ANDREW W. M. SMITH
Terror and Terroir: The Winegrowers of the Languedoc and Modern France
Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK, 2016, 296 pp. ISBN 978-1784994358, $115.00; Kindle Edition: ASIN B01NBNAG6E, $77.48
Reviewer: Zachary Nowak
Andrew W.M. Smith’s Terror and Terroir is a case study of the effects of national and global agro-economic policies on the winegrowers of the Languedoc region in France. Smith begins his chronology with the abortive 1907 révolte du Midi, France’s largest social disturbance since the Revolution. A substantial portion of this first chapter deals with the pre-révolte industrial atrophy in the region and the subsequent expansion of small-scale vineyards producing low-quality wine. Smith carefully traces out the cast of characters—winemakers large and small, local and national-level politicians, and labor leaders—who will reappear as the study’s main characters in the subsequent chapters. This first chapter is also a sketch of the rise of the various groups (both unions and other sorts of associations) among winegrowers, and, of course, of the 1907 revolt of Languedocian workers (principally but not solely winegrowers). The subsequent chapters are in the main chronological, tracing the economic challenges first of the worldwide depression, then of the Vichy- imposed regulations on the industry. Smith focuses the middle chapters of the book on the post-war history of the central union, the Comité Régional d’Action Viticole (hereafter, the CRAV), and their use of the memory of 1907 to galvanize support. These chapters also show the winegrowers’ attempt to link Occitaine regional iden- tity (evolving in the 1960s) to their struggle. Chapter 5 focuses on the lethal clash of winegrowers and security forces at the town of Montredon in 1976. The final two chapters chart the CRAV’s decline and the dramatic changes in the Languedoc wine industry at the end of the 20th century as power over policy shifted from Paris towards Brussels.
Smith’s prose is clear; he gives enough context to make the debates accessible even to a non-specialist in French history or the history of wine production. Labor and social historians, well-versed in the modification and recycling of the past by labor movements, will recognize much in Smith’s book that is familiar. His punctilious use of sources from regional and national archives, local newspapers, and even oral histories reveals that the CRAV’s struggle was not revolutionary or anti-statist. The author shows that despite continual references to the 1907 “révolte” and frequent extra-parliamentary (and often illegal) measures used by the winegrowers, their goal was more, not less, central government intervention in the Languedocian wine economy. In his Introduction, Smith indicates that his historiographical interven- tions are in historicizing both the Languedocian winegrowers’ movement and regional heritage, then connecting the two. He succeeds in accomplishing both goals. Winegrowers’ protests over the 20th century have been motivated by economic realities but have made use of the tools of regional identity to broaden its appeal. Smith argues that terroir is “the key to unlocking the complex and contested signifi- cance of wine to French national identity (p. 2).”
This intervention, when it came, was not what the winemakers’ movement wanted. The true value of Smith’s narrative is perhaps the articulation of a powerful counter-argument to the mythology of terroir. The winemakers’ core demand, despite discourse about fraud and “tradition,” was not support for a high-quality tra- ditional product that could only be produced in a delimited zone with special “tra- ditional” techniques. Rather, Languedocian winemakers essentially wanted the central government to subsidize their continued production of low-quality table wine, undistinguished except for its mediocrity and incidental production within departmental boundaries. Instead of acceding to these demands, French and EU officials spent decades promoting the reduction of production, the replanting vine- yards with better-quality varietals, and the improvement of production standards through technological modernization. The creation of a Languedocian AOC wine zone in 1985 was premised not on traditional grape varieties or methods of produc- tion, but rather a wholesale modernization. The traditional varietals—Aramon noir, Cinsault, and Carignan—were all high-yield and low-quality, and were almost totally replaced in the closing decades of the century. Cabernet, Merlot, Sauvignon, and Chardonnay vines, of which zero acres had been planted in Languedoc in 1968, were covering tens of thousands of hectares in 2008. Smith’s narrative, then, is a welcome counterpoint to the typical food studies paeans to terroir emerging from tradition; good wine from the Languedoc is recent, and has more to do with EU-subsidized replanting with high-quality varietals and stainless-steel machinery than Languedocian heritage and traditional winemaking techniques.
Scholars of terrorists and terroirists, take note: Despite the title, there is no real terror, or terroir. Militant winegrowers destroy property throughout the book, but violence against people is rare and almost always accidental. There is a brief discus- sion of terroir in the Introduction and an oblique reference to the difference in wines from the hills versus the plains on p. 167, but the impact of the land on the wine is almost entirely absent. There is not much discussion of Languedoc as an actual, physical place—Smith’s actors give speeches, march in rallies, occupy train stations, and dump wine, but he only occasionally shows them in their vineyards. Smith dwells at times too long on the particulars of the many labor leaders that people his pages.
Smith’s case study, while perhaps too detailed to be an undergraduate text, opens the avenue to other important comparative research that could be done. Alongside this excellent example of a long-term (and ultimately unsuccessful) struggle of Languedocian winemakers to have Paris subsidize their continued production of plonk, it would be interesting to see if winemakers in Italy, Spain, and Germany were using similar tactics, and with similar results.