The three inventions that created the modern wine world

Robert Joseph identifies the three people and their inventions that created the modern world of mine - and none of them had anything to do with winemaking.

Photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash
Photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash

Whenever anyone discusses the history of wine, three men generally go unmentioned: Alois Senefelder, Clarence Saunders and Malcolm McLean. The trio, a German and two Americans, were born in 1771, 1881 and 1913 respectively. None of them, as far as I know, had anything directly to do with vines, wine or winemaking, but their inventions changed the nature of the wine industry.

Until the end of the 19th century, wine labels in the modern sense of the term were almost unknown. Wine was rarely sold in bottles, and if it was, the ‘label’ was usually handwritten and quite likely attached with string rather than with glue. Very few survive.

In 1796, Senenfelder, an actor and playwright, invented lithographic printing as a means of cheaply producing promotional flyers and programmes for his plays. At a stroke, his invention also made it possible to print inexpensive colourful and ornate labels for wine. Over the following century, it was his fellow Germans and the Champenois who most keenly embraced the opportunity, though many did so generically, with labels declaring their contents to be Wachenheimer, Scharzhofberger and even ‘Sillery Mousseux’. 

It did not take long, however, for the Champagne houses of Sillery to add their own names. The Champenois were the first to appreciate the importance of brand recognition, and enthusiastic customers of the artists and lithographic printers who created their attention-grabbing advertising posters. 

It was Clarence Saunders who helped to boost the use of Senefelder’s invention when, in 1916, he opened a shop at 79 Jefferson Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee that he called Piggly Wiggly. It was the first self-service supermarket in the world, and it revolutionised shopping by allowing customers to pick the items they wanted from the 600 or so on the shelves, and to carry them in a basket to a checkout. The idea of the ‘self-servicing store’ was novel enough for Saunders to be able to patent it, as was his method of displaying prices and his creation of what we would now call the till receipt.

Suddenly, the ‘look’ of the product – and of its packaging – took on unprecedented importance. But so, too did its price, as customers were able to compare the cost of the things on offer before making their decision. It was self-service that brought us prices ending in 99 cents or pence.

By 1932, more than 2,600 Piggly Wiggly shops had opened, as well as a large number of other self-service grocers. Five years later, it was the owner of one of these rivals – the Humpty Dumpty chain in Oklahoma (I’m not making these names up, I promise) – who invented the shopping cart or trolley.

Despite their success in North America, supermarkets did not arrive in Europe until the late 1940s and wine did not become a significant feature of them in most countries until three decades later. But the advent of the ‘wine aisle’ changed everything. 

Before, anyone wanting to buy a bottle to drink at home – unless they lived near, or had a relationship with, a producer – had to go to a traditional merchant or shop where advice would be given and accepted, and choices made from printed lists or catalogues. Now the bottles had to fight their own battles.

Among the most obvious beneficiaries of the combination of cheap printing and self service were eye-catching brands like Blue Nun and Mateus Rosé, both of which were launched in the 1940s. These, however, were exceptions to the rule. Most wines from European regions had classic, interchangeable labels that privileged the appellation over the producer or brand. And this, coupled with the producers’ lack of marketing budgets and skills and the tight margins allowed to them by the supermarkets, laid the foundations for high-volume retailer private labels from those same appellations.

By the middle of the 20th century, retailing had begun to resemble what we are now used to, but with one major difference: the products on the shelves were generally locally produced. Shipping was slow and expensive. That changed in 1956 when Malcolm McLean took out a patent for the shipping container. As this innovation – and the ships designed to carry the containers – became commonplace, the cost of transporting large quantities of wine over long distances (or smaller ones that were consolidated), plummeted by as much as 90%. Suddenly, it was as easy and cheap per bottle to ship a thousand cases of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand to London as a pallet of Sancerre from the Loire. The subsequent combination of flexitanks, containers and high-tech bottling plants in markets like the Netherlands, Denmark and the UK merely accelerated the trend of globalisation.

It is no exaggeration to say that without McLean’s containers, wine shelves across the world would look completely different. The arrival of New World reds and whites in Europe not only introduced a generation of consumers and winemakers to the novel notion of varietals rather than villages, it also shook up the business of wine labelling. Some, though far from all, Old World wineries began, in Hollywood terms, to put their names above the title.

No businesses reflect the impact of Senefelder, Saunders and McLean more dramatically today than the German discounters, Aldi and Lidl. Both chains offer their customers the chance to help themselves to brilliantly packaged, attractively priced bottles of quality wine from across the globe. In Aldi’s case, the recent development of a purchasing hub in Salzburg, Austria, means that the same private label Rioja or Australian Shiraz might be on sale in the US, Britain and China.

The long-term implications of the discounters’ growing success, and of this kind of centralisation on the wine industry as a whole, remain to be seen. But producers and distributors who want to remain ahead of the game will be watching out for the modern equivalent of those three game-changers – with the understanding that they’re almost certainly working outside the wine bubble.

Robert Joseph

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