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Why Wine?: Economics and Emotions


"The merchant obtains no more profit by rashly trespassing the seas, nor by going as far as the coast of the Red Sea or of the Indian Ocean to seek merchadise, than is yielded by diligently cultivated homestead." (Pliny, Natural History XIV.52)

At first sight viticulture, i.e., the actual agricultural aspect of wine's production as opposed to its subsequent trade, would not seem to have been a wise business venture for a Roman to undertake.

A new vineyard took several years to produce a crop and so demanded substantial capital investment; far more than either olive-growing or arable farming. Maintenance of a vineyard also was labor-intensive. Why would a man allow his wealth to be at the mercy of late spring frosts and violent late summer downpours? Why would he ignore the Roman maxim, "Good is the smell of profits, wherever it comes from." (Juvenal, The Satires XIV.204)

Conservatives such as Pliny the Elder always argued for a prudent approach to the acquisition of wealth, and did believe that wine-making, in the long-term, could yield very substantial profits indeed. The agriculturalist, Lucius Columella, who owned several estates close to Rome, agreed with him. He railed against men who wasted their energies in "hypocritical fawning and demeaning servility," as they tried to buy political positions, when they could have been farming "... in the old-fashioned way, even in imprudent fashion by those without previous instruction." (On Agriculture I. preface).