbour, James King in the 1850s…

Leading thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume and Adam Smith

Leading thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume and Adam Smith

Ideas of wine and economics feature strongly in the work of both Hume and Smith.  (As they wrote before the rise of the temperance movements of the nineteenth century, drinking wine did not have the same stigma attached to alcohol and social harm such as violence, as it does today.) Hume, for one, decried the British trade treaty with the Portuguese that made it port wines cheaper than French claret. There are few Englishmen, he wrote (see page 28), who would not think their country absolutely ruined, were French wines sold in England so cheap and in such abundance as to supplant in some measure all ale and home brewed liquors…[and yet] we transferred the commerce of wine to Spain and Portugal,where we buy worse liquor at a higher price.  Smith, for his part, hinged his argument for free trade partly on the benefits of removing high tariffs from French wines entering Britain, despite long rivalries between the nations.

I remember being intrigued when I first encountered Adam Smith’s assertion about wine and sobriety in An Inquiry into the Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776)If we consult experience, he said,  the cheapness of wine seems to be a cause, not of drunkenness, but of sobriety. The inhabitants of the wine countries are in general the soberest people in Europe: witness the Spaniards, the Italians, and the inhabitants of the southern provinces of France. People are seldom guilty of excess in what is their [cheap] daily fare. Not only did wine countries have less habitual drunkenness but if drunken types moved into wine countries, where light alcohol common wines were cheap, they were transformed into more sober folk. What an argument! From this side of the temperance centuries that began in the early 1800s, this seems preposterous. But there is more. Smith continued: When a French regiment comes from some of the northern provinces of France where wine is somewhat dear, to be quartered in the southern, where it is very cheap, the soldiers, I have frequently heard it observed, are at first debauched by the cheapness and novelty of good wine; but after a few months residence, the greater part of them become as sober as the rest of the inhabitants.  Smith claimed drunkenness resulted not from being able to afford liquor, otherwise the rich would be the most inebrious; it was that light alcohol should be what working people could more readily purchase so they were not so inclined to be intoxicated. For commoners, the cheaper the wine, the more sober the people.  Ergo, remove tariffs on French wine!


A petite dram glass from the mid eighteenth century

A petite dram glass from the mid eighteenth century

As I’ve written elsewhere, Smith’s wine and sobriety argument came to be invoked volubly by wine growers in colonial New South Wales to gain legislative support for their industry. But, in the decades before the British colonised New South Wales, Hume and Smith’s interest in wine was part of a much larger Georgian culture.  Historians David Hancock and Charles Ludington have given attention to the deep influence of wine trade and wine drinking at the centre of Georgian British politics. Ludington in particular discusses how wine became a complex symbol of power for Scottish as well as English MPs.  Knowledge of French wine translated into a cultural capital that could be traded for greater influence in the halls of power.

So it comes as little surprise that colonial Australian Scots saw the value in producing wine and invested in the future of wine growing. A high profile colonist, John Dunmore Lang, acted as an immigration agent for a range of enterprises, including colonial vineyards.  Indeed, he claimed that he tried to import qualified German vineyard workers (vinedressers) for his brother Andrew Lang’s Hunter Valley property in 1835.  According to J. D. Lang, his brother asked him to recruit vinedressers while he was signing up missionaries Andrew specified German or French labourers for his vineyard and promised to provide them with their own gardens and livestock. Unfortunately, despite J.D. Lang’s initial success in identifying willing migrants the Dutch Government halted the project. The Germans could not pass through Holland without a guarantee from the British Government that they would not be turned back to Holland, poverty stricken and stranded…  The alternative plan was to recruit Germans who were based temporarily in France until they could emigrate to America but who had run out of money and were living as refugees. Lang finally succeeded in persuading two hundred and fifty Germans – vinedressers and their families – to follow him to New South Wales and he hired a French ship to transport them. But, when the shipload of workers arrived at Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian Government – keen to keep them – bribed the ship’s captain to release them to that country, and they went on to form a settlement in the south of Brazil (See pp. 139-140 for the extended version of this story). J. D. Lang reported this story, saying he was outraged but powerless. He may have even sought the release of the Germans in Rio himself since the British Government did not formally approve of non-British workers migrating to New South Wales until 1836. Andrew Lang, meanwhile, later employed German vinedressers through an assisted migration scheme and became a member of the first generation of Hunter Valley wine producers.

Which brings us to the last of the Scots in our tour of wine and Scots: James King. Most certainly one of my favourite characters from the colonial Hunter Valley.  Lang may have tussled with a ship’s captain over a team of poached vinedressers but King had the gall to buy back a case of his best wine from a customer. And in a fit of fury – over the actions of another member of the colonial elite – he sent this wine to Buckingham Palace. From where (as I explain in my book First Vintage) – despite the bad blood with which it was dispatched – it received a fairly encouraging response. Quite a feat for colonial wine!

As a coda to the recent royal visit to Australia; and in anticipation of the upcoming Scottish Referendum – settle back with your favourite cabernet sauvignon blend (in a petite dram if you have one) and read King’s short treatise Australia May be An Extensive Wine Growing Country (1857)*.

If this fiery Scot were with us now, how do you think he might have voted come this September?

(* If the hyperlink pops up with an error message go to: http://digital.slv.vic.gov.au/ and search for the document by title)







About @DrJulieMcIntyre

Historian of nature/culture through studies of wine production, trade and consumption. Also trans-imperialism, migration, mobilities and business. Budding connoisseur of Semillon and Riesling.
This entry was posted in colonial history, wine and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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