Wine Glass Size Has Been Steadily Increasing Since The 1700s, Along With The Amount Of Wine We Drink

The holiday season is usually known as a time of indulgence and, for people who drink alcohol, it's likely that a good glass of wine will be everpresent during the next few weeks. But wine consumption is tied to something interesting, as a new study by British scientists published in the British Medical Journal argues: The size of the glass the wine is served in has a big effect on how much wine we drink. And they've discovered that this may be tied to the huge increase in the size of wine glasses since they were first brought into use in England 300 years ago.

Imagining Revolutionary-era English folks drinking wine out of tiny glasses may sound amusing, but figuring out how and why people consume alcohol in the levels they do is a big question, for both the alcohol industry and for healthcare professionals. The global wine industry is worth a whopping $103 billion, according to a 2017 market research report, and is probably set for growth thanks to both U.S. millennials' and China's newfound love of wine. And as we all know, alcohol has known effects on human health, from weakening bone density to interesting genetic interactions with heart disease. So wine glasses, how they've developed, and how they influence our drinking patterns aren't a casual anecdote to break out over Christmas dinner. They're part of a $103 billion question, and the new science thinks it has some answers.

Larger Glasses Mean We Drink More — Without Necessarily Realizing It

Josef Wagner-Höhenberg/Wikimedia Commons

The scientists used a series of bars in Cambridge, UK, to test a theory: would making wine glasses bigger mean that people were likely to want to drink more, even if the proportion of wine inside remained the same? They found that when wine was served in bigger glasses, sales increased by 10 percent, despite the fact that there was no material difference in how much wine was served.

Understanding this involves taking a bit of a psychological trip into the mind of a drinking person. Bigger glasses, the scientists theorized, increase the "pleasure of drinking wine" and make it more attractive. There's also the fact that wide-bowled glasses are more common for red wines, as wine specialists explain that this "opens up" the wine and lets drinkers smell its heavy aromas, so people drinking reds may have had a more appealing experience with bigger glasses in general. And there's also the question of perception. Seeing a regular amount of wine in a bigger glass may make people feel as if they're not necessarily drinking as much; it's an optical illusion, but possibly a powerful one.

It may also lead to the conviction that consumers are getting a worse deal, but that doesn't seem to have stopped the sales from rising. That may be down to the societal values surrounding wine; small portions in big glasses may create the positive impression that the wine is expensive and elitist, rather as tiny portions of food and smears of foam at high-end restaurants are considered more refined than the free breadsticks at Olive Garden. Altogether, the impression was powerful enough for people to buy wine in larger numbers — and the scientists consulted historians to show that this may actually be an historical trend, reaching way back to the 1700s.

The History Of The Inflating Wine Glass

Historical American Buildings Survey/Wikimedia Commons

Your wine glasses these days, the scientists noted, will be bigger than they were in the 1990s and 2000s; but that's not new. They discovered that Western wine glasses have been gradually getting bigger over time, and not in a tiny way, either. In the 1700s, the average wine glass held 66ml of wine; in the 2000s, glasses held 417ml, and in 2016-17, the average is 449ml.

Investigating this glass explosion, which involved trawling the archives of museums, the British royal collection of glassware, famous glass manufacturers like Dartington Crystal, and eBay, was revealing. It seems that there were a lot of factors at play in making wine glasses bigger. The scientists suggest a few: glass, after being pretty heavily taxed throughout the 18th century, became less expensive, technology allowed it to be produced automatically rather than handmade, and bigger glasses are more capable of surviving knocks and blows. But there are other aspects too, and they involve women.

It wasn't considered societally 'nice' for women to drink in public, or more than small amounts at home, up until the late 19th and early 20th century. City saloons at that time began to build 'ladies' entrances' so that women could come and drink in peace. In America in particular, while women were the main force behind the temperance movement, the flapper age and the speakeasies of Prohibition also made the early 20th century a more comfortable time for women to drink, increasing the market for wine glasses and other drinking accessories considerably. As women were given more societal license to drink in the same way as men, the market for wine — and the glasses used to serve it — may have expanded.

Considering all this history, one thing is clear: the bigger the wine glass, the more likely you are to drink more. So if you're trying to watch your alcohol intake this season or preparing for a more abstemious New Year, remember that it's the measuring cup and the strength of the wine itself that matter, not the big beautiful glass it's served in.