The Grapes of Sin (or Virtue, depending on your disposition)

The Grapes of Sin (or Virtue, depending on your disposition)

‘Repas sans vin, repas chagrin.’  

– ‘A meal without wine is a sad meal.’ – French Proverb. 

The Grapes of Sin (or Virtue, depending on your disposition)

The Wines of France

Beneath the presidential office of Elysee Palace in Paris, there is a wine cellar of, unsurprisingly, high repute. The French presidential wine collection is the envy of any wine fan, connoisseur or sommelier, boasting over 15000 bottles of French vintages of every variety, new and old. The cellar is protected by an armoured door and rotating watchmen that guard it, day and night.  

The cellar ceiling is that of a groin vault, shallow in a height that gives the effect of a bird’s beating wings. The grey stone blocks that construct the room are illuminated by bright cream bulbs in the ceiling’s centre that drip over the walls with milky light. Lining those walls and gridding the floor are shelves built of unblemished bright wood that neatly cradle the glass bottles of French excellence. 

In late January 2016, the president’s personal sommelier hovered between these same stacks of red, rose, gold and white, and her tired hazel eyes scanned each individual bottle, her top teeth gently gnawing at her lower lip as she did so. The chosen wine for even the most flippant presidential meeting still spoke volumes in subtext, and this specific meeting in question was far from ordinary. The nervous sommelier was named Virginie Routis and she had spent the bulk of the past few weeks contemplating which bottle of wine to choose for the meeting between François Hollande and Hassan Rouhani, the presidents of France and Iran, respectively. The Iranian visit was one of formality rather than function and yet recent events had hung a heavier pretence on the meeting than it might have initially seemed. 

In the middle of 2015, Iran and various powers in the EU announced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, a political agreement that would see Iran reduce its nuclear facilities and advancements in exchange for the lifting of European sanctions. While the trajectory of this deal has been precarious – it became all but void once the USA pulled out of the deal in 2018, a move that has not yet seen the agreement remade – the EU could not foretell future events and so they spared no expense in accommodating Hassan Rouhani, making cultural compromises to appease any potential ire from the Iranian president or his government. The one role of Virginie Routis appeared meagre in this context yet as the sommelier that represents the president and by extension France, she had to believe that it was the finer details that secured relationships, and for her, there was no finer detail than the wine she chose.  

In the spirit of believing her chosen bottle was the foundation of the two presidents’ cordiality, she strove to strike the balance of taste between the two men. With anything in politics, the slight deviation from perfection could cause trouble that reverberated into calamity, and so Routis systematically weighed France’s finest wines against the palette, and indeed values, of the Iranian president.  

In a confidential physical dossier the preferences and tastes of Hassan Rouhani were detailed by his presidential staff and using them as a reference Routis, like any good sommelier, began to anticipate the Iranian president’s viticultural needs. Her impulse choice was a 1998 Chateau Lafite Rothschild. It being made in Bordeaux, the capital of French wine, she believed it was an adequate representation of France given its geography and year, 1998 being the first time France had won the FIFA World Cup, a detail Hassan Rouhani might appreciate, given his fervour for soccer. More importantly, the Lafite Rothschild bore flavours of red berries, truffle and cinnamon, a flavour profile that would likely compliment Rouhani’s sensibilities which tipped in favour of richness rather than sweetness.  

With that said the sommelier had to account for the meal Elysee Palace’s chef, Guillaume Gomez, was to prepare - a salmon en papillote, French in construct but Persian in influence, featuring the prominence of soft spices cardamom and turmeric and the sharp presence of freshly diced lemon-dashed parsley. With this in mind, she considered something more delicate and floral to balance the layered dish, a delicate inclusion that cooperates rather than contends. She considered a 2004 Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte while holding a golden bottle of 2007 Chateau Y’Quem when the armoured door at the far end of the cellar clunked and heaved its way open. 

The sound of sharp heels clopped around the cellar toward Routis and diligently the sommelier carefully put the bottle of Y’Quem back in its place – wall ten, shelf six, slot four – before turning to greet her guest. Ms Gayet approached Routis with an affable smile, an expression all the more soothing when worn by someone with such gentle features. Julie Gayet, the president’s partner and future wife, had visited the cellar with the president’s permission in the early days of their relationship and so unannounced visits were not unusual and were even welcome by Routis, whose company often exclusively consisted of bottled vintages whose stories were only interesting when uncorked. Any impression of a casual visit faded when Gayet called the Sommelier by her surname rather than Virginie, a name Gayet had grown accustomed to using. 

