Robin Butler on Twitter

October 2014

I love asking myself questions - and then trying to find the answers.  Here is one I asked a few years ago, but it was not so much the answers which fascinated me; it was more the consequences of those answers.  So here is the question:- “How did British people buy wine in past centuries?”  

Obviously, there were no supermarkets with aisles-full of bottles from all over the world from which to make a selection or even pick a single bottle.  Neither could you stroll down the road to your local wine merchant and collect a bottle of plonque for supper or something grander for dinner.  So how did Britain become the prime wine market worldwide?  The answer is, at least in part, because they bought by the barrel - sometimes a very large barrel!   Last month, I mentioned that wine was bought by the measure until 1861.  You may have bought a gallon or a hogshead, a firkin or a kilderkin - but not a bottle.  However, there is a serious outcome of this situation which is interesting.  

Until decimalisation in 1971, both Britain and America used Imperial measures - inches, miles, gallons and all those other units, like poles and perches, bushels and furlongs which most people never used, but had to learn at school.  However while our miles, tons and fluid ounces were the same on both sides of the Atlantic, our pints and gallons were not.  And that was all because of wine - yes, wine!  Here in Britain one of our more obscure measures was wine measure - wine pints - which were not the same as Imperial pints; they were 16 fluid ounces instead of 20 fl.oz.   Wine measures had evolved centuries earlier, but  became obsolete some time in the 19th century probably to avoid confusion with their Imperial counterparts.  But this is the interesting part...

After the American War of Independence, the wine pint, and therefore the wine gallon (8 pints for those of tender years) became the standard measure in America and the word ‘wine’ was dropped.  This is why American pints and gallons are not the same as UK pints and gallons; they are four fifths as much. The wine pint and quart (2 pints), too, had a consequential effect which is crucial to my business today.

English decanters were made in two principal sizes, the pint and quart, although larger formats were also made.  The joy for us today, is that the standard quart decanter is the perfect capacity for a bottle of wine and the pint decanter for a half-bottle, as they leave good space above the wine for it to develop by contact with the air. This is one excellent reason why antique decanters are so practical 200 years or so after they were made.

Now is the time of year when we all gear ourselves up to think about what to give as Thanksgiving or Christmas presents in the coming weeks.  Jane McQuitty, the renowned wine writer at The Times, in reviewing books suitable as Christmas presents wrote :-First up is the quirky, witty and lavish history of wine paraphernalia entitled Great British Wine Accessories 1550-1900 by the wine antique specialist Robin Butler. This boxed book will make an indulgent present for aficionados.”  Indeed, there are other even more flattering reviews which you can read on the book’s website (, but space precludes my quoting them here.  Do please have another look to the left....

The book retails for £65, but until the end of November, I am offering it to readers for just £42.50 + shipping/mailing.  I must also mention that postal charges have dropped considerably in recent weeks, and we can take advantage of that, too.  And while you are about it, why not ask your friends if they need a present idea?!  Please let me know if you want your copy signed, and if so, how?

There is, of course, a wide selection of other highly presentable gifts to be sourced from my website and these, too, are less costly to send than they were a month or two ago.

Finally, please do follow me on twitter.  I don’t post rubbish every day, but you may see some interesting winey things before the rest of the world.


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