Wine and Liberty

review by Joshua Greene
April 2, 2019

The second amendment to the French constitution provided for direct elections of the president by universal suffrage. Had it paralleled the second amendment in the US, it might have protected the right of the people to drink wine. But by 1962, when France’s second amendment was enacted, the government had already been wresting that right away from citizens, many of whom considered it their right to drink at work, behind the wheel or at any time of day, no matter the scientific proof that alcohol might impair their judgment or slow their reaction time.

The Sober Revolution was already underway, a political process that played out over decades, according to Joseph Bohling, an assistant professor of history at Portland State University. Bohling’s book by that name breaks through the myth of the French people’s innate moderation when it comes to wine drinking—that, taught at an early age to have a little wine with dinner, they were never tempted to drink too much.

Wine is, in fact, as much a part of the French culture as guns are a part of the mythology of the Wild West: These are touchstones of national identity that have turned politics bloody in their respective countries. So, it is fascinating to read how politics in France have transformed the wine culture, rewriting and effectively enhancing the role of wine while slowly diminishing some of the challenges posed by alcohol abuse.

Bohling begins his story with the rise of industrial wine in France, part of the industrial revolution that was concentrating the population in urban centers to the north. He views the rise of the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system in France against the backdrop of industrial wine, a merchant business based on inexpensive bulk wine, often from the Languedoc or Algeria. For some growers, controlling the authenticity of their wine through the AOC system allowed them to command higher prices while, at the same time, arguing that it was the cheap, industrial wine that was causing social ills, whether drunk-driving accidents, labor inefficiency or liver disease. For others, government subsidies that supported vineyards were crucial to sustaining the agricultural heritage of France.

Bohling spends little time on the history of wine culture in France, dating back to Roman times, if not before, or on the history of controlled appellations for wine in Europe, where such regulations developed prior to the industrial age. For instance, Portugal’s Douro was delimited and governmental controls were set on production in 1756, the outcome of a political battle between local growers and British merchants. Bohling doesn’t delve deeply into the historical context of France’s AOC system, so much as he does the contemporary politics surrounding it in the 1930s, when it was first given teeth, with government controls. The French had been developing delimitations of origin for centuries, particularly in Burgundy, but also in Bordeaux and other regions. The AOC was a system to enforce those historical geographical ties of wines to place, and it is the enforcement, through political action, that interests Bohling.

His book focuses on midcentury France, detailing the economic and political landscape. The transformation of France that he describes is a battle on multiple fronts, with shifting political alliances among factions that included growers, colonists, prohibitionists, those who stood against drunk driving and those who battled for the right to drink as they pleased.

Bohling’s historical research can get tedious: It’s challenging to keep track of the politicians and each of the lobbying groups and their acronyms—the General Confederation of Southern Vine Growers (CGVM), the General Confederation of Algerian Vine Growers (CGVA), the General Confederation of Beet Growers (CGB), the National Federation of Cider Producers (FNPFC), to name a few. And then there are other stakeholders, including the National Institute of Appellations of Origin (INAO) and the National Committee for the Defense Against Alcoholism (CNDCA), among dozens of others birthed out of the French love of bureaucracy.

In fact, each chapter concludes with a summary, so it is possible to absorb much of Bohling’s argument in a digested form, which comes down to this: What amounted to a political alliance between the temperance movement in France and the growers who supported and benefited from the AOC system created a new mythology for wine in the French culture, one that wine producers at the highest levels have been able to use to their financial advantage while the costs of alcohol to French society have been reined in.

Yet the historical research into the shifting alliances, the rise and fall of politicians whose careers were made or broken by their stance on wine and the effective compromises reached through the slow machinations of the political process all hold a deep fascination—whether for those of us who have grown up believing in the various myths about wine and France, or for those of us who are involved in the contemporary battles over mythologies and rights in the gun culture of the United States. If you are a member of either group, it’s well worth reading Bohling’s book.


This review appears in the print edtion of the April 2019 issue.
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