French wine is invariably associated with France’s diverse terroirs, or “sense of place.” Such wines evoke images of medieval castles or bucolic landscapes, time-honored traditions of happy peasants crushing grapes, and artisanship and quality. The French fascination with place is said to be centuries-old, unaffected by upheaval and change. My new book, The Sober Revolution: Appellation Wine and the Transformation of France, tells a different story, showing that the link between wine and place was not an inherent part of French wine traditions but instead gained widespread appeal as a result of some of the most turbulent moments in twentieth-century France: the Great Depression, the racist Vichy regime, the decolonization of Algeria, and France’s entry into the Europe Economic Community.
Except for the small amount of luxury wine that was sold to international elites and upon which the French built their reputation for excellence, for much of the twentieth century, the bulk of French wine came from vineyards of mass production in the Languedoc region of southern France and in French Algeria. Between 1830 and 1962, French imperialists had governed over Algeria, seizing land from the indigenous population and turning the colony into the world’s largest wine exporter. These wines were shipped nearly entirely to France where they competed with a glutted market of French wine. Impoverished peasants and Algerians churned out wine for companies like Gévéor and Margnat. These cheap, standardized wines—not unlike Coca-Cola today—were deemed unfit for foreign markets and sold largely within France to thirsty workers. At a time when piped water was not assured in the countryside and when exhausted workers needed extra calories, Frenchmen reportedly drank over a liter of the stuff a day. The wine industry contributed to a system of land expropriation, economic inequality, racism, hunger, and alcoholism.
Trouble in wine country led to periodic outbursts of discontent and stirred the growing independence movements in Algeria, creating a serious public relations problem for the wine industry. To defend their reputation, industry leaders collaborated with state officials to develop an institution called the National Institute of Appellations of Origin (INAO). The INAO set about classifying France’s regional terroirs, regulating the methods of production of each region’s wines, making these production methods transparent to consumers, and preserving a French tradition of quality that they were creating more than preserving. Through its most prestigious label—the Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC)—the INAO championed “quality” and “authenticity,” by which it meant wines from mainland France.
The loss of Algeria, rising disposable incomes, and a public health campaign that blamed alcoholism on cheap wine gradually led consumers to turn toward wines with an appellation of origin. In doing so, they unwittingly became complicit in a state project to reconstruct France’s image as historically European instead of imperial. The appellation system excluded peasant and Algerian wine from its elite club and drove up prices, which limited who could participate in the community of appellation consumers—i.e. good-bye to much of the working class and the postcolonial migrants who might have taken an interest in belonging to that community, hello to the pastoral images of the French countryside lapped up by mostly affluent white men.
As markets globalized in the late twentieth century, this sense of place mattered more and more, expanding into other agricultural products and reaching around the world. Instead of threatening the notion of place, globalization created opportunities for producers to give it greater definition. Locavores and food activists have adopted the French appellation model without realizing just how contentious its rise was in France. Stilton cheese, balsamic vinegar from Modena, Mexican Tequila, and Darjeeling Tea are just a few examples of foods and beverages that carry place-based labels. Plans are afoot even to expand the appellation system into the emerging legal cannabis industry in the United States. Big food conglomerates have followed the appellation fad by appropriating these labels. Lactalis, the world’s largest dairy corporation, invests in appellation cheeses. Samuel Adams, owned by Boston Beer Company, the ninth largest beer manufacturer in the United States, now markets a “terroir lager.” To be sure, not all cases of locally-sourced foods conceal some big story of oppression, but we should be wary of the triumphalist narrative of good-versus-evil that prevails in discussions of locavorism and instead pose ethical questions that dig deeper than a given food’s place of production. Who wins and who loses in local food systems?
Joseph Bohling is assistant professor of history at Portland State University