‘Madame?’ Routis said. ‘Est-ce qu’il y a un problème? 

‘Le président voudrait vous parler,’ Gayet answered. 

 The pair climbed out of the cellar and up the stairs to where daylight greeted the palace interior. On their climb Gayet spoke jovially of insignificant things, her tone and demeanour absorbing the anxiety that steadily built in Routis. They parted at the opal door of the presidential office, with Gayet asking what vintage would be accompanying the evening’s dinner.  

Absently, Routis answered ‘Pichon Lalande. 2004.’ 

Gayet marvelled. ‘Superb,’ she said and departed.  

Routis’ pale knuckle rasped the door of the president’s office and she was welcomed with a bark from the other side.  


Wine in Two Contexts

On that day President Hollande called Virginie Routis into his office to inform her that the meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would not be taking place. Naturally, Routis’ service in that regard was no longer needed and yet she was perplexed as to why she, a sommelier, was called to have this meeting with the president. That morning, Iran had a new demand: that due to Islamic law, there would be no alcohol at the meeting between the two states, in any capacity, neither poured nor offered nor present. For all the allowances they as hosts would make for their visitors - from decorum to diet - a dinner without wine was a compromise France was unwilling to make. In short, Iran would not meet over wine and France would not meet without it, making this vine-covered mound of unchosen vintage and variety, the proverbial hill both nations chose to die on.  

While it might be a thimble dramatic to suggest that this course of action on behalf of both parties jeopardised the Iran Nuclear Deal - and by extension nuclear threat - many had regarded this decision as stubborn at best and dangerous at worst. It broaches the subject of what compromises we are willing to make by ways of cooperation, and what seemingly insignificant values we refuse to surrender, politeness bedamned. It begs the question, what underlying philosophies and histories led to the stance both presidents took? How much of it was posture and how much of it was sincere integrity? And is there much value in either when gambling with peace? 


France et Vin

There are few things as culturally synonymous with France as wine, and vice versa. Francophone life is rife with the drinking of wine and the viticulture world is all but dominated by French vintages and varietals. While it would be a facetious insertion to state that wine is the quintessential cultural pillar of France, its peripheral influence has helped shape French history. Instead of putting the focal point on how wine influenced the shifting powers that ruled over various peoples, kingdoms and empires, I’ll instead highlight the utter commonness of wine in French culture to highlight that President Hollande’s decision was perhaps not one of a man of power, but a man of France. 

While the ‘Ancient World’ had been experimenting with wine in its earliest forms circa 6000 BC there is evidence to suggest that Celts in Gaul – a region that was comprised of present-day France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Italy – had been tinkering with the fermentation of fruits at a similar time. French wine, in the ‘Old World’ sense, did not begin until the combined influence of Greek viticulture and the Roman Empire’s demand for more wine saw vineyards sprout all over France, a domain under Roman rule at the time. And thus French wine culture began in the hands of peasants, it being a labour of duty rather than one of love. 

With wine being predominantly transported in wooden barrels – a Roman innovation – wines inherited character from the wood but also inherited the danger of being transported in them. Any treacherous road all but guaranteed collateral losses and so nautical or riverside cities and settlements – a good portion of France - became prospering trading ports for their reliability in ferrying wines on smooth waters.  

Wine’s timeline however was turbulent with the forces that opposed it. Across multiple eras moralists of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ world rose up against alcohol, brigands found riches by committing wine-related fraud, and harvest yields grew unreliable due to wars or widespread diseases that destroyed whole vineyards, and when other cultures shirked from viticulture, France doubled down on its wine industry. 

Broadly painting a scene, a great many people relied on the wine industry for their livelihood, and up until then the drinking culture surrounding wine was particularly flexible and unrefined. While quality would vary with the social classes, wine was a drink that princes and paupers alike partook of, especially in France, which bore the understanding that everyone was deserving of wine, much like food and water. This was aided by the fact that in many ways wine was safer to drink than water due to its alcohol level as well as being so easily availed of. Rod Phillips detailed public opinion in his book 9000 Years of Wine:  

Wine was regarded so positively in France that the main temperance organization actually called for an increase in wine production and for more efforts to ensure that wine was protected from “adulterations and falsifications that deprive wine of its natural qualities and make it harmful to public health.

