17 September 2010

"It became necessary to destroy the town to save it"

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Cliché? Yes. And yet, true. Ideally, a little knowledge sets one’s feet on the path to more knowledge. But in reality, for too many a little knowledge is simultaneously the beginning and the end of the journey. That one should wish to know more, to know better, never occurs. Once in possession of a fact that confirms one’s prejudices, no matter how decontextualized or debatable, sides are taken, barriers constructed, and rhetorical (or worse) defenses mounted. And thus is our ruinous public discourse conducted.

The cliché applies in other ways, too. Want to enjoy the broadest possible selection of wines, unfettered by moral ambiguity? Don’t get to know the people who make the stuff. Oh, it’s true that most folks who make wine are friendly and generous, some are unfriendly and generous, a few are friendly but grasping, and of course the rest – a pretty small percentage – are widely-acknowledged bastards of the first order. (Often, and refreshingly, they’ll be the first to proffer this acknowledgement.) But encountering someone in a vineyard, or in a tasting room, is not the same as knowing them. Did, for example, the smiling French vigneron that just offered you a gift of a cherished bottle from his cellar vote for the hateful Front national in the last election? Look at the voting totals for certain French regions. Chances are if he didn’t, one of your upcoming appointments did. Is it, perhaps, better to not ask? To not know? That very much depends on your taste for moral conflict.

Considering both of these manifestations of a well-worn cliché about “a little knowledge,” we are thus brought to the matter of Jean-Pierre Frick.

Frick is a grape grower and winemaker in Alsace. He has very firm and non-traditional (or, one might counter-argue, ultra-traditional…the best term of all might be neo-traditional) ideas about viticulture, winemaking, and the region’s wines and winemakers. Most of which devolve to the core idea that he is right and anyone who thinks or does otherwise is not. And fair enough, as far as that belief goes. Shouldn’t someone do what they think is right, and shouldn’t someone believe in what they do? People who think very differently than Frick have similarly strong views and beliefs in those views, and while they may think and act in opposition, the sum of the conversation is better for the strength of that opposition.

It is, however, true that Frick is a little more likely than many others to be outspoken about the rights and wrongs of the wine world (and especially the Alsatian wine world) as he sees them. In this, he joins a smaller subset of producers in his region who tend towards the demonstrative and, occasionally, abrasive. Some of that subset are producers that I and many fellow wine drinkers admire a great deal. Others are not, or are at least more controversial. Again, regional dynamism pretty much requires this, and rampant self-satisfaction is all-too-often a clear midpoint on the road to qualitative ruin.

(Here I think a personal disclaimer is well-warranted: I am not an admirer of Frick’s wines. There are certain exceptions, but in the main I think they are unreflective of, and in fact obscure, both terroir and cépage. I do not think they are made as well as they could be, and are more than occasionally flawed in preventable ways. I think they are, as one acquaintance derisively puts it, “wines of philosophy” rather than wines of pleasure or drinkability, and that philosophy has gained ascendance over the results to the detriment of both. There are, it must also be noted, some for whom I have immense respect who vehemently disagree with these opinions. And finally, to those who contend that I would not write everything I’m about to write were the winemaker in question someone I admire, I can only offer the entirety of my work, which is not exactly rife with caution and rectitude.)

So here’s the short version of a longer story: there were some genetically-modified vines at a research facility near Colmar. A group of anti-GMO activists destroyed the vines and then, as far as I can tell, turned themselves in…the better, given the inevitable legal action, to further publicize their motivation in doing so. One of those activists was Jean-Pierre Frick.

Now, let’s not mince words here: this was destruction of private property. Or it was destruction of public property; I don’t know the specifics of the research facility’s funding. In either case, it was destruction of property that did not belong to these activists. Worse, it also destroyed many years of hard work. Work undertaken by people undoubtedly just as dedicated to the pursuit of their vocation as Frick and his cohorts.

Frick, however, is unapologetic. “The neutralization of the 70 grapevines was an act of civil disobedience,” he claims. No. A protest is civil disobedience. A sit-in. A strike. A barrage of negative publicity and lawsuits designed to stop the research, its publication, or the application of its results. All of those and more would be civil disobedience. This was uncivil disobedience, it was in any sane jurisdiction a crime, and one hopes that the perpetrators – including Frick – will pay a price for their willful act of destruction.

