The Birth of the Wine Connoisseur

The Birth of the Wine Connoisseur

Food and wine connoisseurs are a relatively new breed, but they were many decades in the making. The first shoots emerged in the early 1800s with the dawn of modern food and wine books, which provided readers with the knowledge and information they needed to be more discerning consumers. These reference books offered details on the best vintages, vineyards, and wines for the cellar, but the gestation period leading to the birth of genuine wine connoisseurship required over a century of use and misuse of the term. While many ambitious young men claimed to know something about wine in a bid to be seen as cultured and educated during the 19th century, true wine connoisseurship requires an internal rolodex of knowledge, accompanied by an ability to taste and describe wine accurately. There is little evidence of this beyond the trade until the 20th century.

The Greeks were the first to dabble in the world of wine appreciation and wine writing, developing a vocabulary around tasting that the Romans then made their own. Yet wine was often described with one eye on its therapeutic properties, according to Thibaut Boulay, a professor of Greek history at Tours University. There were certainly wines that stood out from the vinegar-like crowd, such as those from the islands of Kos, Lesbos, and Lemnos in the Aegean. Pliny the Elder identified the wines from Latium and Campania in Southern Italy, particularly Falernian, which was produced close to the border of the two regions and fetched high prices.

However, the foundations of wine connoisseurship and wine criticism as we know them today were not laid until the early 19th century, with the writings of French wine merchant André Jullien and, on the other side of the English Channel, Cyrus Redding and James Busby. These writers were part of a watershed moment for wine: fermented grape juice was no longer just a drink. Instead of being a purely physical activity, wine drinking was starting to become an intellectual pursuit and, in the same way as an appreciation for fine art and music might impress pretentious peers, the contents of one’s cellar and a knowledge of fine wines started to become a way of showing cultural prowess.

This revolution in wine writing and appreciation occurred in the context of a growing body of gastronomic literature in France. The French Revolution not only did away with the monarchy but also abolished guilds. The culinary guilds, under the watchful eye of the city’s authorities, had previously regulated the food market, ensuring customers were buying unadulterated products, and training up a future generation of artisans. But they also hampered innovation and experimentation by only allowing those in a particular guild to produce their specialized product. The bakers could sell bread but not pastry—that was the pastry guild. There were few who could supply raw goods as well as cooked products; the charcutiers were one of the rare exceptions, selling both raw and cured pork. However, the existence of the guilds, and with it their culinary authority, disappeared in 1776. Into the void stepped a group of men calling themselves gastronomes. They established fairly exclusive dining societies and appointed themselves as the new tastemakers, often spreading their opinions through self-publication. These men, says the University of Oklahoma’s Jennifer J. Davis, “sought to enforce new norms of good taste, social order, and effective regulation within the liberal market.”

The emergence of the gastronomes coincided with an explosion in restaurants in the French capital. While the seeds of these new eateries were sown pre-Revolution, the restaurant dining experience became fully fledged in the period following the storming of the Bastille. The aristocracy’s chefs and wait staff moved from the most noble of private dining rooms to open and run restaurants for a wider society. The barrier to entry was no longer one’s birthright but how many sous they had for a meal—which effectively prevented the majority. For example, a four-person family might eat a couple of loaves a bread, each costing around 8 sous (there were 20 sous in a franc). But dining on soup (15 sous), followed by salmon (2 francs 10 sous) with a pear compote (1 franc 4 sous) for dessert, the bill at Le Beauvilliers—admittedly one of the city’s finest in the years after the Revolution—would come to 4 francs 9 sous before adding on a drink (a bottle of Champagne at 4 francs or Latour at 6 francs). Altogether, this meal for one (without drinks) would be the equivalent of more than five days’ worth of bread for a family.

The proliferation of Parisian restaurants—100 in the late 18th century, increasing sixfold during the First French Empire (1804–1815) and rising to more than 3,000 in the 1820s—called for a guide for the diner. Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière, a former theater critic with a reputation for hosting ostentatious dinner parties at his parents’ house on the Champs-Elysées, was only too willing to oblige and, in doing so, became one of the world’s first food and restaurant critics. His annual Almanach des gourmands, published from 1803 to 1812, provided Parisians and visitors not only with reviews of the city’s eateries and food sellers but guides to seasonal produce and a smattering of food-inspired poetry. He was assisted by a group of friends, whom he called his jurors, although he tended to have the final word. His first volume alone sold 12,000 copies, and such publishing success ensured that Grimod de La Reynière was a key figure in the development of gastronomic literature, making or breaking local purveyors with his assessment of their wares in his annual guides.