This point differed from many other cultures who, for reasons that varied from moral to economical, began to shift away from viticulture and saw the localised industries dwindling or dying. 

In other words, wine was [considered] healthy [in France], and it became harmful only when additives, like essences, aromas, and industrial alcohol were used to modify it. 

The stereotype of the poor being poor due to substance abuse was practically non-existent because of this very understanding that wine was as essential as food. Jean-Baptiste Moheau, a prolific political economist from France, wrote that wine was “an excellent beverage for the poor, not only because it is a food but also because it is a very good protection against disease,” encouraging all members of society to indulge in wine, resulting in a social tolerance for minor drunkenness that encouraged a more favourable stereotype referred to as ‘a french kind of drunk,’ a haze of wit, intelligence and charisma.  

This rhetoric got bound up in French nationalism, arguing that the wine, in a spiritual sense, was the product of France and its soil, its spirit and its people. Phillips quotes separate accounts of wine purists:  

‘In our beautiful France, a country of wine, joy, openness, and happy temperament, let us not talk about abstinence. Your water, your Lenten drinks, your Ceylon tea, fig, or acorn coffee, your lemonade and camomile, be hanged. You are not only bad hygienists, but bad Frenchmen.’ 

And again, perhaps more profoundly, recounting the cultural appreciation of wine concerning the First World War - where French soldiers had drunk 1.6 billion gallons of red wine in 1918 - a French military newspaper, The Echo of the Trenches, quoted: 

“No doubt our brilliant generals and heroic soldiers were the immortal artisans of victory. But would they have been without the pinard [the wine they drank] that kept them going to the end, that endowed them with spirit, courage, tenacity, and scorn for danger, and made them repeat with unbreakable conviction, ‘We will prevail.’ 

Phillips argued that following the war this example was used as an ultimate argument against wine’s opponents, a rhetoric that claimed ‘not only could wine save society from alcoholism and social decline, but it had saved the nation from defeat.’ [2017] 

This was not the first time wine influenced the French political sphere, indeed a huge push in the French Revolution was due to the excessive taxation of wine and the vineyards that produced it. Wine was and still is a remarkably fluctuating market, more at the whim of supply and demand than many others, especially so in the era that approached the French Revolution. Broadly speaking, vineyards saturated the French landscape and had countless livelihoods bound up in them; bountiful harvests of such a high amount of vineyards and of varying quality flooded the market, making wine incredibly unprofitable. An opposite situation could yield the same results: high quality but low yield meant there was no wine to sell. And this volatility was very present in the decade leading up to the French Revolution, a fact that was not aided by the aforementioned taxations that crippled the industry. Naturally, this caused a lot of stress not solely for single individuals who owned vineyards, but entire communities whose micro-economies were reliant on viticulture. A great amount of the revolution’s force was made up of exacerbated peasants who relied on wine for their livelihood. 

With all this said it would be very disingenuous of me to show a narrow set of facts, anecdotes and histories, and suggest, unequivocally, that they are the cultural architecture for wine’s reverence in France. It’s a compelling narrative, but truthfully does lack nuance and is generalised to a fault. With that said this arrangement of details is worth considering in comparison to other nations. What commodities of other cultures have the same reverence and yet prevalence as wine in France, but have also been hugely influential in that cultural growth, both historically and contemporarily? A few? Possibly, but the existence of others does not diminish the importance of one. This narrative is not to sharply say that this is why the French love wine, but it does colour some shade into the consideration that perhaps wine is slightly more elevated in importance than many other things, and perhaps add nuance as to why it would choose to not eschew it is more a matter of principle than pleasure. 


الکل و شراب 

While France is considered to be a contributor of the ‘Old World’ in wine – ‘New World’ being places outside of Europe and the Middle East – Iran is of the ‘Ancient World,’ indeed so ancient that it is among the first countries to specifically use grapes instead of any fermented fruit, as was the norm in the Ancient World.  

