French Wine Production During the 1900s & First World War

On the eve of the First World War, wine trades were still unsettled because of regulations and threats due to appellations of origin.[1] Wine merchants were focused on establishing a quasi-monopoly on the national and the international wine trade. They made this move to respond to the panic they faced resulting from the rise of competition in the wine and wine trade industry.[2] The First World War played a critical role in making wine a national drink in France and is a war that has been associated with intoxication. It was a time when cocktails like the French 75 became popular. Wine was in massive abundance in European countries like France. The image of poilu and his wine in 1917 during the First World War is ubiquitous within the French culture[3], and in the modern-day, the image is a part of a national myth in France.

Wine experiences during World War I impacted turning several French people into wine consumers. The shared experiences witnessed in the trenches, including the consumption of wine, helped push aside regional differences, making France one united wine-consuming country.

Poliu saluting

Fig 1: 1917, Poliu saluting “father Pinard” barrel.

Facing crop challenges

One of the worst scourges French wine farmers have faced in viticulture history is the phylloxera vine attack. It had a devastating impact in the South of France in 1878. Phylloxera, also known as the cursed aphid, struck on vineyards located in Meursault and Dijon.[4] It is believed to have originated from the United States and found its way to France’s vineyards through grape varieties imported by some researchers who wanted to expand their wine collection. For the American cultivars, most of them were immune to phylloxera. However, the French cultivars were hard-hit since they had a relatively thinner root. With this root structure, phylloxera could attach itself to the roots, piercing them and ultimately sucking them up.[5] Eventually, the stocks would die as a result. The aphid was highly prolific in multiplying and reinforcing its subterranean colonies. Several winegrowers in France tried desperately to control the aphid, including using chemicals and injecting disulfide into the soil.

Another attempted solution was grafting Burgundy’s cultivars to rootstocks originating from the United States. People who favored grafting, also called “Americanists,” were small-scale farmers.[6] On the other hand, people who preferred chemical injections were the “sulfurists” and were large-scale farmers. In the wake of the aphid curse in France, the Americanists prospered compared to the “sulfurists.”[7] The phylloxera attack dashed the ambitions of many small-scale wine growers in France before the First World War.

French, French Wine Production During the 1900s & First World War

Fig 2: 1880, French Guide for Winegrowers on how to fight phylloxera with sulfur

New solutions at a cost

The re-establishment of vineyards after the phylloxera attacks required a new approach. Reconstitution strategies were more scientific compared to the previous methods. As a result, winegrowers were forced to re-learn wine growing and the wine trade. Radical changes included grafted vines being planted along straight rows, with horses being used to plow and spray the vines.[8] Although viticulture was mainly a family affair, new operations led to changes in this trend.

This onset of new approaches caused viticulture to be more expensive than the traditional approaches initially used. For example, fighting phylloxera was more costly than fighting powdery mildew that existed in 1849 and the downy mildew that occurred in 1878.[9] Although the newly-adopted scientific viticulture methods led to increased yields, winegrowers were incurring high farming costs.

The introduction of scientific methods of wine farming and wine production led to increasing competition among winegrowers. Southern France established itself as a sort of wine factory. The improved infrastructure associated with setting up rail led to Southern France supplying markets with cheap wine.

As a result of this, Burgundy wine lost its geographic location advantage. The emergence of fake wines in France led to the enactment of laws between 1889 and 1891 that suggested that all wine should be made exclusively from grapes.[10] Besides, the arrival of wine from Algeria, a French colony, contributed to a further influx of wine within French society. Plentiful harvests between 1904 and 1905 led to winegrowers undergoing more hardship in selling their products. In effect, in some taverns, wine was no longer sold by the bottle; rather, it was sold on an hourly basis. The tavern would sell wine based on what one could drink within an hour.

French, French Wine Production During the 1900s & First World War

Fig 3: 1915, Wine for Troops

Changes to drinking culture

Before the First World War, there existed a high local consumption of wine in France.[11] For example, red wine was made a part of every meal in the Southern France regions. Red wine was paired with cheese and loaves of bread. Children were also provided with wine, although it was diluted by water. In harvest seasons, one non-stop 8-hour workday would lead to the generation of 3 liters of wine and 5 francs, with an income for a woman being 1 liter and 3 francs.

Between 1910 and 1913, France’s per capita alcoholic beverages were at 128 liters annually, with the per capita wine consumption at 51 liters. Between 1910 and 1913, wine was the leading alcoholic beverage consumed in France.[12] Ideally, many growers were primarily diversified farmers whose production was for domestic purposes and some for trade.

