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Wine glasses now seven times larger than in Georgian era

A new study published in the British Medical Journal has revealed that the size of a wine glass has increased almost seven times since 1700, rising from an average capacity of 66ml to 449ml in 2016/17.

Image: Riedel

Put together by director and professor of behaviour and health, Theresa M Marteau; senior statistician Dominique-Laurent Couturie; research associate Zorana Zupan, and MPhil student Alexandra Evans, the study charts the growth of the wine glass which was “gradual” until the 1990s, when the increase in size became more marked.

The team studied glasses stored at the Ashmolean Museum dating from 1700 to 1800 as well as glassware from the Royal Household, where a new set was commissioned for the coronation of each new monarch between 1808 and 1947.

In addition, the scientists gained access to the catalogues from English glassware manufacturer Dartington Crystal which covered the years from 1967 to 2017. They also browsed two sources in the public domain: records from auction and retail website eBay, with glasses dating from 1840 to 2016, as well as information from department store John Lewis.

The findings reveal that “wine glass capacity increased in all time periods from 1800 to 2017”. The team concluded that possible reasons for this rise were changes in several factors including price, technology, societal wealth, and wine appreciation.

Enamelled Jacobite portrait glass. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Furthermore, they suggested that the reason why wine glasses did not increase in size until 1800 could be attributed to the levying of the ‘glass excise’ tax, first introduced in 1746 and abolished in 1845. Glass production techniques also improved in the late 19th century, changing from the labour intensive mouth blowing technique to a more automated process.

The more rapid rise in the 1990s has been attributed to wine glasses being designed for specific grape varieties. The demand for larger wine glasses in US from the 1990s began to dictate designs in English glassware too, according to records stored by Dartington Crystal.

Wine consumption in Britain also started to rise from the later 20th century, as members of the lower social classes, whose consumption had largely been restricted to beer and spirits, were increasingly drinking more wine.

The consumption of alcohol in general rose during this period, with wine drinking rising almost fourfold between 1960 and 1980, and almost doubling once more between 1980 and 2004.

Finally, the team state that glass size was also in part driven by retailers who witnessed wine sales rise when using larger glasses, citing evidence from a previous study also conducted by a team at the University of Cambridge.

The scientists admit that they are unsure as to how representative the wine glasses studied are of the period in question. They took into account the “endurance advantage” of smaller glasses, meaning that larger ones were likely to break more easily, resulting in the loss of records and the distortion of the subsequent findings.

The team countered this argument by stating that all glasses damaged in the Royal Household were either remade or repaired, therefore maintaining the original dimensions of the glasses. Moreover, the dimensions of the glasses were recorded in the Dartington Crystal catalogues.

The research also poses the question: can reducing the size of glasses also decrease wine consumption?

The scientists conclude that: “we cannot infer that the increase in glass size and the rise in wine consumption in England are causally linked. Nor can we infer that reducing glass size would cut drinking”. They do however suggest that the subject requires more work about how wine glass size is linked to population health.

They cite the “the unit bias heuristic” in which people consume in units, for example one glass or one cup. When presented with a larger glass that is less full, people consider the amount to be less than one unit, when the volume is in fact equivalent to a full smaller glass.

England also differs from continental Europe in that wine is increasingly offered in 250ml servings, with the smaller volume of 125ml often absent from lists, in spite of a regulatory requirement introduced in 2010 which stipulates that licensees must “make customers aware of these smaller measures”.

Additionally, the scientists refer to a 2013 study, which found that the strength of wine sold in the UK since the 1990s has increased. They therefore conclude that “the amount of pure alcohol that wine drinkers consume has likely risen in line with larger glasses”.

Commenting on the findings, Miles Beale, chief executive of the WSTA, told the Guardian: “The size of a wine glass reflects the trend and fashions of the time and is often larger for practical reasons. Red wine, for example, is served in a larger glass to allow it to breathe, something which perhaps wasn’t a priority 300 years ago”.

Image: BMJ

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