By feen guest blogger David Smith
I recently took a trip to Germany with my wife and amongst other cities stayed a couple of days in Heidelberg. It’s got a charming altstadt, or “old city” where modern stores and conveniences have moved in but the décor has been preserved to maintain the look of a cute German city. The beer is great, the food fantastic, and the people friendly. Atop the hill lies the old castle, built to overlook the town with a rough rock path up a steep incline connecting the two.
Inside the castle walls are numerous buildings for various functions but everyone stops by the wine cellar. It’s massive and pretty and known for having one of the largest wine barrels in the world. There’s some dispute as to which barrel is the biggest in the world but the tour guide claimed this to be the biggest barrel ever used for wine storage. It’s best not to dispute local legends so I took it at face value.
It’s big, to be sure. The barrel holds roughly 220,000 liters or about 58,000 gallons. These numbers change and will vary due to the wood drying out. The legendary Heidelberg Tun (or Fass in German) as it’s called stands roughly 18 feet tall and the enterprising Germans even built a dance floor on top of it. Every year tourists flock to it to climb the staircases and tread the dance floor, stunned at the immensity of this oak structure that could double as a two story house. Most just giggle at the immensity and wonder in amazement how a construction project like this made sense. The Tun is an example of bad economics for two major reasons.
The Heidelberg Tun spent most of its life empty. It seems that 18,000 bottles was perhaps a bit ambitious goal. Sure, it did see some use but the historical data seems to show that the bulk of the time it sat unused. That’s a shame. The royalty had engineers develop a pumping system that could pipe wine throughout the castle. In this way the servants could quicker dispense wine to the thirsty royals and their esteemed guests. Waiting for your servants to trudge down to the wine cellar and bring a fresh pitcher just wouldn’t do when you plan on drinking three bottles worth every day (that’s correct). But with the Tun empty, the elaborate pipe system collected dust. It begins to sound like a run of the mill government boondoggle just wasting the tax revenue.
This brings us to a second, richer point. Why were massive wine barrels needed in the first place? Most of the region is known for winemaking. The farmers were required to bring a portion of all their crops to the castle as taxes or spend some quality time in the dungeon. All the farmers brought their wheat, rye, cheese, and wine to give to the magistrate as tribute. All the crops would be stored and all the wine would be poured into the massive Tun.
Now, I hear some wine enthusiasts out there screaming, “They just blended everything?!” I know, I know. Forget about individual grapes from individual farms or the modern method of recognizing individual hills. They didn’t even segregate red and white. It all got mixed together. Sounds ill-advised from a modern perspective, but there might be a method to the madness.
German farmers, it turns out, dislike taxes and tribute as much as anyone. After being told how many bottles he owed the state, the economically astute farmer found his worst bottles and promptly delivered them to his liege. Any bottle with a bad cork or an old, vinegary batch would be the first to go. Then the sediment laden bottles from the bottom of the fermentation vessel would be offered. Since the farmer paid in a quantity of bottles and not the value of the wine he would naturally keep his prized bottles for market rather than taxes. In order to make these wines palatable, the servants of the castle blended them to mask deficiencies. Eventually, they began building bigger and bigger barrels to mingle the wine. Alas, the legendary Heidelberg Tun was born.
To any student of liberty and economics this result seems self-evident and I began laughing on the spot as I imagined self-important statesmen and bureaucrats greedily lapping up a disgusting blend of the worst that the proud farmers of Germany could produce. Meanwhile, down the hill the market streets overflowed with handmade custom blends for the discerning palate. I even speculated what kind of black market transactions might have taken place to prevent the royals from even knowing what production the honest people were capable of. I encourage the reader to travel abroad and stop by Heidelberg castle to see the Tun, a monument to the folly of coercion in taxation and the misallocation of resources that comes from government intervention.