Wine did not only exist in the early Persian empires – before the Iran we know today – but was highly common in culture and governance. According to the fifth-century BCE historian Herodotus, those in power would routinely deliberate issues and decisions over wine, even to the point of drunkenness, and come to inebriated conclusions regarding their rule. The following day these officials would reconvene with sober minds and if they still agreed with the political ideas made by their drunken selves, they would put them into action. This excess, while often erroneously attributed to a stereotype of ancient Persia, was not uncommon, with even kings supposedly boasting of their constitution against wine. A legend goes that King Darius the Great, the third king of kings known for administrative genius and benevolence towards his peoples, was buried in a regal tomb that bore the bawdy inscription ‘I was able to drink a great deal of wine and to bear it well.’ [Daryaee, 2012.]  

While this inscription is sadly a myth, and the referenced Daryaee goes about dispelling some of these excessive stereotypes of ancient Persia, their proclivity for wine in particular is known and considered far more to be fact than fiction. And while Iran is obviously not the same as Persia it does beg the question: if wine was so present in Iran’s cultural roots, why is it now considered ‘haram,’ ie sinful and impure? The answer, as you might have guessed, is alluded to in its language. 

Iran might have one of the most fascinating cultural progressions in modern history, with the Iranian Revolution not only being a monumental paradigm shift for this sizeable Middle Eastern nation but also a catalyst of change that gradually reverberated throughout the world. Many nuances contributed to this complex revolution but I will focus on a few key factors that spurred it. 

Firstly there was the 1953 Iranian coup d’etat, in which Iran’s prime minister was overthrown to strengthen the rule of Iran’s monarch known as the Shah, a political move orchestrated by the United States and a detail that will become more relevant in the 70s. The Shah regime growingly came under backlash for its Imperial origin and its increasing oppressiveness, frivolity and corruption, as well as its over-involvement with Western powers that had many believing that Iranian culture was diminishing under the influence of the United States; indeed many black and white photos of bare-skinned and fun-loving revellers are difficult to discern from the American counterparts of the same era. The final factor I’ll mention is the swift and stinging recession Iran faced in the late 70s. These three reasons pervaded every aspect of day-to-day life in Iran and protests and strikes began to sprout up between 1978 and 1979 until they eventually brought the nation to a standstill. The Shah fled Iran and after a national referendum, the public voted to become an Islamic republic, a whiplash change from a highly liberal post-secular culture to an ultra-conservative religious one and a wholehearted pushback against the West.  

This is a broad overview that in many ways does a disservice to the monumental development of this country. The surfaced tellings of a single few events might imply that people went from socialist wine drinkers listening to the Beach Boys at Friday night loft parties, to iron devotees of every element of Islam. This obviously wasn’t the case. Without diving into the morality of societal frameworks, secular or otherwise, it is necessary to mention that countless people, as with any sudden cultural change on a mass scale, suffered. There were widespread illegal imprisonments, tortures, and killings and should one’s philosophy diverge even slightly from the new theistic laws of Iran, everything held dear was in danger. Conform or risk it all, this was the choice ultimately left to many Iranians, and is a choice that provides crucial context as to why drinking wine at those loft parties not only became sinful, but dangerous. 


That Vine-Covered Hill

At this point, I would like to say that my bias is that of someone considerably liberal, more or less agnostic, and Irish. This cultural context created in me someone who unquestioningly lives a post-secular life, that inherently believes rationality prevails, and thus is naturally bewildered and saddened when it doesn’t, when belief instead reigns supreme and dictates culture to the point of bloodshed, let alone the minutiae joy of a glass of wine.  

But similarly, context informs everything, and it makes me significantly less eager to judge the Iranian decision to not even sit with wine on the table, not only because of the religious prejudice against the beverage but also the cultural volatility that their modern government was founded on. Similarly, I understand the weight wine has in France and that everyone, from the individual level to the societal, is entitled to the principles they will not compromise on, even if they seem trivial. Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker wrote in his coverage of the event: 

We do owe people of fundamentally different world views respect for their difference, and insisting that they have to bend to ours in all instances is uncivilized. But, while recognizing our own irrationalities, we don’t owe them a blind bending to theirs. [2016]  

I try to follow the path of empathy in most things and in doing so here I have fallen on neither side. I don’t have an answer, all I have provided is nuance. But as a product of the aforementioned rationality, I tend to believe that a middle ground can always be met, somehow, somewhere, and perhaps that is found in not only the appreciation and understanding of cultural differences but also in doing the personal work in mapping out the histories that created those differences. It’s at least what I have tried to do and while I arrive at a somewhat cliché conclusion, I can offer no better one.