In Emma there is a dinner party held at Randalls on Christmas Eve, as a result of the hospitable Mr Weston's insistence: "Mr Weston would take no denial; they must all dine at Randalls one day; — even Mr Woodhouse was persuaded to think it a possible thing in preference to a division of the party." We are not told much about the dinner, Austen preferring to focus her attention on the drawing room to which the women have withdrawn and left the men to their wine and conversation. Not all the men of the party are wholly committed to these manly pleasures: "Mr Woodhouse very soon followed them into the drawing-room. To be sitting long after dinner, was a confinement that he could not endure. Neither wine nor conversation was any thing to him; and gladly did he move to those with whom he was always comfortable." However, the other men of the party — Mr Weston, Mr Elton, and Mr Knightley — obviously sit long over their wine, for the women have to distract Mr Woodhouse from the lateness of the hour before they are eventually joined by the other men: "Mr Weston was chatty and convivial, and no friend to early separations of any sort; but at last the drawing-room party did receive an augmentation. Mr Elton, in very good spirits, was one of the first to walk in."
Mr Elton's good spirits are as much alcoholic as animal. As the guests are being distributed between carriages for the drive home, he manoeuvres himself so as to follow Emma into the second carriage, and thus ensures that they will be tête-à-tête. Emma, who has just been warned by Mr Knightley that she may have made a mistake in thinking that Mr Elton's emotions are devoted to Harriet rather than to her, is troubled: "She would rather it had not happened. She believed he had been drinking too much of Mr Weston's good wine, and felt sure that he would want to be talking nonsense." Sure enough, they have barely got beyond the Westons' drive before Mr Elton is "actually making violent love to her: availing himself of the precious opportunity, declaring sentiments which must be already well known, hoping — fearing — adoring — ready to die if she refused him..."
Mr Elton is not the first lover who has turned to wine as an ally when declaring his feelings. But what was the "good wine" which Mr Weston served him? We know that the action of Emma begins in the autumn of 1813 and ends in the autumn of the following year. Although these were years of victory for the Grand Alliance, culminating in Napoleon's exile to Elba on April 20, 1814, the tide in the war had set strongly against the French only with the desperate winter retreat from Moscow of November and December 1812. So during the years of embargo before the novel begins, Mr Weston ("so hospitable, and so fond of society") would not have had much chance to lay down good French wines to serve his guests on Christmas Eve 1813. Even if he had had recourse to smugglers, as many otherwise respectable members of English society did, the quality of what they could offer was probably not good. In 1801 Napoleon's Minister for the Interior, Jean-Antoine Chaptal, had been so dismayed by the quality of French wine that he published his synthesis of current best wine-making practice, his Traité théorique et pratique sur la culture de la vigne. But it clearly took time for these improvements to bear fruit. Three decades later an Edinburgh merchant, John Cockburn, had to complain about the 1828 first growths, finding in them "a poverty...which we did not anticipate". And in any case, even when it was good, claret at this time had to contend with various negative associations. It was a drink for Scotsmen rather than Englishmen. In the early years of the century it had acquired a taint of political disaffection when Bolingbroke had imagined closet Jacobites meeting in secret, and talking the "treason that claret inspires."