He was joined in his quest to put fine dining, whether in the restaurant or the home, at the heart of what it meant to be refined by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the man who coined the now-bastardized phrase, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.” A lawyer by trade, Brillat-Savarin had experienced both the political and eating revolution firsthand, taking copious notes along the way, which would form the basis of his semi-autobiographical work, The Physiology of Taste. He self-published the book in 1825, printing 500 copies, but did not live to witness its success, dying just two months later. It became a reference for anyone who wanted to entertain in the 19th century and has been in print continuously ever since. It is part cookbook, part guide to being the perfect dinner host, with other life advice—such as how to stay slim—and personal anecdotes. While he clearly found it distasteful to get drunk, suggesting early in his work that you should water down your wines, and to overindulge, he joined Grimod de La Reynière in rejecting the pejorative definition of the word gourmand. The term had long been used to describe greed and gluttony, and the two were instrumental in redefining its meaning toward a sophisticated appreciation of food and drink.

The growing body of food writing aimed at the cultured diner inevitably flowed into the world of wine, sating a growing thirst for knowledge and expertise. Parisian wine merchant André Jullien published Topographie de tous les vignobles connus in 1816, which was translated into English eight years later, and its publication was a marked departure for the wine world. In the period leading up to its release, writing about wine had focused on the medical benefits of particular wines, vinification processes in the author’s particular corner of the world, or the virtues of the wines of ancient Greece and Rome—as viewed through rose-tinted glasses.

Jullien freed himself from those shackles and penned a book for wannabe wine geeks, guiding them to the finest wines in both France and the world beyond. For those eager to find out how Champagne was made, and which villages made the finest examples, here was a man who had the answers. The text was published almost four decades before Bordeaux’s 1855 classification, and Jullien had already gotten the measure of it: La Fitte (sic), Latour, Margaux, and Haut-Brion were the four châteaux in his top-ranked “class one” category in Bordeaux, as they are two centuries later. His descriptors of the styles of wine each produced are remarkably similar to the characteristics they display to this day—for example, the “fineness” of Margaux and the “substance” of Latour. He identified the whites of Montrachet and Sauternes as the nation’s best whites, and the vineyards of Burgundy that he called the best are still on a pedestal: Romanée-Conti, Richebourg, and La Tâche. His classifications created a new genre of wine writing that provided discerning readers with the equivalent of a buying guide and, as he stated, would help those “anxious to keep a good cellar.”

Crossing to English shores, journalist Cyrus Redding was the man behind A History and Description of Modern Wines (1833), which expanded on Jullien’s work in providing guidance as well as categorizing and comparing the wines of the world. Admittedly, he showed a distinct preference for the wines of France and lamented the adulterated wines available in the English market, particularly the concocted Ports and Sherries that were widely sold as the real thing. He promised that this book would “guide the reader in the search of good wine, and tend to confirm the preference for what is really excellent.” He traveled throughout Europe, researching the best of the best. Also in 1833, Scotsman James Busby, perhaps best known for his role in the formative years of the Australian and New Zealand wine scene, published a noteworthy text. While gathering the cuttings from France and Spain that formed the stock for the first Antipodean vineyards, he penned a journal of his travels, which provided an insight into French and Spanish viticulture, winemaking, and wine styles.

Although Redding complained that fashions rather than “the true regards for vinous excellence” dictated drinking trends in England, his work and that of Jullien, Busby, and others like them provided expert voices for those who wanted guidance—typically, the upper-class gentleman. It was he who could afford to buy these books, drink the finest wines, and store them in his cellar.

But as the century progressed, aspirational middle-class professionals also wanted to know about wine in a bid to emulate the lifestyles of the elites. There was reprint after reprint of Redding’s work, while newspapers published extracts of the book, suggesting the topic appealed to a wider audience. What’s more, a second wave of wine books emerged in the late 1860s and early 1870s, quenching the thirst of a growing number of readers and drinkers. This body of literature laid the groundwork for the intellectualization of wine. There were likely a few individuals as well as wine merchants that ticked museum curator and art historian Antony Griffiths’s broad definition of a connoisseur: someone who possesses “discriminating judgement formed through knowledge and experience.” But it would appear the world would have to wait a little longer for strength in numbers.

Consumers were certainly becoming more educated throughout the 19th century with Jullien and Redding at the vanguard. However, Dr. Graham Harding, a wine historian based in Oxford, explains that there is little evidence of genuine connoisseurs. He notes, “Though the term connoisseur was widely applied to wine drinkers in the nineteenth century, its use outside advertising was rare and the tone generally sceptical.” For example, in William Thackeray’s The Book of Snobs, a collection of satirical articles, he makes fun of his middle-class characters who want to be seen as wine connoisseurs to fit in with the elite—that is, London’s club scene. Harding adds, “Only in the first decades of the twentieth century did wine connoisseurship start to be portrayed as an attribute of a sophisticated elite.” This was particularly true following publication of André Simon’s Wine and Spirits: The Connoisseur’s Textbook in 1919, a reference book and guide to all things alcoholic, including practical advice on buying, keeping, and serving wine.

