And now for a little history lesson about the region of the Languedoc where I currently live – the Aude. This is a lesson I learned while on a wine supply run for L’Oncle Jules (the bar my wife and I now own and I run in nearby Ginestas), and I thought it would make a great first entrée into the history of the Languedoc and Occitanie for Catharsys. And as what follows led to many of the wine laws that have now shaped the region, I think this little bit of history is a necessary base for some of the wine tours we plan to launch next year. I hope you enjoy, and if you get an itch to visit after reading the post, let me know.Not quite 7 km away from Ginestas is the town of Argeliers and the Café Marcelin Albert (https://www.cafemarcelinalbert.com). The café is now the home of a historical society, but in the late 1800’s, it was owned and run by a man of the same name – Marcelin Albert (although I don’t know if he called it that). And for those of you who don’t know of him, he provides one of the great cautionary tales about taking on the worries of the people and becoming a firebrand for everyone else.
For our pairing video on Argeliers, click here.
In the Languedoc of the early 1900’s, a crisis was developing with respect to wine production. More wine was being produced than could be sold, and the vineyard owners and workers were in dire financial straits. This crisis was compounded by the growing amount of “fake wine” that was being made to take advantage of what demand for wine did exist. What is “fake wine” you ask? There were a number of varieties: diluted wine, wine made with chemicals or made using excess addition of sugar (chaptalization), and there was even wine that was not made of grapes. (NB: while most of you do not know my mother-in-law, non-grape wine used to be a go to for her, but thankfully we have shown her the path to the light…). And thus arose a fierce battle between the makers of natural wine and the purveyors of faux wine.
Enter Marcelin Albert. Albert had worked in the vineyards much of his life and was a firm believer in “vin naturel.” And so, in the grand tradition of the French people, he began to organize like-minded individuals in protest. It started small. From 1900-1905, Albert did all he could to assemble the wine growers of the Aude, albeit with little success at first. However, as overproduction continued and the amount of fake wine increased, the problem reached a tipping point. The years of 1904 and 1905 were particularly problematic, as weather conditions led to massive harvests. While 50 million hectoliters was considered the line of demarcation for problematic overproduction and price collapse, France produced 69 million hectoliters of wine in 1904. 58 million hectoliters were produced in 1905. The glut was so devastating that some bars began offering wine not by the glass or by the bottle, but by time – for a flat fee, over a period of time (presumably the opening hours of the establishment) a person could drink as long as they wanted, or until they simply could not drink any more. While many consumers might think of such an offer as a tremendous deal, it led to economic collapse for the winegrowers.
In 1905, in the town of Béziers, a crowd of 15,000 assembled to protest the lack of legislation regarding the quality of wine and limits on production, and the country’s failure to protect one of its most valuable resources – its winegrowers. At this demonstration, our hero, Marcelin Albert, collected 400 signatures on a petition loudly declaring his intent to increase resistance if the government continued to ignore the problem:
Les sous-signés décident de poursuivre leurs justes revendications jusqu’au bout, de se mettre en grève contre l’impôt, de demander la démission de tous les corps élus en engagent toutes les commune du Midi et de l’Algérie à suivre leur exemple aux cris de Vive le vin naturel! À bas les empoissoneurs!
The undersigned have decided to pursue their just claims to the end, to go on strike against taxes [i.e. not pay their taxes], to demand the resignation of all the elected bodies and commit all the communes of the Midi and Algeria to follow their example with cries of Long live natural wine! Down with the poisoners!
Everyone can usually get behind a grève contre l’impôts, even today, and the Languedoc in 1905 was no exception. Albert continued his crusade (ah yes, the Cathars were not the only people subject to a crusade in the Languedoc) for the next few years, until 1907, when matters began to move at a furious pace.
On the eighteenth of February 1907, Albert sent a telegram to the sitting Prime Minister of France, Georges Clemenceau. Because of the ferocity with which he approached issues, Clemenceau had been nicknamed Le Tigre (the Tiger). Albert also had a nickname, Lo Cigal (the Cicada), because he generally was good-natured and carefree – at least that is until the wine crisis overcame him. But a cicada is hardly a match for a tiger, and the disparity in nicknames would unfortunately play out in real life for Albert, but more on that later.
