Thursday, June 2, 2011

Wine Drinking Culture in France: Book Review

Wine Drinking Culture in France: A National Myth or a Modern Passion? (Cardiff: University of Wales) is a dense, scholarly effort which uses French wine drinking culture as a case study of the construction and evolution of a national wine drinking culture.  This book is not for the faint of heart.  Its 221 pages could have easily been stretched to 600 with no dimunition in its meanings and impact (and it would have broadened its audience signiicantly).  It is an anthropological study (an ethnography for the initiated) which utilizes disciplines as diverse as sociology, political science, philosophy, law, and consumer market research to lay out a framework and context for a French wine drinking culture and its evolution through the years.

The author, Marion Demossier, is French but lives in England and this gives her a wonderful perspective: a local's access to the sources combined with the ability to observe the collected data from outside the bubble.  Marion is Senior Lecturer in French and European Studies at the University of Bath.  She holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences) in Paris and has written extensively on wine, wine consumption, and wine drinking culture.  This book is the culmination of 15 years of fieldwork to include converstaions with wine growers, oenologists, consumers, wine lovers, and others in the field.

As for most ethnographies, the author utilizes interviews with experts in the specific field to gain insight into the subject at hand and some of that dialoge is presented in later chapters in the book.  But it is the theoretical foundation contained in the first five chapters that I find most interesting and that, I think, form a solid basis for the author's conclusions.

According to the author, the concept of a French wine drinking culture developed as (i) a result of regulation from the late 19th century onward culminating in the concepts of AOC and terroir; (ii) development of French oenological and gastronomic cultures; and (iii) the success of the efforts of the wine elites and the state in promulgating the "myth of French wine as an element of national heritage and patrimony."  This "wine drinking culture," with all its associated myths, symbols, and practices, has been under attack since the 1970s, according to the author.  During this recent period, "France has experienced the emergence of a wine drinking culture which symbolizes at the same time the decline of this commodity as part of of the staple diet of much of the nation and its rise as a cultural and aesthetic object."  With these momentous, bubble-bursting (mine anyway) words, the author launches into an extended discourse of the forces of change and the look and feel of the emerging picture.  Fascinating.

This is an excellent book. If you are a wine culture nerd, read this book.  If not, wait for the movie.

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