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Of reds, whites, and bluebloods: revolution and wine in America and France


Liberty and wine (apologies to Delacroix and Bartholdi for taking a few liberties  . . .)

How diminished access to affordable wine factored in to both the American and French revolutions

There are more than a few parallels between the French and American revolutions: Both are commemorated by holidays in July, (Independence Day on the 4th and Bastille Day the 14th), the same national colors, and similarly spurred by corrupt royal rule and unfair taxation. In both countries, access to affordable everyday wine played a significant role. Though not widely recognized, the liberation of the Bastille was not the first major act of the insurrection in France, but rather the storming of the customs offices at the gates of Paris where increased taxes on wine had been imposed. And while the Boston Tea party marked a significant escalation of protests against taxation without representation on British subjects in the colonies, it was wine they really relied upon for their day-to day existence. Tea was a luxury, wine a necessity.
Colonists were desperate to figure out how to make wine in the New World. Wine made trans-Atlantic seafaring possible, by decontaminating drinking water; the pilgrim ships carried more wine than fresh water. It was well understood that survival in the colonies depended on winemaking for the same reason.  A 1623 law in colonial Virginia underscored this urgency, mandating that “Every householder doe yearly plante and maintaine10 vines, untill they have attained to the arte and experience of dressing a vineyard, either by their owne industry, or by the instruction of some vigneron.” Winemaking was never successful in the colonies despite consultants being brought over from France, so the colonies remained dependent on imports. The British blockade during the Revolutionary War cut off access to imported wine, furthering discontent.


Is a tax on wine a tax on health?

In France wine was increasingly taxed toward the end of the Ancien Régime, under an elaborate system known as tax farming.  An important collection point was at the gates of Paris, where the taxes effectively tripled the price. Ordinary Parisians would circumvent this by going to taverns just outside the city for their daily quaff after a day’s labor, but as Paris expanded and the walls moved farther out this became impractical. The result was a lack of affordable wine for the average man, a situation that undoubtedly contributed to increasing unrest. On July 11, 1789, a series of dramatic attacks on the customs barriers began, continuing for the next 3 days; according to one historian, Paris was “encircled by a wall of flames.”
Addressing the wine tax issue was one of the first orders of business for the National Assembly after the revolution. Étienne Chevalier, a deputy from Argenteuil (and a winemaker) argued for abolishing the tax: “Wine is the basis of the survival of the poor citizens of Paris. When bread, meat, and other foods are too expensive, he turns to wine; he nourishes and consoles himself with it.” He held that the taxes were “unjust in their principles and unproductive, immoral and disastrous in their consequences.”
This same sentiment would be argued in the United States by Jefferson: “I rejoice as a moralist at the prospect of a reduction of the duties on wine by our national legislature… Its extended use will carryhealth and comfort to a much enlarged circle. And later: I think it is a great error to consider a heavy tax on wines as a tax on luxury.  On the contrary, it is a tax on the health of our citizens.”

A toast to freedom!

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