Pinot Noir for the Masses

Archaeologists have all the fun. Mere historians spend their summers sweating over hot computers while those on expeditions get fresh air and exercise, often in agreeable places. I have just heard from a student who is spending great swaths of his summer making a new map of the Boundary Waters. There are less pleasant ways of spending your days than sitting in a canoe cuddling a GPS. Such canoodling in the Boundary Waters will not reveal any Roman roads (this student’s first love), but he might make his reputation by finally fixing the coordinates of Mist County. No one has ever looked for it that far north.

Of course he would need a time machine. Lake Wobegon, so I have heard its chronicler assert, is really your grandfather’s rural Minnesota. One doubts if many Norwegian bachelor farmers use GPS to direct and regulate their seed drills; there won’t be a lot of agribusiness done in the Chatterbox Café.

All the same, the portrait of this place is at least grounded in realism, which is more than you can say for a lot of pastoral literature. When the Hellenistic wordsmith Theocritus had the wheeze that you could compose clever poetry about country life, he meant it as metaphor; the dysfunctional affections of the nymphs and shepherds who sport in his delightful pleasant groves represent the abstract attachments of urban intellectuals. It is the same with Tudor madrigals. If fair Cloris actually met her swain in a pigsty she would surely have been far too worried about the mud on her multiple petticoats to celebrate their happy, happy loves. Clint Bunsen, by contrast, is not afraid of a little axle-grease.

What is even more remarkable, the good folk of Lake Wobegon are described with optimism and affection; Powdermilk Biscuits are good for you—mostly. Everyday stories of countryfolk are often distressingly cruel. Take Sinclair Lewis. He seems to be the first writer ever to have used the pejorative term “hick” as an adjective; it is a wonder the good people of Gopher Prairie’s real-world counterpart, Sauk Centre, did not chase him all the way down Main Street and into the next county, however many Nobel Prizes he had to his credit. Perhaps their revenge is not to read his novels.

The true masters of metropolitan disdain, though, are the French. M. Eiffel may have been born in Burgundy but he built his tower in Paris. The French intellectual even has an epithet which puts simple countryfolk in their place: They are the petit peuple. Whatever the feminists tell you, Madame Bovary was the victim of the French failure to embrace the simple pleasures of provincial life (though I guess you could say her enthusiastic embrace of a number of other pleasures also contributed to her decline and fall).

It was not ever thus. In the fifteenth century, Burgundy in the east of France was a self-governing duchy capable of pursuing its own foreign policy—it was a Duke of Burgundy who captured Joan of Arc. Much of what one thinks of as characteristically medieval is associated with the Burgundian court—the high, pointy hats of the ladies, Books of Hours embellished with luminous blue and gold, the angular elegance of the music of Dufay. The distinctly unhick lives of John the Fearless and Philip the Good were fuelled by good local wine whose terroir had already been nurtured (not least by Cluniac and Cistercian monks) for centuries.

The Pinot Noir grape is the characteristic grape of Burgundy—it first enters the written record (as Noirien) in documents from the reign of Philip the Bold. The good duke resented growers who wanted to make quick profits from the higher-yielding Gamay variety, and ordered them to mend their ways; so much for the magic of the market. You can benefit from this ducal forethought. In Burgundy, 2005 was a particularly good year, warm but not scorching and wet at just the right times. The long-established shippers Bouchard Ainé et Fils have generously made available a very pleasing red burgundy, full of fruit and flavor, labeled simply 2005 Bourgogne Rouge Pinot Noir, at a shockingly affordable price: under $20 a bottle. Local taste (rather than price) might prompt drinkers at the Sidetrack Tap to give it a miss, but I can imagine this burgundy being sipped with pleasure (from glass, not plastic, glasses) once the canoe has been parked, the GPS put to bed for the night, and the sausages (scholars cannot afford steak) have been set to sizzle.