At one stop on my two month tour of the California wine scene in 1970, I asked a prominent producer if there were any fraternal societies associated with different wine regions in the state.
"Mr. Cameron," he replied quite forcefully, "we're much too busy with making and selling wine to bother with that sort of nonsense!"
He probably knew that most of the wine confreries in the U.S. at the time were closely linked with Burgundy and Bordeaux, and that their activity was largely confined to splendid dinners and fraternal ritual. So his put-down was perhaps understandable. But indigenous confreries in the U.S. need not be separated from the source of wines. Certainly the 78 societies that exist in wine regions of France are far from superficial. Take for instance, one of the largest, the confrerie here in Macon.
In its early days Macon was a large commercial center and much activity was closely associated with vines and wines. According to existing social patterns, almost every group of artisans had their own special guild for mutual welfare. Often victims of unpredictable natural disasters, vignerons also felt the need for a guardian angel, and history records a fairly plausible sequence of events resulting in their ultimate choice.
It appears that in 543 A.D., the remains of Saint Vincent, dean of Saragosse in Spain, ended up in Macon. This came about because vice-regal leaders of the retinue charged with repatriating Saint Vincent's "ossements" to France were so impressed with Macon, and especially its magnificent cathedral, this city was selected as their final resting place. Whether a result of Macon thus being placed under the protection of Saint Vincent, or simply a play on words with his name (Vin-Sang; wineblood), he came to be identified as patron saint of all vignerons. In modern times, his name was linked specifically with the local society of winegrowers.
When I first became associated with the "Confrerie des Vignerons de Saint Vincent Macon," it was relatively small, with little pretention but plenty of dedication - dedication to a conviction that "happiness is simple and pure like good wine, so that anyone, near or far, associated with its production, is helping defend and glorify all the values of our civilization."
With this sort of history and motivation in back of it, one could hardly classify the confrerie in Macon as "nonsense." Nor would a glance at present day activity justify it. For instance, there is the hugh "Concours des Vine Maconnais-Beaujolais" each year on the Fete de Saint Vincent - normally the third Saturday in January.
Red wines eligible for this competition include: all Beaujolais, all Macon and certain unclassified local Burgundy (pinot noir), for a total of 26 different sub-classifications. The group of white wines (pinot chardonnay unless specified) includes: all Pouilly-Fuisse plus its satellites Fuilly-Loche and Puilly Vincelle, all Saint Veran, all Macon and again certain Burgundy for a total of 14 classes.
The number of wines in the yearly competition averages around 750, all of the latest vintage. The end result is a first, second and third for each class, plus six special awards for local specialities. (Chenas, incidentally, won out over Saint Amour and Moulin-a-Vent for one of them.)
Juries (eight to 10 men for each of 25) combine an impressive range of member talents. Their first move is usually a quick tasting of all wines to discard those with obvious problems - mainly associated with youth and consequent technical faults that would normally be corrected before marketing. Although numerical appraisals on bouquet, body, color and taste, plus careful notes on each wine are encouraged, winners are frequently determined by a lively exchange of opinion before ever putting pen to paper. Since anyone not raised in the district would have a hard time assessing priority among about 60 percent of any group, however, there is little doubt that the three awards go to wines that are first class - at that age.
Unquestionably there were problems with the 1977 red wines. Light in color and with considerable variation in acidity, they required abnormal care during vinification to achieve acceptable balance. Nevertheless, while making the rounds and tasting one of the best of each group against another about half way down the order of merit, I was more often than not impressed with the slight difference between them. In fact, at one point I co-opted a passing expert into tasting the second choice of one jury against the 15th, and like myself he preferred the latter!
By far the greatest problem with '77 reds probably will be comparison with the previous vintage. Though it was quite evident at last year's tasting that 1976 was above average, I didn't realize how far above until the post-tasting luncheon this year. A '76 Macon, served with the cheese course according to accepted order of presumed quality, made a 1974 Givry seem like a watered-down, inferior Bordeaux!
The whites of '77 appear to have fared rather better than the reds. In fact, after tasting and re-tasting various samples of all classifications, I finished the exercise with a feeling that, unprejudiced by conventional wisdom on fashionable names, I would be delighted with any one of them and, as with the reds, reluctant to state a preference - for early consumption.
Individually, members of the Macon confrerie take an important part in promoting and organizing the big "Concurs" and subsequently with jury service. Collectively they act as hosts in a most effective bit of publicity for the whole area. This takes the form of an impressive evening programin their recently acquired Chateau d'Aine. This function is well supported by the local viticulture community and guests from elsewhere in France and abroad.
A dinner in the main hall of the chateau, involving a folkloric program and then dancing till the small hours, is preceded by a most impressive ceremony of the Confrerie held in the caves. This includes induction of visitors as honorary members of the Confrerie with a colorful, and time-honored, ritual.
One need be involved with these proceedings only once or twice to realize the tremendous value of such fraternal societies for the identity, morale and welfare of a community - which is why they could probably serve a useful purpose in our North American wine regions.