In his missive to Clemenceau, Albert eloquently described the plight of the Languedoc winemakers, and pleaded for assistance from the government:
Midi se meurt. Au nom de tous, ouvriers, commerçants, viticulteurs, maris sans espoirs, enfants sans pain, mères prêtes au déshonneur, pitié! Pitié encore pour nobles défenseurs républicains du Midi qui vont s’entre déchirer dans combat sanglant. Preuve fraude est faite. La loi de 29 janvier 1903 la favorise. Abroger cette loi, voilà l’honnêteté. Devoir gouvernement empêcher choc. S’il se produit, les clés ouvriront portes prison, pourront jamais rouvrir portes tombeaux.
The Midi is dying. In the name of all, workers, merchants, winemakers, husbands without hope, children without bread, mothers on the verge of dishonor, pity! Pity again for the noble republican defenders of the Midi who will be torn apart in bloody combat. The proof of fraud has been made. The law of 29 January 1903 favors it. Repealing that law, that is the honest thing to do. The government must prevent a clash. If it happens, the keys will open the doors of the prisons, but they can never reopen the doors of the tombs.
There does not seem to be evidence of a return telegraph from Clemenceau.
With no relief in sight, a group of winegrowers in Argeliers, including our hero, formed the Comité de defense viticole (Committee for the Defense of Viticulture). On the eleventh of March 1907, 87 of them then marched from Argeliers to Narbonne – a walking distance of some 20 kilometers according to Apple Maps – to meet with regional government. According to legend, after the meeting, the Comité marched around Narbonne singing their battle chant, La Vigneronne.
Jadis tout n'était qu'allégresse ; Aux vignerons point de soucis, Hélas aujourd'hui la tristesse Règne partout en ce pays; (bis) On n'entend qu'un cri de colère, Un cri de rage et de douleur. (bis) au refrain.
Deuxième couplet En vain on veut sécher nos larmes Nous berçant d'espoir mensonger; Les actes seuls donnent des armes Quand la patrie est en danger. (bis) Tous au drapeau, fils de la terre, Et poussons tous ce cri vengeur. (bis) au refrain
Troisième couplet C'est dans l'union qu'on aiguise Les glaives qui font les vainqueurs Et la victoire n'est promise Qu'à l'union des gens de coeur. (bis) Quand la bataille s'exaspère Il ne faut pas de déserteurs ! (bis) au refrain
Refrain Guerre aux bandits narguant notre misère (bis) Et sans merci guerre aux fraudeurs, (bis) Oui guerre à mort aux exploiteurs, (bis) Sans nulle merci la guerre aux fraudeurs Et guerre à mort aux exploiteurs, Oui!
Formerly there was nothing but joy;
For the winemakers there were no problems,
Alas today sadness
Reigns everywhere in this country; (twice)
We hear only a cry of anger,
A cry of rage and pain. (twice)
In vain, we want to dry our tears
We cower with false hope;
Acts alone give weapons
When the homeland is in danger. (twice)
All to the flag, sons of the earth,
And let's all raise that vengeful cry. (twice)
It is in the union that we sharpen
The swords that make the winners
And the victory is promised
Only to the union of the people of heart. (twice)
When the battle gets worse
We must not have deserters! (twice)
War on bandits taunting our misery
And war without mercy on fraudsters, (twice)
Yes war to the death to the exploiters, (twice)
Without any mercy, war on fraudsters
And war to the death to the exploiters,
If you look up pictures or drawings of Marcelin Albert, he looks like a kindly bearded gentleman; indeed, some have described him as looking like a Spanish Christ. So the image of him marching through the streets calling for the people to hunt down and kill the people he viewed as having caused the distress of the Midi is both disconcerting and amusing at the same time. But it only goes to show how far he had been pushed in defense of the Midi. And so, the Révolte des Vigneronnes began.
