Wine, Drinking, and Identity

AHA Session 231
Business History Conference 4
Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 3 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Uwe Spiekermann, German Historical Institute
Thomas Brennan, U.S. Naval Academy

Session Abstract

This panel will explore the intersections of wine production and consumption with consumer identities. It will range over 150 years and including discussion of wine culture in Italy, wine drinking in America during and after Prohibition, and the impact of race, ethnicity, and religion on American preferences. A session chair familiar with German consumption practices and a commentator with extensive publications on French wine round out this comparative and focused session. Addressing both the 19th and 20th centuries and considering different nations, ethnicities, races, and religions pertaining to wine consumption and identity will appeal to many attending the meeting.

            Emanuela Scarpellini will show how the development of an identifiable Italian wine accompanied the very process of creating an Italian nation. Bettino Ricasoli was the first to produce “Chianti” in the mid-19th century and to build a brand for this product that would be able to compete with French wines. His was an operation driven by both business and patriotic motives, given the political commitment of this baron from Florence whose aim was to extend Italy's own strong identity to the field of food and wine culture as well as to create a modern nation. Scarpellini examines the Ricasoli wine estate’s creation of Chianti, and its subsequent evolution. Correspondingly, she also traces change among wine consumers, where gender is no longer the main distinguishing trait as it was in the 19th century and values linked to Italy's identity instead prevail.

            Lisa Jacobson examines how the wine industry, restaurateurs, and hospitality trades struggled to build a mass market for wine during the first two decades after the end of Prohibition.  Overpriced wine, poor quality, persistent black markets, and the greater allure of cocktails all contributed to disappointing demand.  Cultural blinders further limited the industry’s ability to discern consumer desires.  In seeking a broad consumer base, the industry embraced a cosmopolitanism that valorized Western European wine customs but disregarded working class and ethnic traditions.  When highbrow wine promotions backfired, some restaurateurs set their sights not on the upper crust who ordered Chateaubriand but on the average customers who prefered middlebrow American food.  Vintners and restaurateurs eventually struck a more populist tone but made limited progress in their “civilizing” mission. 

            Roger Horowitz explores kosher wine’s curious appeal to African Americans. In the late 1940s Manischewitz  wine discovered it was popular among African Americans; it then took highly succesful steps to expand this market. This success, however, weakened its appeal to Jewish consumers. After 1960, Jews increasingly viewed Manischewitz as a poor person’s drink unfit for those with a taste for good wine. At the same time, Manischewitz was no longer kosher enough for the resurgent Orthodox population. The paper will close by suggesting the Manischewitz story is absent from the emerging narrative on the success of kosher food in the last 20 years because most of its non-Jewish consumers were the wrong color; kosher food’s current proponents want their market to be white and upscale, not for the poor and people of color.

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