The embryonic form of wine connoisseurship in lands hundreds or even thousands of miles from the cellar also could not have occurred without the improvements in science that took place in the 18th century, enabling wines to be transported long distances without spoiling. Perishability of wine was the biggest technical problem for the 18th-century wine trade, according to historian Jerry Gough, and while it didn’t go away, there were major improvements in understanding wine chemistry thanks to the likes of Lavoisier and Chaptal. The Dutch had introduced sterilization of barrels using sulfur candles, and it was discovered that keeping barrels as full as possible reduced the chances of the wine turning to vinegar en route to its destination. Chaptalizing wines to increase their final alcohol level—or even fortifying them—also imbued them with greater resilience for long journeys. What’s more, glass bottles sealed with corks became a possibility for those who could afford them from the middle of the 1700s. It was at this time that glass manufacturers started using molds to create standard shapes and sizes that could be sealed with a cork stopper. In the middle of the 19th century, Louis Pasteur turned his attentions to wine science. He began to unravel the mysteries of fermentation and helped clean up France’s act when it came to wine faults, identifying the bacteria, acetobacter, that turned wine to vinegar while in transit.

Throughout the 19th century, armed with their freshly printed—and reprinted—wine texts, newly educated wine drinkers could buy wines their authors had recommended and mature them in their cellars. They were equipped to impress their peers. Thanks to this new literature and developments in science, wine had become another means of demonstrating intellect and civility. However, the notion of wine connoisseurship was still in flux by the end of the 19th century. The advertising industry applied the concept liberally to sell cheap wines, and plenty of self-proclaimed connoisseurs wouldn’t have been able tell a Bordeaux from a Burgundy if their lives depended on it.

But in the 20th century, connoisseurship started to take the form known today: a wine connoisseur is an individual who has built up their knowledge of wines over time and can discriminate from one glass to the next. This was made possible by building on the reference books now available with the creation of wine societies and organized tasting events in the first half of the 20th century, which led to the development of discerning palates and allowed judgments to be made based on practical, not simply theoretical, experience. This notion has been developed to extremes by the Master of Wine and Master Sommelier exams, which require candidates to pick up a glass of wine and use their theoretical knowledge and tasting experience to identify the grape varieties, vintages, and origins of wine, to the nearest village. Beyond the trade, there are many who aspire to become or consider themselves connoisseurs and go to great lengths to read and taste widely—but this generally requires deep pockets, which perpetuates the myth that wine is an elitist product. As a result, even today, the value of fine wine is not simply the price tag on a bottle of Bordeaux or Burgundy; it is a cultural currency.

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Busby, James. Journal of a Tour through Some of the Vineyards of Spain and France. Hunters Hill, NSW: David Ell Press, 1979.

Davis, Jennifer J. Defining Culinary Authority: the Transformation of Cooking in France, 1650-1830. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013.

Douglas, Mary. Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology. London: Routledge, 2003.

Ferguson, Priscilla Parkhurst. “A Cultural Field in the Making: Gastronomy in 19th‐Century France.” American Journal of Sociology 104, no. 3 (November 1998): 597–641.

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Griffiths, Antony. The Print before Photography: an Introduction to European Printmaking, 1550-1820. London: The British Museum, 2018.

Harding, Graham. “‘The Stock of a Connoisseur?’: the Development and Commercialisation of Wine Connoisseurship in the Long Nineteenth Century.” Essay. In Connoisseurship, edited by Christina Anderson and Peter Stewart. Oxford: OUP, 2021. (forthcoming)

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Jullien, A. The Topography of All the Known Vineyards: Containing a Description of the Kind and Quality of Their Products, and a Classification. London: Printed for G. and W.B. Whittaker, 1824.

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Simon, André. Wine and Spirits: The Connoisseur’s Textbook. London: Duckworth, 1919.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. The Book of Snobs. London: Punch, 1848.

Wheaton, Barbara Ketcham. Savoring the Past: the French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789. New York etc.: Touchstone Book, 2015.

Wilkins, John, Robin Nadeau, and Thibaut Boulay. “Wine Appreciation in Ancient Greece.” Essay. In A Companion to Food in the Ancient World. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2015.

Photo credit: M. Maeterlinck, A. Robine, J. Godard et Curnonsky Académie des gastronomes, 1932, by Jpbrigand2, CC BY-SA 4.0,