The Points Interview: James Simpson

Editor’s Note:  The Points Interview feature rolls on, as we awaken from our slumber to present the twenty-third outstanding book in the series.  Today’s post features James Simpson, author of Creating Wine: The Emergence of a World Industry, 1840-1914 (Princeton University Press, 2011).  Simpson is professor of economic history and institutions at the Carlos III University of Madrid, and is the author of Spanish Agriculture: The Long Siesta, 1765-1965 (Cambridge 2003).  Here is the Princeton description of Creating Wine:

Today’s wine industry is characterized by regional differences not only in the wines themselves but also in the business models by which these wines are produced, marketed, and distributed. In Old World countries such as France, Spain, and Italy, small family vineyards and cooperative wineries abound. In New World regions like the United States and Australia, the industry is dominated by a handful of very large producers. This is the first book to trace the economic and historical forces that gave rise to very distinctive regional approaches to creating wine.

James Simpson shows how the wine industry was transformed in the decades leading up to the First World War. Population growth, rising wages, and the railways all contributed to soaring European consumption even as many vineyards were decimated by the vine disease phylloxera. At the same time, new technologies led to a major shift in production away from Europe’s traditional winemaking regions. Small family producers in Europe developed institutions such as regional appellations and cooperatives to protect their commercial interests as large integrated companies built new markets in America and elsewhere. Simpson examines how Old and New World producers employed diverging strategies to adapt to the changing global wine industry.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

There are wines for every occasion and pocket, and how these get from the producer to the drinker can vary significantly. Some wines that we buy carry the brand of a grower Creating Wine cover(Château Margaux), or sold under a collective one (Chianti); or perhaps a private brand belonging to the importer (Harvey’s); or that of the retailer (Victoria Wine Company and, more recently, a leading supermarket). In Europe, traditionally hundreds of thousands of grape producers have made their own wines, but in the New World the industry has been dominated by a few large, capital intensive wineries, which purchase grapes from specialist growers. This book shows, amongst other things, why these differences occur, and how this diversity was already established at the beginning of the twentieth century.


What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

The book looks at the problems of growing grapes and making wines under very different geographical conditions, and selling it to consumers who might perhaps be in the same village, or thousands of miles away. It also considers the problems of adulteration and fraud, and how the industry responded. In particular it considers when the interests of different groups within the industry (growers, wine-makers, merchants, consumers) coincided, and when they differed, and how some found it easier to influence governments, leading to the early appearance of appellations in France and Portugal, but not in Spain; or the appearance of a wine monopoly in California, but its absence in Argentina or Australia.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

The book has been great fun to write. Most vineyards are found in areas of great natural beauty, and I have a lot of wonderful memories, including a sunset in the Yarra Valley; taking the back road from Davis to Napa with Jim Lapsley; Mendoza’s vineyards, with the backdrop of the Andes; the vineyards of Champagne on a sunny November day; and the heady smell of wine in Jerez’s streets.

Despite the huge interest in wine, there are virtually no general histories. I quickly discovered why when I started writing this book! The history and organizational structure of wine production in places such as Champagne, Jerez, La Mancha or Mendoza are very different. The book is not an attempt to write a balanced history of each major wine producing area, but rather to understand the industrial organization, and how economic power shifted backwards and forwards along the commodity chain over time. In particular I found fascinating the power struggle between Europe’s wine producers and the merchants, and the degree to which wine companies were able to control markets in the United States and Argentina.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone from Creating Wine are you most curious to see turned over soon?

In a sense I feel the book has only just scratched the surface of understanding the changes that took place in this fascinating period. We are well supplied by histories of the scientific struggles in the fight against phylloxera, but know very little about the lives of the growers, and how they responded to rapid price changes and disease. Presumably the effects of phylloxera were devastating. Likewise, we know virtually nothing of how merchants bought and sold their wines.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

If he was still alive, it would have to be John Arlott. His deep interest in wine, and wonderful cricket commentaries, made him unique. Unfortunately, he is no longer with us, and now drinks his Burgundy in another place!  So I guess it would have to be my friend Axel Borg, the excellent wine librarian at UC Davis, who probably would make the book sound more learned than it actually is!