Too often, historians, in their straight-ahead dogma of telling only what is known, ignore the unknown to the detriment of understanding. Questions which are unanswerable, or tangential, are routinely ignored. But often, the devil lay’s in those details, and the tangential information can dramatically alter our understanding of a situation.
This is exceptionally true of the history of France, at least for the period between the revolution of 1789 and the First World War. These side issues which are rarely addressed in the straight-ahead locomotive that is the essay, this linear history is incomplete and somewhat distorted. History, ultimately, is not true as it seems. History, when dug into deeply, is like a magician, who, with the tap of a wand, and a poof of smoke, makes the truth, the ability to arrive at a simple conclusion disappear…
I would discover that every seemingly straightforward historical French story is full of chicanes, twists, and subplots. Whatever simple event you believed you may have understood with some clarity, reveals, with deeper probing, that you were under-informed, if not misinformed.
* * *
In the tradition of the amateur historian, I had set about to uncover the largely untold story of the Burgundian vigneron. Having armed myself with a deep, life-long interest in history, a career in the wine industry, and a political science degree from U.C. Berkeley, I innocently assumed that, with the help of my google browser, I had adequate tools to tackle this task. Not so. I quickly found my knowledge of 17th and 18th centuries to be a bit incomplete, and my understanding of feudal society, and the entire concept of nobility, non-existent.
Proceeding into the history of 19th century, I hardly expected that the complexity of the history would be less a product of the players and events, but the fact that they are rooted and inseparable from their philosophical ideas and economic theories. All of this was made more convoluted by the fact that these theories would, directly and indirectly, influence the historians who were ostensibly the reporters of history. The effect of which was that the theory and philosophy of the historical players were being folded into the batter being prepared by the historians.
Socialists who have written about Karl Marx are the primary example of this, although there were others. Marx both observed the events of history and wrote an abstract “Theory of History” which organized Western socioeconomic history as developing in stages. This work has been so residually influential among socialist thinkers, that subsequent writings by historians have been colored by Marx’s work. At first blush, it would seem a simple fix to eliminate Marxist influence from the historical record, but that is not the case. The task exposing a supposed line of truth between Marx’s perception of events, and historical reality is extremely tricky, particularly considering that Marx (a Ph.D. in philosophy) spent his whole (long) life studying, observing, postulating the conditions of western European socioeconomic history. Marx, love him or hate him, was brilliant. He his solutions may have been polarizing and extreme, but in his analysis of the events of social and economic history, rarely was he completely wrong.
* * *
After several months of research, I slowly realized that the story of the vigneron was not nearly as straightforward as it appeared. Like most wine professionals, I had made several assumptions based on popular belief, that the phylloxera infestation which had slowly rolled across most of the grape producing regions across France during the second half of the 19th century, had economically pushed the peasant farmers from the fields their families had farmed for hundreds of years.
But on closer inspection of population graphs, particularly in neighboring wine villages for kilometers beyond famed villages along the Route de Grand Crus, the populations had already been dropping precipitously so, for the previous 50 years. Yet in the populations of the villages of Gevrey, Vosne, Nuits, Beaune, and the others along the limestone escarpment, did not decline. Why was this? The answer lay outside of Burgundy, in the political and social upheaval of France.
My motto has been to leave no stone unturned, and it has been that philosophy that has led me here. I have spent virtually every single morning, getting up at 5:30 am, since early-November of 2015, researching the history of modern France and the historians who write it. This website will ultimately, as it unfolds, contain some the results of that journey, but it does not show all of the pieces of articles that I have written, to be sidetracked by new complexities, or the one or two days of research which led to a path that was important for me to understand, but not relevant enough to be included in the writing at hand.
This is a companion site to the ‘History of the Vigneron’ series of articles at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* * *
About Me: As previously mentioned, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the College of Letters and Science at the University of California. As a political science major, I had a particular interest in the conditions of revolution, of which Marxism thought played a role, although I do not believe that communist thought precipitated those revolutions, rather its followers usurped them.
Since the early 1990’s, I have been involved in the wine industry, selling fine wine in both the retail and wholesale arenas. I have approached learning about wine, much the way I was taught to learn about political science at Berkeley. Because of this, I have never been happy with the quality of most wine writing, finding it to be largely superficial. I recognize that wine writers have to monetize their work, but I believe this has dramatically held back our knowledge and understanding of wine. I have set out to add to our industry’s base of knowledge where I can. My first series, ‘The Terroir of Burgundy’ (which I should probably re-edit and complete some kind of conclusion, but I got involved in this project), can be viewed here.
I currently work for an importer of Burgundy and Bordeaux wines based in Atherton, California.