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Wine and Power, a Palimpsest for Armistice Day

By Kenneth Friedenreich

Given the dismal quality of history education these days, and the even more dismal state of discourse on this subject beyond pop trivia, it is likely most people will commemorate the end of World War One by going to the mall for a “Veterans’ Day Sale.” After 100 years, silent film herky-jerky images belie the bloody reality of it. The century since has been no picnic either.

The centenary will go by largely unnoticed. At least air Jordan knockoffs are on sale.

That Armistice helped launch another war in America. It was called Prohibition and it proved an egregious failure. Also, as advertised, the war to end all wars, didn’t work either. The next one was worse.

Reading on and writing about wine culture, its history, customs, challenges and economic impacts has led me to assert that wine production is perhaps the best expression of will within nature, as remarkable as diverse advancements from moveable type to the Salk vaccine, from the B minor Mass to rack and pinion steering.

When the lands are cleared of brigands and noxious scattered villages, land is fit for a more elaborate kind of use. No appropriation of a place will survive without feeding itself.

When armies move, in addition to pratboys and prostitutes, purveyors and tinkers, they migrate ways of doing things in newly settled land. The end of barbarism is a measure of settled property to dwell within and feed upon by cultivation. So, as Roman legions crush enemies, soon their successors crush grapes.

Vines first flourish where blood and treasure have been spent. Before you strike some wide-eyed OMG pose, remember that human endeavor rewards aggression and audacity more than picking nose-gays in a meadow.

In this way a book like Wine and War, narrating how the French snookered the Nazi bonzen to protect their most esteemed wine properties, provides both a good tale, but also how grapes as booty tends to protect certain acres from jackboots, land mines, and carpet bombing.

You can read litanies of bombardments, but they report damaged cathedrals, shattered factories, and decomposing cows. No one seems to blow up wineries deliberately even as the locals tend to disappear.

Why?

Vineyards express the power of possession. They provide a productive engagement with the environment, a dance with Nature spun in recurring rhythms, and above all, the reclamation of disorder into order. To what purpose? To make mankind happy? To lubricate living in ways allowing all of us to drink good wine and some of us to even write about it.

For millennia, our forebears pushed west, following the sun’s course, to overcome and take possession, to make things grow in the places they took. Vineyards announce a successful transfer of ownership of a place, and as the Gevrey Chamberlain proes smiles about the table, no one really cares to wonder how this proven vineyard acreage got here about a thousand years ago.

When Fate conspires to put you into a tasting room already overpopulated by a bridesmaid party, think on this.

The tour visit to wine country is more than an “experience,” in the current argot of concierge-speak. It also is more than the snooty pursuit of wines with cachet, like a new Tessla under the port corchiere. Its terroir is a palimpsest of geologic, climatic, and human interaction with the conditions that occurred over a great span of time, relatively speaking.

You are, rather, encompassed by Nature, in an armistice of sorts with men, women, honey bees, mustard blossoms and grapes. The vines and their fruit march up and down slopes giving due respect to the sun above; they fan out to pull from the substrata of dirt and stones, minerals and water, to bring the maturing fruit home on time and intact.

Successful growers and their hands know that stability over time allows both for creativity in winemaking and also the skills to respond to anomalies, from aphids to potential smoke damage, not to mention the pressures on land spurred by increased visitor traffic.

With about 750 wineries and 1,100 vineyards in Oregon, we might get the feeling that the Dragon’s Teeth from the cruise of Jason and his Argonauts is newly told.

But the teeth of the dragon now is money, Lots of it. Properties transfer ownership and funky tasting rooms get the Rodeo Drive makeover. The new Napoleons parade their artillery of accountants and analysts, with nary a spot of local dirt to be seen on custom made suits.

The upside if one emerges shows up in better farming techniques and better overall production, provided the beans go back to headquarters.

Money power is hardly new. Bucolic pictures painted by the Breughel’s centuries ago were inspired by patronage. These happy figures swilling wine live on uncontested land. One doesn’t plant rows of Pinot Noir as the Battle of Agincourt is raging over the next hill.

The politically incorrect conclusion I urge is that a wine culture is a palimpsest of conflicts resolved, challenges met, and hospitality proffered after the armies break camp.

As James Carroll noted in his 2001 book, Constantine’s Sword, when Caesar divided Gaul into three parts, the persons divided did not have a voice. They were already chained in galleys. Power scatters some by having others settle in.

Closer to home Richard White titles his account of settling the American West on the cowhand ditty strummed to unsuspecting cattle, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”. The get-along little doggie is heading to Delmonico’s to commiserate with a baked potato. To make use of land, you have to seize it first.

I see the marvelous combinations of land use growing wine grapes, dropping filberts, the skeptical gazes of llamas, the span of seed grass, incipient Christmas trees together reflecting order somewhat imposed by a little exercise of determination and foresight to put down some roots. It begins with an exercise of power to establish places that allow those to enjoy it.

The endgame is not power, however. or even the vineyards managed. It is hospitality. To share the bounty at table makes us serve our better angels.

The closing paragraph of The Boys up North celebrates this splendid moment, powered by wine. If the Armistice of 100 years ago teaches us still–and it must–it reiterates the lessons of clashing armies. It is easier for a well-equipped and disciplined force to conquer than to occupy land indefinitely by brutish coercion. Empires, we know, disappear. Ask the Kaiser. The Romanovs. The Ottoman Turks. The Hapsburgs.

The wolf may not be at the door but is surely somewhere in the neighborhood. A vineyard is a break against the chaos just beyond a block of one’s best vines. As the Duke of Wellington said post-Waterloo, “It was a close-run thing.”

So, when the carafe is past, and the food platters tease our senses, remember hospitality; that it’s a far, far better thing to be at the table than on it.


Kenneth Friedenreich, author of the new book, Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grape, was born on the same date as that marking the Armistice, thus always assuring a day off from school on his birthday.

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