Beaujolais in the Balance

Reflections on Marcel Lapierre, and Georges Duboeuf
Oct 25, 2010

Call me hard-hearted, or wrong-headed. But as I read the outpouring of admiration and love for Marcel Lapierre following his untimely death in early October, I thought of Georges Duboeuf.

Lapierre, who tended a small family domaine in Morgon, in the Beaujolais region of France, had an impact far beyond the size of his production. He was an early and faithful adherent to a traditional, non-interventionist approach to grapegrowing and vinification. This made him a hero to the proponents of "natural" wine. And they, in turn, have positioned him in opposition to the wines they judge as industrial or even immoral.

As New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov put it in his obituary, "[Lapierre] and a group of three other producers were instrumental in demonstrating to the world that Beaujolais had far more to offer than its often insipid mass-market nouveau wines."

Wine writer Alice Feiring cast Lapierre's legacy in ethical terms. She wrote in her blog, "There are stars in the world, leading men and women, ones that make a difference. You can smell them, see them vibrate … The saving of Beaujolais was mostly his heavy lifting in his quiet way … he left behind a legacy of commitment, [that] belief + action changes the world."

I regret to say that I never met Lapierre. Based on the eulogies, I am sure he was an admirable person. I don't know his wines well, either. Based on our reviews, I can tell they were exemplary, too. Last night, out for dinner with friends at a locavore restaurant in Brooklyn called Rose Water, I spotted a half-bottle of Lapierre Morgon 2007 on the list for $36, and we drank it.

It was lovely. Light ruby in color, just showing some age at the rim, it offered alluring aromas of berries, tobacco, tea and spices. It was supple on the palate, with notes of tobacco and fresh earth framing a core of sweet cherry fruit.

Was it balanced, lively and refreshing? Yes, indeed. Was it transcendent, somehow on a different plane than other delicious Beaujolais I have enjoyed? No, I couldn't really go that far.

Do I think Marcel Lapierre somehow "saved" Beaujolas? I can't go that far, either. Certainly, his commitment to sustainable agriculture, local traditions and quality wine helped lead the region in the right direction. But what does it mean to save a place, a wine, a culture?

Saved from what? From whom? Reading between the lines, I suspect that Asimov and Feiring would say that Lapierre saved Beaujolais from the likes of Georges Duboeuf, the epitome of "insipid mass-market nouveau." As if cheap and cheerful Beaujolais Nouveau was the threat, the enemy.

To the contrary, I think an argument can be made that the global popularity of Beaujolais Nouveau "saved" this impoverished and isolated region in the post-war period. Yes, it has proved a double-edged sword; it came to dominate Beaujolais production, threatened to homogenize its wines and damaged its reputation for authenticity and quality. Excess in any direction ultimately leads to peril. But without Nouveau, Beaujolais might not have flourished to the point where it needed "saving" by Lapierre. And without Duboeuf, Nouveau might never have achieved its global success.

In I'll Drink to That, his history of Beaujolais, Rudolph Chelminski portrays Duboeuf as a key figure in the confrontation between deep-rooted tradition and relentless modernization that has transformed not only Beaujolais, but much of Europe in the last half century. Duboeuf grew up a poor vigneron and through dint of hard work and utter dedication, became the most important négociant in Beaujolais. As the book documents, Beaujolais suffered, but it has survived. In Chelminski's view, which I share, much of the good enjoyed by the region is due to the efforts of Georges Duboeuf. (You can read more about his history in our article archives: Georges Duboeuf: Beaujolais and Beyond, Challenges for a King and Duboeuf's Wine Museum.)

I wonder if Lapierre believed that Nouveau was the enemy, and that he had saved Beaujolais from Georges Duboeuf. From what I have read about him, I doubt it. I suspect he probably felt about Duboeuf what wise men know about most of us humans: We are a mixture of good and bad, doing the best we can.

I imagine Duboeuf knew Lapierre, too, and knowing Duboeuf, I am sure he admired the principled vigneron from Morgon. I suspect he feels that much of the praise now being lavished on Lapierre is a veiled attack on him. I suppose you could cast the two men in a morality play that pits worldly success against traditional virtue. But in my view, that's simplistic, and unfair. I think Beaujolais needed both men, and was fortunate to have been able to draw on their different strengths and talents. I hope the region, and its supporters, can find the middle ground that is the only sure route to stability in the long run.

France Beaujolais

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