Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Two Great Writers Comment on Wine

November 2012. The phylloxera epidemic was raging in all of the wine regions of France in the late 19th century, threatening their very existence. We read a lot about its devastating effect on viticulture and on wines, but precious little is written about the effects the wine-louse exerted on the lives of ordinary people in that era.

In his fascinating book “Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes” (1879), Robert Louis Stevenson throws some light on this subject. Working his way through majestic but savage country, mostly sleeping out in the wild with only a donkey called Modestine for company, he saw much of the more primitive life of that remote region. On some days he saw no other living human being.

On one of his few overnights stays under a roof, in a tiny and remote hamlet, he observed: “The phylloxera was in the neighbourhood; and instead of wine we drank a more economical juice of the grape – La Parisienne, they call it. “ It was made, he recounts, by putting the whole fruit into a cask full of water. The berries eventually burst and the resultant liquid was “a feeble beverage but very pleasant to the taste” (I wonder! – F.W.). As the cask was slowly emptied it was refilled in the same way.


According to Stevenson, one cask of La Parisienne could last a family till spring.

Later in the same book: “The phylloxera has ravaged the vineyards in this neighbourhood; and in the early morning, under some chestnuts by the river, I found a party of working men with a cider-press. I could not make out what they were after, and asked one fellow to explain.


“Making cider,” he said. “Oui, c’est comme ça. Comme dans le nord!” “There was a ring of sarcasm in his voice,” Stevenson continue, “the country was going to the dogs!” This brilliant writer makes you feel the unspoken horror of these simple peasants, wine-drinkers almost from birth, at the thought of being reduced to imbibing the sharp, piercing tipple of the cold and sunless north!


Even in the wilds of the Cevennes Stevenson was able, at least once, to taste one good wine (he does not say how he obtained it) – …a generous and scented Volnay, and now I drank to the moon’s sacred majesty upon the road. It was but a couple of mouthfuls; yet I became thenceforth unconscious of my limbs, and my blood flowed with luxury. Even Modestine was inspired by this purified nocturnal sunshine, and bestirred her little hoofs as to a livelier measure.”  


An even greater writer, Stendhal, made some illuminating observations about wine, this time in his evocative “Travels in the South of France”” (written in episodes in the late 1840s). He made quite a few visits to the Bordeaux region, calling Bordeaux itself “the most beautiful city in France” and “the centre of Gascon vivacity, a city more northern in temperament than Valence.” But he added drily that it was “perhaps more plagued than any small town by the fear of ‘what people will say'”.


One fascinating insight into Bordeaux life-style: “All minor infractions of the law, my driver told me, are punished by confiscating a man’s hat, which he must then redeem from the policeman for several “sous””.


According to Stendhal, Bordeaux in those days was composed of five different towns, one of which was peopled by “English merchants who keep to themselves exclusively”. Out dining on one occasion, he met with some wine brokers, who told him a little about how he operated. “The only capital these gentlemen put in their business is a horse and tilbury in which they run all over the Medoc… They taste the wines of various proprietors and, with a piece of chalk, mark the quality on the casks. You can imagine how the proprietors pay court to them! And woe betides the owner who would dare to rub out the broker’s chalk mark! No broker would take it upon himself to sell that man’s wine!” According to Stendhal, the brokers took a commission of 2%, adding that proprietors – always eager to sell in those days – often gave them presents as well. 




© Frank Ward 2012

One Response to “Two Great Writers Comment on Wine”

  1. […] Two Great Writers Comment on Wine […]

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