In several instances, the quality of the wine was not their key concern as they tended to focus on quantity. Wine merchants managed all company exports with representatives in foreign countries. During the First World War, wine merchants capitalized on the opportunity and advocated for exporting wine to allied nations.[13]

Despite the merchants’ need to diversify exports, some allied governments imposed bans on selling and distributing alcoholic products. For example, Nicolas the Second regulated the alcohol trade in Russia by establishing monopolies. During the First World War, in 1916, the government of Russia imposed hefty taxes on all imported wines.[14] Other countries, including the U.K., the United States, Canada, and Scandinavian countries, had groups that actively petitioned to prohibit the sale and trade of alcoholic products. These practices limited the sale and distribution of French wine during the First World War.

Creating a thriving market

Individuals who understand the history of wine will speak of France’s love for wine. The First World War was essential in cementing France’s relationship with wine. Indeed, before the First World War, different regions in France favored different kinds of alcohol.[15] Some areas in France preferred beer, and others preferred wine, with Absinthe available for everyone. However, the First World War was significantly devastating to several people, and the culture ended up becoming synonymous with alcohol and alcohol consumption.

The sale of the French 75 in Paris bars increased. French 75 was named after an artillery gun of France since it had a massive kick; alcohol was part and parcel of individuals referred to as France’s lost generation. The war veterans were haunted by what they had experienced, and as a result, they drank to forget the scourges and horrors of the war a year later. Before the beginning of the war, France’s government-imposed regulations led to a complete ban on the consumption of Absinthe. This was a strong alcoholic drink popular in France during the early 1900s[16]. However, it heavily influenced a widespread moral decay in France, thereby leading to its abolition.

French, French Wine Production During the 1900s & First World War

Fig 4: Message from French President calling French citizens to battle the post-war epidemic associated with alcoholism.

After the ban on Absinthe, it became apparent that France was in dire need of a drink that was not as destructive as Absinthe and would conform to government mandates and regulations.[17] This was a critical starting point in making wine one of the most popular drinks in France. With the German market closed during the First World War, France could not sell its wine products in Germany. Similarly, Germany could also not distribute wine products to its markets.[18] Fine wine merchants of France seized this opportunity. They started exporting Burgundy’s wine made in France to Russia. At that time, Russia had stopped importing Austrian and German wine, and France could effectively conquer wine markets that were left vacant.

However, the 1917 Russian revolution made France lose that entire market. The supply of Burgundy wines to Luxembourg and Belgium did not materialize since the front of the Northern and the Eastern front prohibited the sale and distribution of the wine in these regions. During these periods, countries like the United States, Britain, and Canada were willing to import Burgundy’s wine from France.[19]

The war disrupted the general wine transportation lines of France. Similarly, war at sea made it impossible for France to transport its wine to North American regions. Further, the war made it difficult for France to effectively navigate and distribute wine to the outlets of its colony. German warships patrolling the Far East made it unviable for French wine merchants to move their products to the Far East. In addition, existing commercialized traders were mobilized to join the war and defend their countries.[20] For example, the Cie and Lupe Cholet sale dropped from 120,000 bottles in annual sales to 5,000 bottles in annual sales. The First World War played a huge role in disrupting the distribution and sale of wine.[21]

French, French Wine Production During the 1900s & First World War

Fig 5: Rationing of wine by the French Army in the Trenches

Hurdles imposed by the war

Many factors affected the production of wine during the First World War, ranging from lack of labor to lack of skilled staffing, as most men who were experienced winegrowers had joined the war. As a result, inexperienced women, the elderly, and children were left behind to run the wineries and the vineyards.

The military administration also took vehicles and horses. The military men would evaluate available horses and mules and requisitioned them to be used in war.[22] The military utilized wagons for transportation purposes. Consequently, the production at many estates was hindered as they lacked resources, staffing, and tools.[23] These factors halted the distribution of wine products while inhibiting other essential farm activities, like plowing.

In addition, the war made essential chemicals and farm inputs to be not readily available for producers.[24] These aspects forced the remaining farmers to be innovative and improve efficiency to ensure continuous wine production. With the First World War increasingly sabotaging wine and wine production, farmers’ banks were willing to provide loans to farmers to help them in the wine production process. However, only a few seized the opportunity, with many stating that they were not ready to be burdened by debt.

Many farmers would prefer state-issued cash rather than going for credit. Men who remained helped the inexperienced women and children on the farm. During the stormy winter between 1915 and 1916, the level of production in the vineyard farms plummeted. Ideally, during these moments, vineyards needed strong men to ease production. However, these men were on the frontline, fighting in the war.[25] Under ordinary occasions, these strong men would replace the eroded soil and dig up manure. However, women were forced to prepare the vine due to the war.

