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Beaujolais in the Balance

Reflections on Marcel Lapierre, and Georges Duboeuf
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 25, 2010 12:30pm ET

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.

Charlie Humphreys
Fort Collins, CO —  October 26, 2010 11:48am ET
While I appreciate your comments and can understand your viewpoint, I must wholeheartedly disagree. First off, to write this less than three weeks after Marcel's death is in poor taste, there is that old saying, "too soon?". Secondly, to say the Duboeuf saved Beaujolais is like saying Kenny G saved jazz, or Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling saved literature. Sure, all three of them raised the spotlight on their respective fields, but were and are able to do so because their products are so accessible. This does not mean that they represent the true potential or terroir of their fields, but rather package and produce it in an easy, friendly way. Yes, idealists can take their passion past the point of practical, but an ideal is ideal, right? I would like to think that Duboeuf may have made the world know the term Beaujolais, but Marcel showed what it could truly be. Something isn't saved unless it is alive!
Thomas Matthews
New York City —  October 26, 2010 1:38pm ET
Charlie, I appreciate your point of view. Please note that I mean no disrespect to Marcel Lapierre; I admire what he stood for and what he achieved, and hope more Beaujolais producers will follow his example. But I wrote this now, because other writers appear to be using their eulogies for Lapierre to criticize, if only by implication, bigger producers such as Georges Duboeuf.

I disagree with your analogies. While the "popular" artists you cite may share with Duboeuf a certain "accessibility" that some may assert is TOO "easy", none of them had the profound, positive economic impact on an entire region and culture that Duboeuf had on Beaujolais. My reading of history is that both men were responsible for saving something valuable about Beaujolais.
Alice Feiring
New York City —  October 26, 2010 5:12pm ET
Hello Tom,

As you never met Marcel and never drank him before you picked up that 1/2 bottle, (and I wonder if you'd ever heard of him prior to his death), I wonder what it is you think Marcel stood for?

I visited Marcel before he died and Duboeuf did indeed come up. The ensuing conversation was respectful, as it was at Chadunet's as it was as Foillard's, in fact, I've never heard any of the better vignerons in the Beaujolais knock Dubouef. I was always impressed by their attitude. Maybe they didn't think he was so good for wine, but for the region? Yes.

Not every winemaker can or wants to be an artisan. The artisan cannot afford to advertise, so I understand the rush to take care of one of your own. But to use Marcel's death to beat the Dubouef drum did you, the magazine and Beaujolais a disservice. At best, the timing and message of the piece seems misguided.

Furthermore, I still find it difficult that you can't taste the difference between a traditional fermentation and thermovinification. You have a far better palate than that.

Best, Alice
Thomas Matthews
New York City —  October 26, 2010 5:38pm ET

Thanks for joining in the conversation.

Of course I knew of Marcel Lapierre before his death. I enjoyed (and reviewed) some of his wines well before this half-bottle. I'm sorry I never met him. My loss.

What do I think he stood for? As I wrote: "sustainable agriculture, local traditions and quality wine." Is that wrong, in your opinion? I mean no disrespect to him or his wine. Or to those who loved him.

Whether or not Georges Duboeuf advertises in Wine Spectator has nothing to do with this, and it's a low blow to suggest it. In my opinion, a number of writers have used Lapierre's death to criticize Duboeuf, so I think it's only fair play to weigh in with some positive comments about his contributions to Beaujolais.

I'm pleased to know that Lapierre respected Duboeuf, and I'm sure the feeling was mutual. The point of this essay is to suggest that we wine lovers should respect both men. I certainly do. What about you?

Craig Camp
California —  October 27, 2010 12:50am ET
My God this is sad. To comment on a winemakers life work based on a half bottle (of all things) of unknown provenance is insensitive at best. Certainly the commercial success of DuBoeuf is to be admired, but it need not to be at the expense of an artisans life work.
Joe Dressner
New York, New York —  October 27, 2010 12:25pm ET
There is a nice discussion about this article at:

Alex Bernardo
Millbrae, CA —  October 27, 2010 1:46pm ET
What'd I miss? Is there a culture war fermenting here?
Alice Feiring
New York City —  October 27, 2010 3:08pm ET
Tom, you have a strange idea of what respectful is. You dismissed his work on a 1/2 bottle. That aside, few were saying that Marcel was the most transcendent winemaker in the Beaujolais, but his wines were always exceedingly enjoyable.

Where does the acclaim for the man come from? Besides his personal spirit, here is the point: without the work of Marcel and those who started to work with organic and no additives, Beaujolais would have been a wine disaster, and would have waited centuries to come out of its bad reputation. The crus would not have been resurrected.

Now, the region has diversity, wine for the masses and wine for the devotee of terroir...and we love those granitic soils.

With all due respect to Dubouef, if al of Beaujolais was his, I would be seeking my gamay solely from the Loire and northern burgundy.

I am sorry for assuming this was driven by advertising dollars, as well as years of friendship, but it is an honest mistake.--Alice
Howard G Goldberg
New York, N.Y. —  October 27, 2010 6:53pm ET
Alas, Alice's remarks bring to mind H. L. Mencken's definition of Puritanism: "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

Georges Duboeuf's Beaujolais, from simple and pleasurable through esthetically and technically sophisticated versions, has brought countless thousands of consumers immeasurable pleasure over many years.

Alice has it exactly upside-down. Actually, without Duboeuf, to use her words, "Beaujolais would have been a wine disaster."

Georges has been, like a high-powered locomotive with a far-reaching frontal lamp, a beacon in what was otherwise a regional darkness. And like a locomotive, as a négociant he carried a lot of freight -- growers, vintners, families -- through and out of that economic darkness.

Taking a bat to Duboeuf's nouveau and sometimes enchanting crus is like assaulting a butterfly. Yes, nouveau's salad days may be behind it -- I myself hope not, because I don't regard its debutante-like pleasures as The Infidel -- but it has kept alive the name Beaujolais (whose very sound brims with brio) and has laid the groundwork for appreciation of Marcel Lapierre's legacy.

There is nothing faintly disrespectful to Lapierre, nothing dismissive, in Tom's reflections that link Lapierre and Duboeuf. On the contrary, I find quietly expressed admiration for Lapierre in the language, sentiments, tone and structure of the blog posting. Tom needn't have drunk a drop of Lapierre's wines to understand his contribution to Beaujolais.

Those granitic cliffs that Alice loves indeed may symbolize the future of Beaujolais as a bastion of naturalism. In ascending those heights, adherents of the movement ought to keep an eye on the rear-view mirror in order to see the long, arduous trip in perspective.
Eli Curi
New York —  November 2, 2010 1:28am ET
1/2 a bottle of a poor vintage, no less. 2007 is not a good year in Beaujolais. Try his 2005 or 2009, and then make a judgment.
Thomas Matthews
New York City —  November 2, 2010 1:12pm ET
It's clear this blog touched a nerve; as I predicted, I have been called hard-hearted, wrong-headed, and worse, in responses here and in the Twitterverse. But I appreciate that Alice and Joe took time to comment, and hope that readers will generally take away from this blog what Howard found in it: great admiration for Marcel Lapierre, and a suggestion that it takes many kinds of leaders to "save" a wine region.
Dmitry Megrish
New Jersey —  November 2, 2010 1:57pm ET

If you predicted it will touch a nerve of many people, you should have thought twice about publishing it. After all, you are the senior editor of the largest wine publication, non internet blogger looking for readers attention.

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