Vintners Wine Merchants
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines this as ‘wine merchant’ but, in the British wine trade, this somewhat archaic term usually refers to someone who belongs to The Worshipful Company of Vintners in the City of London. This is one of the associations formed in medieval times to protect their trading practices, maintain standards of their goods, educate their apprentices and assist their members. The Vintners’ Company is an active body in the wine trade of Britain to this day, influential in educational and training programmes. Their beautiful hall is near the site of the town house of Alderman Sir Henry Picard, Master of the Company, who held the ‘Feast of the Five Kings’ (of England, Scotland, France, Denmark and Cyprus) in 1363 – some indication of the wealth and importance of a City Company.
The Vintners’ Company have also had the privilege of keeping swanson the River Thames since at least the beginning of the 16th century. The swan, a protected bird, was in former times considered a great delicacy (although the medieval Dr Andrew Boorde recorded ‘Old swans be very difficult of digestion’): the Vintners still hold their annual ‘Swan Feast’ in the autumn. They, together with the Crown and The Dyers’ Company, own all the swanson the Thames. Each year, they ‘up’ or mark them – by nicking their beaks: in former times, birds were ‘taken up’ or out of the river in hard weather, so as to look after and preserve them. The occasion of Swan Upping, as well as the Swan Feast, is organised by the Company’s Swan Warden, descendant of the original swanherd, who is known as ‘Mr Swan’. About a quarter of those belonging to the Company are active in the wine trade.
With such associations, it will be appreciated that the casual use of the term ‘vintner’ is both misleading and discourteous: members of The Vintners’ Company would rightly resent a wine merchant not connected with them in any way, being dignified by the term ‘vintner’. However I have found numerous instances of the word being used by foreigners who suppose it to imply ‘winemaker’ or even simply somebody engaged in the wine trade. Today it does not have that significance at all and its inaccurate use – because it is not current in speech or writing any more – is unnecessary when there is the perfectly explicit term ‘wine merchant’ extant. In the English language, there are growers, vineyard owners, shippers and merchants – and sometimes one person or one firm may be all four. To confuse the public with words such as vigneron, proprietaire, vignoble, negotiant, wine taster, wine expert and vintner is silly if one is speaking or writing in English, unless all those concerned really know what the words mean.