Therefore, mothers, sisters, and wives worked in the vines with men fighting in the war. This pattern led to the inception of the slogan, “Men on the front, women in the vineyards,” in France.[26] Men encouraged their women to enroll in viticulture schools to learn more about wine production and farming. Children were recruited to work at the vineyards at the expense of obtaining a compulsory education.[27]

The shortage of labor led to many workers demanding relatively higher wages, proving to be significantly expensive to many estate owners. As a result, influential estate owners recruited prisoners of war to work as enslaved people on their farms. These recruits had reputations as obedient, amenable, and relatively hardworking.[28] The wine was eventually produced and distributed despite the difficulty experienced in wine farming and wine production. Besides, the authorities were not keen on regulating wine production and wine consumption during the war.

Therefore, the production of wine was not declared, with winegrowers selling and distributing wine without even getting approval from the Liquor Control Board.[29] Some arguments suggest that women’s emancipation started when women were allowed to work in the vineyards, which was entirely reserved for men. However, since the First World War period, women were not allowed to participate in winemaking until recently.

Historical Context of Wine before and during the First World War

Date Event Other Details
1878 Phylloxera pandemic The subterranean colonies could attach themselves to the roots, piercing them and sucking them up, drying vine stocks. As a result, French wine farmers experienced heavy losses.
1888 – 1891 The emergence of Fake wines in France Government regulations were passed, suggesting that all wine should be made exclusively from grapes.
1904 – 1905 Hourly basis drinks offered in French taverns A massive supply of wine made wine taverns sell wine based on what one could drink within an hour.
1915 1.      Creation of the French 75 Cocktail

2.      Ban on Absinthe drink

The Wine Cocktail was initially introduced in 1915 at the New York Bar located in Paris. In the same year, the government issued a regulation prohibiting the sale and distribution of Absinthe drinks prevalent in French society. It provided an opportunity for the popularity of wine products.
1917 The inception of Poilu image In the modern-day, the image is a part of a national myth in France about wine.

 [1] Lecat, B., Chapuis, C., & Wolf, M. M. (2021). Wine and war: Burgundy wine production and consumption during World War I. Journal of Wine Research32(1), 11-37.

[2] Le Bras, S. (2014). Supplying the Front. French Southern Wine Wholesalers Facing World War I. In International Conference on World War I.

[3] Phillips, R. (2016). French wine: A history. Univ of California Press.

[4] Banerjee, A., Duflo, E., Postel-Vinay, G., & Watts, T. (2010). Long-run health impacts of income shocks: Wine and phylloxera in nineteenth-century France. The Review of Economics and Statistics92(4), 714-728.

[5] Lecat, B., Chapuis, C., & Wolf, M. M. (2021). Wine and war

[6] Ibid

[7] Banerjee, A., Duflo, E., Postel-Vinay, G., & Watts, T. (2010). Long-run health impacts of income shocks

[8] Lecat, B., Chapuis, C., & Wolf, M. M. (2021). Wine and war

[9] Ibid

[10] Estreicher, S. K. (2006). Wine: from Neolithic times to the 21st century. Algora Publishing.

[11] Le Bras, S. (2014). Supplying the Front.

[12] Ibid

[13] Loubère, L. A. (2014). The wine revolution in France. Princeton University Press.

[14] Le Bras, S. (2014). Supplying the Front.

[15] Lecat, B., Chapuis, C., & Wolf, M. M. (2021). Wine and war

[16] Olsen, R. W. (2000). Absinthe and γ-aminobutyric acid receptors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences97(9), 4417-4418.

[17] Lecat, B., Chapuis, C., & Wolf, M. M. (2021). Wine and war

[18] Le Bras, S. (2014). Supplying the Front.

[19] Lecat, B., Chapuis, C., & Wolf, M. M. (2021). Wine and war

[20] Loubère, L. A. (2014). The wine revolution in France.

[21] Le Bras, S. (2014). Supplying the Front.

[22] Ibid

[23] Fourcade, M. (2012). The vile and the noble: The relation between natural and social classifications in the French wine world. The Sociological Quarterly53(4), 524-545.

[24] Lecat, B., Chapuis, C., & Wolf, M. M. (2021). Wine and war

[25] Matasar, A. B. (2006). Women of wine. University of California Press.

[26] Lecat, B., Chapuis, C., & Wolf, M. M. (2021). Wine and war

[27] Ibid

[28] Harris, R. (1993). The” child of the barbarian”: rape, race, and nationalism in France during the First World War. Past & Present, (141), 170-206.

[29] Ibid

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