It has been apparent for some time now that food is becoming a major source of scholarly nourishment. Specialized studies on one or another food or drink appear with regularity, and a distinct subgenre of “commodity histories” has emerged, with scholars writing not just on “A list” cultivars such as sugar, coffee, maize, wheat, and rice, but on relatively inconspicuous, even nondescript plants as well—rhubarb, taro, nutmeg, and the like. One prolific writer, Mark Kurlansky, is seemingly beavering his way through the food chain (when he is not writing on Basques, baseball, or the year 1968!), while another, Tom Standage, has written both An Edible History of Humanity (2009) and A History of the World in Six Glasses (2005). For those with enquiring minds, Standage’s six-pack is comprised of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca Cola.
If the surging interest in food, on balance, has proven a plus, it should be pointed out for the record that much of the work in the commodity subgenre that has appeared over the past decade or so has been narrowly conceived, thinly researched, and light on context. Oceans of Wine, David Hancock’s long-awaited study on the production, distribution, and consumption of Madeira in the period between 1640 and 1815, is characterized not by these qualities, but by their converse. It is conceptually broad, deeply researched, and amply contextualized. It is so impressive in so many ways that some would even call–indeed, some have already called–Oceans of Wine truly magisterial.
Unlike garden-variety (sorry!) works in the subgenre, Oceans of Wine isn’t limited to questions relating to production nor, for that matter, to matters of consumption. Hancock treats both production and consumption of Madeira at length–he is particularly good on the latter–but it is the close attention the author pays to the way in which Madeira was distributed that sets apart Oceans of Wine from more conventional “commodity” cases written by agricultural historians, cultural anthropologists, moonlighting journalists, and ardent foodies. Moreover, Hancock offers a little something for everyone in his study: [End Page 300] Specialists will find fascinating his (loving) exhumation and historical reconstruction of the Madeira wine industry, early modernists will be invigorated by, even if they disagree with, his challenging reinterpretation of economic patterns in the Atlantic world, and readers interested in social theory and historical methods will read his five chapters on distribution (chapters 4–8) with especial attention.
The fact that Hancock has such an intriguing story to tell owes much to the Atlantic island’s “situation, soil, and climate,” (p. 7), with the first of these descriptors used by the author as a sort of shorthand not only for Madeira’s superb location for trade, but also for the fact that, though the island was colonized by the Portuguese, it was virtually from the start a very cosmopolitan place with enterprising foreigners dominating the economy. Once Madeira’s original staple, sugar, collapsed in the face of American competition in the early seventeenth century, producers and traders on the island quickly moved into wine production—the “triumph of Bacchus,” as Hancock puts it. By 1640 or thereabouts, Madeira’s “oenological golden age” (p. 43) had begun, and in eleven substantive chapters (as well as an introduction and conclusion) Hancock traces its 175-year span—the industry peaked in 1815—in vivid and often absorbing detail.
Hancock opens with an excellent introduction, kind of a tour d’ horizon wherein he maps out the main themes in the book. He follows with a short analytical chapter on Madeira and its cultural and institutional development to 1815, then with two brisk chapters on the establishment and evolution of the wine-production complex on Madeira.
However good the foregoing chapters—and they are very good—Hancock really hits his stride beginning with Chapter Four, the first of five chapters that deal in some way with the trade and distribution of Madeira wines. These chapters, along with three additional chapters on the...