Decolonizing Wine

Professor Joseph Bohling gives a lecture on the history of the French-Algerian wine trade

On Wednesday, November 20, Assistant Professor of History at Portland State University Joseph Bohling delivered a lecture about the effects of the transformation of the French-Algerian wine industry post-World War I titled “The Sober Revolution: How the End of French Algeria Transformed the World of Wine.” Bohling’s lecture focused particularly on the colonial symptoms of the wine industry and the culture of wine in mainland France during the postwar era. He also discussed how the notion of terroir, the “alchemy of soil, weather, and wine-growing practices that result in distinct qualities of wine,” defined the economic landscape of winemaking as well as the colonial structures it installed in Algeria from roughly 1930 to 1950.

Bohling’s lecture began with a modest background on the importance of wine and the scale of its consumption by the French people after World War 1. He referenced an essay written by notable French semiotician and literary theorist Roland Barthes called Wine and Milk, in which Barthes describes how the “French enshrouded wine in myths” by ascribing a nearly supernatural quality to the alcoholic beverage that reached peak levels of consumption during the interwar years in 20th century France. For all the celebration and mystification of wine by the French, however, Bohling made sure to highlight how Barthes challenged conventional French images of wine in his essay, signalling that rising wine consumption might be linked to alcoholism in France. 

Bohling illustrated this point by noting the volume of consumption of mass-produced wine by working class laborers in France. He stated “some laborers were known to have consumed some three glasses of wine per day”, linking the universal popularity of wine amongst the French to the influence the wine lobby had on regional parliamentary government and politics nationwide. 

The socio-historical outlook of Bohling’s lecture also expanded outside of the scope of the postwar wine industry boom in France. Bohling also looked at the impact the productivity of the era had on France’s colonial expansion in Algeria up until the French-Algerian War, explaining how “from the 1960s onward [the notion of] terroir was valorized to an unprecedented degree”.

In reality, the “empire of wine” in France “hardly equated to romantic images of wine production,” instead propagating “expropriation, racism, and territorial control” in the fertile regions of Algeria. Because the wine trade thrived on cheap indigenous labor and low export costs to begin with, the racist narrative of Algerian inferiority, coupled with the ongoing economic exploitation, made matters of independent decolonization led by Alergians difficult. 

It just so happened that a campaign in France led by a group of public health advocates known as “Sober Revolutionaries” had already sprung. The group, which was made up of politicians, technocrats, and health officials, sought to reform the colonial activities and nature of the French wine industry in Algeria. By using their influence and relationships to the media in France and internationally, these revolutionaries were able to bring colonial practices related to wine production to an end. 

In parting, Bohling focused on the effects the movement of the Sober Revolutionaries had on food production globally, looking at how the decentralization of wine production could lead to more equitable models of trade. Yet, Bohling mentioned, the practice of localized food production remains today, but with a declining emphasis on the traditional capitalist and colonial systems of the postwar industrial era.

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