Marion Demossier (2012) Wine Drinking Culture in France: A National Myth or a Modern Passion?, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 2010.
1Marion Demossier’s monograph offers a contribution to the ongoing debate about the role of consumption in the creation of individual, regional, and national identities. As the exemplary ‘local commodity’, and a contemporary symbol of both Frenchness and cultural distinction, wine offers a unique point of entry for an examination of the relationship between consumption and identity. What from the outside may seem like a timeless and homogenous wine culture, the author demonstrates, is in fact highly dynamic and fragmented. Wine culture in France can be seen as an arena on which multiple interest groups compete, and where individuals are not passive consumers of mass-produced meanings. Setting up a promising and potentially innovative agenda in the introduction, Demossier’s book however struggles to deliver new theoretical insights, and offers limited engagement with the rich ethnographic work which the author argues has gone into its research. The author’s reliance on the global/local, urban/rural and modern/traditional binaries, and frequent romanticisation of wine drinking as a desirable element of practicing ‘Frenchness’, makes for an inconsistent although not uninteresting publication on the debates and practices surrounding wine consumption in contemporary France.
2The book sets out to examine the role of wine in the creation and reproduction of French national identity, focusing particularly on the post-WWII period. The relationship between food (or drink) and identity is a theme which, while still under-explored, has recently attracted considerable attention. Koleen Guy’s (2003) work on Champagne, Boisard’s (2003) on Camembert, and Terrio’s (2000) on chocolate are some excellent examples of recent food and drinks-focused anthropological narratives. The fact that most of the research in this area has been conducted in the French contexts stands as a proof to the perceived importance of edible commodities to French national identity construction. Unfortunately, the author’s engagement with this rich literature remains limited to the research on wine.
3In the first chapter, the author sets out her central argument: that wine drinking in France today can be seen as a cultural phenomenon, and that it is related to the work of individual, regional, and national identity construction. The rise of wine as a cultural marker in France is examined in chapter two. In spite of its seeming timelessness, the author notes, the relationship between wine drinking and cultural values in France is a recent phenomenon (as demonstrated by the absence of wine from Bourdieu’s seminal Distinction, published in 1984). This chapter offers a good historical overview of the cultural and economic rise of the wine industry in France. Particularly interesting is the importance of wine quality scandals to the establishing of oenology as the science of winemaking, and to the creation of the legislative quality frameworks, and their subsequent establishing as central sources of influence on the wine production landscape.
4The changes to wine production and consumption patterns in France in the 20th century are further explored in chapter three. This chapter offers an economic and legislative background for Demossier’s figure of a ‘wondering drinker’ as typical of the French middle class attitudes to wine drinking today. The ‘wondering drinker’ is described as engaging with wines in a superficial manner, showing little in-depth knowledge of wine tasting, and consuming wines principally as an element of social gatherings. A potentially interesting and subversive consumer of the ‘national myth’ of wine drinking, the ‘wandering drinker’ is however left aside, and most empirical data is dedicated to ‘wine lovers’, whom the author sees as ‘cultural mediators at the core of a dynamic, differentiated and fragmented wine drinking culture’ (p. 185).
5In chapter four the author examines the media representations of wine consumption since 1945, demonstrating both the quantitative growth of wine’s media presence, and the increasing desirability of educated wine drinking as a marker of cultural distinction. Chapters five and six present the author’s observations around the themes of identity, consumption and sociability in the context of a series of ‘ethnographic events’, such as wine tastings, wine fairs, and interviews with wine lovers. Chapter seven presents the author’s analysis of the dynamics of internet fora dedicated to wine tasting, and highlights the social aspect of wine drinking, and its importance to the construction of individual identities. In chapter eight the future of the French terroir based wine culture is put into question in the light of the globalisation of the world’s wine markets.
6Although the book is a welcome contribution to the literature on wine consumption, its theoretical and empirical impact is limited. Even though in the introduction the author presents her book as a multi-sited ethnography, it is not until chapter five that original field data begins to be discussed. Considering that in writing the book the author drew on evidence ‘based on ten years of participant observation’, ‘multi-sited ethnography of wine festivals’, ‘extensive interviews with professionals in the wine trade’ (p.11), as well as life-story interviews and internet forums’ analysis, it is surprising and rather disappointing to find that the presentation and discussion of the ethnographic data is limited to only three of the eight chapters, and less than a third of the book’s volume. Moreover, the ethnographic data is presented in a highly controlled and contextualised manner, frequently limited to singular encounters, and with the author firmly at the centre as a primary observer and narrator. Frequently I found myself wishing the author would allow the voices of the various actors involved in the valuation and consumption of wines to come through without quite so many interpretative filters.
7In spite of some critical engagement with the ‘myth’ of a national drinking culture in the early chapters, throughout the book the author’s arguments are largely in line with the myth’s very essence. Frequently the author’s analysis of wine consumption narratives relies on the dualisms of global ‘McDonalisation’ and local ‘authenticity’, thus supporting the desirability of ‘the local’ as a primary and authentic font of meaning, a position which has undergone important critique in recent years (e.g. DuPuis and Goodman 2005). The author’s empirical focus on conversations with wine lovers rather than the (potentially more interesting) ‘wandering drinkers’ reinforces the idea that educated wine drinking is both desirable and culturally valuable. While exploring the creativity of French wine drinkers in their work of personal identity formation in chapter six, the author continues to link their consumption behaviours to ‘the attachment of French people to space, time, rural society, commensality and sociability’ (p. 37), and sees them as emblematic of a search for ‘stability or timelessness in reaction to the fluidity of modern life, the salience of contemporary identities and the ephemeral nature of our societies’ (p. 156). This approach limits other, more subversive and creative readings of the significance of wine consumption to the lives of individuals. It was particularly at this point that the author’s arguments would have benefited from an engagement with a wider literature on consumption and identity formation, particularly Danny Miller’s work on the reappropriation of meaning through acts of consumption (especially Miller 1988, 1997, 1998).
8A note has to be made of the difficult writing style, which made author’s arguments particularly difficult to follow. The sentences tended to be long and multi-claused, and the text often read like a translation from French with the underlying grammatical structures left untouched. Very it seemed that the author was trying to ‘do too much’ in one paragraph, introducing multiple qualifiers and propositions instead of following one line of argument, which quickly lead to confusion and lack of clarity. The absence of concluding sections at the end of the chapters made it particularly difficult to understand how connections were forged between literature, empirical data, and author’s arguments.
9In conclusion, the book offers some interesting insights into the contemporary wine drinking culture in France. Demossier conclusively shows that the wine drinking culture in France is a historical construct, that it is by no means monolithic, and that multiple actors are involved in the creation and reappropriation of meanings attached to drinking wine in France today. The theoretical and empirical arguments presented in the book could have been enriched by a deeper engagement with the existing literature on consumption and identity within anthropology, sociology, and human geography. Although the author does make a case for wine drinking being a unique form of consumption, I believe a wider engagement with consumption studies literature beyond wine-focused research would have allowed the author to do much more with what is clearly original ethnographic material, and a fascinating object of study.