As 1907 moved on, the crowds grew and grew, with organized demonstrations taking place every Sunday. 87 people in Narbonne on March 11 became a meeting of 300 in Sallèles-d’Aude on March 24, which became 500-600 in Bize-Minervois on March 31, 1000 in Ouveillan on April 7, 5000 in Coursan on April 14, and eventually giant throngs of 150,000 in Béziers on May 12, and 200,000 in Perpignan on May 19. On May 26, 250,000 gathered in Carcassonne. Harkening back to the other part of history we will focus our tours on, the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars, Marcelin Albert incited the crowd to defend or die: “The Albigenses [Cathars] were once gathered under these walls, they fell there in defense of their freedom. We will do like them! Forward for the defense of our rights! The Midi wants it, the Midi will have it!”
It was in June 1907 that things took a turn for the worse. Nîmes saw 300,000 demonstrators on June 2, and June 9 in Montpelier was the largest demonstration by far, with estimates ranging from 600,000-800,000. As a result, unfortunately, as often happens, the police and the army were sent to keep order. More than 30,000 troops, most on foot but many mounted, occupied the Midi. In Narbonne, clashes between protesters and the gendarmes led to the gendarmes firing on the crowd, killing an adult and a young teenager. Only a few days later, on June 20, the clashes between protesters and the gendarmes intensified, leading to the deaths of five and injuries to more than 30. Here is another harsh, although much less severe, reminder of the Albigensian Crusade, where in July 1209 most of the inhabitants of Béziers were slaughtered.
With the leaders of the Révolte being arrested, Albert decided to make a last-ditch attempt to enlist the aide of Le Tigre, and so he headed for Paris, fleeing pursuit by the gendarmes. He was able to obtain an audience with Clemenceau, and after much discussion, Clemenceau offered a deal. He promised to work on repressing fraud in the wine industry if Albert would, in turn, go back the Languedoc, calm his people and end the rebellion. Albert agreed to do so. But here is where, at least according to legend, the Cicada was swallowed by the Tiger. Clemenceau gave Albert, who was being actively sought by the gendarmes, a safe-conduct letter (Casablanca, anyone?). It was accompanied by 100 francs to pay for Albert’s train ticket. Sounds like the Cicada got the best of the Tiger, right? Au contraire! As soon as Albert was out of sight, Clemenceau summoned the press and crowed about having found a way to crush the rebellion, all for the paltry sum of 100 francs paid to one Marcelin Albert. On his return, Albert was viewed as a turncoat and traitor who had sold (cheaply) his soul and his people to the Tiger.
While the fight was continued by others, and while it successfully led to the enactment of laws prohibiting chaptalization, followed by the laws that govern quality for protected designations and appellations, Marcelin Albert himself was consigned to ignominy and after spending time in prison to protect himself from angry demonstrators, quickly forgotten. Abandoned by the people who had once called him a Messiah, he fled for a time to Algeria, before returning to France, where he died, essentially unknown, in his hometown of Argeliers on December 12, 1921.
History has been more kind to Albert than either the French government or his compatriots, but it has the benefit of distance and impartiality. Albert has now taken his place as a progenitor of modern French wine regulation and as a defender of the Languedoc.So, you ask, how did I learn all of this on a wine supply run? Well, there is a winegrowers’ cooperative in Argeliers which has a very well-done film about Albert that you can watch as you peruse their selections – Les Vignerons d’Argeliers. And, as a further tribute, they have a nice red wine called, you guessed it, Marcelin Albert. It is an AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protegée) Minervois made of 60% Syrah and 40% Grenache. And they have another called Lou Cigal, in honor of the Cicada. Also an AOP Minervois, it is 80% Syrah and 20% Grenache. If you are ever in the area, give me a call or shoot me an e-mail, and I will be happy to join you for a petit dégustation at the cave. This post is obviously merely a quick gloss over the events that were the Winemaker’s Revolt. Many books have been written on the subject, and I do not pretend to be an expert. So, if you are interested, for more information, please find a book on the Winemakers’ Revolt. While I have tried to double check the above facts using several sources, should any reader be aware of an inaccuracy, or wish to add something, please feel free to comment. And if any of my new friends would like to correct any of the French translations here, you should equally feel free and will have my sincere appreciation for doing so.
Many thanks to Jérôme Séguy, the former proprietor of L’Oncle Jules, both for sitting patiently with me as I watched the film, and for providing me with more history as we drove back to Ginestas.