“Il ne s’agit pas d’une destruction mais de la préservation de mon outil de travail,” claims Frick. (Roughly: “it’s not destruction, but the preservation of my work tools,” by which he means his vines.) Frick sees research into, even the very existence of, these genetically-modified vines as threatening to or even destructive of his own. Why? One can speculate, or one can read his own thoughts on the subject, but there’s no logic to the claim until proponents of genetically-modified vines demand that he uproot his own, and France is very, very far from that Monsanto-like state of affairs (.pdf). Is there good reason for concern, wariness, and conservatism about genetically-modified plants as promoted in the commercial agricultural sphere? Absolutely, unquestionably, 1000% yes. But this…this goes well beyond concern.

This was an attack on property, this was an attack on the owners and operators of that property, and (perhaps most dismaying of all) this was an attack on science. Science is neither the final nor sole answer to all questions agricultural, nor should it ever be while the hand of man still crafts our food and beverage to aesthetic ends, but to oppose its testable conclusions is problematic enough, and to oppose its very practice is unthinking and reactionary. There’s no apparent evidence that Frick possesses the science to oppose this project on factual grounds (though I’d welcome evidence to the contrary), which is likely why he’s resorted to a tantrum of breaking and destroying. But ending an argument is not the same as winning an argument. Frick has attempted the former, and in doing so has ceded any moral authority with which to achieve the latter.

But let’s assume, for the sake of that argument, that he’s right. Let’s say that the destruction of both property and work (and possibly livelihood, if the research is subsequently de-funded and the researchers must look for new jobs) is justified because it legitimately threatens something of Frick’s. What is the nature of that threat? Frick may cloak himself as a defender of biodiversity and a proponent of anti-globalist rhetoric, and he may even be right to do so in the Great Struggle against the over-application of science and commerce to agriculture, but that doesn’t explain Frick’s personal motivation in that struggle. No, Frick must himself feel threatened. In fact, he says so, explicitly, in the above quote about his “work tools.” The possibilities and dangers presented by genetically-modified vines are, in his view, a threat to his livelihood, to his way of working, and – it must be said – to his profits.

Continuing under the sake-of-argument assumption that he is justified in his actions based on these beliefs, what are the natural conclusions to draw? One obvious one is that those under similar threat from equally revolutionary or counterrevolutionary methods are justified in taking similar action. Say, for instance, a grower of more typically-treated vines (that is, using chemicals and industrial farming techniques) and producer of quality wines whose livelihood is threatened not only by the commercial competition from Frick, but from the pedagogical din emanating from Frick’s oft-used lectern. Frick is not shy about saying that others are doing wrong, nor that their ways are insufficient to the cause of quality wine as he perceives it. Could not that be considered a threat to the livelihood of those who think and proceed differently? Could not the very existence of his wines constitute a threat in themselves? Could these entities not be free to act in the defense of their livelihood, their way of working, and their profits? And if it’s not his neighbor the winemaker in this role, how about a producer of farm equipment? Of chemical fertilizers? Of stabilizing chemicals or inoculated yeasts? Are their “work tools” under threat from the ascendance of Frick’s ideas? Undoubtedly so. What, then, is their allowed recourse?

Were Frick to wake up tomorrow and find his vineyards “neutralized” by a different set of activists who feel themselves under threat (and let me be clear: I fervently hope that this does not come to pass, because it would be no less criminal or morally offensive), would he consider their actions justified? One hopes so. Because otherwise he would not only be a destroyer of property and work that does not belong to him, he’d also be a hypocrite.

And so, there's a little knowledge. It’s still a dangerous thing. Knowing of these events changes one’s opinion of Frick’s wines, whether in enthusiastic support or horrified repulsion (I’ve seen both, browsing the commentariat on this issue). And what is that shocked consumer to do? Boycott? Dump any wines already in the cellar down the drain? Refuse to visit or write about the producer in the future? Confront Frick in person? Confront Frick from the safety of an English-language blog he will probably never see?

Or perhaps just go out and wreck a bunch of property? That should solve things. Shouldn’t it?


Do Bianchi said...

fantastic post, Thor. Winemaking is by its very nature an ideological act, as is the authorship of a blog. I remain, as always, your most loyal comrade in arms. Looking forward to the day we taste together again... j

thor iverson said...

Too many coded and laden words, 2B. ;-)

But thanks.

The Wine Mule said...

I think Frick is a thug--clever and well-spoken, but a thug nonetheless. Still, the whole subject makes me uncomfortable. It is certainly wrong for "GMO activists" to destroy someone's scientific work. At the same time, though, I read the words "genetically modified" and I think of a certain company based in St. Louis, MO, which has shown itself capable of being every bit as thug-like as Frick.

On the subject of boycotting, I used to think I knew what I was talking about, but the longer I'm in the business, the more I feel anyone with serious scruples regarding the growing of grapes and production of wine would end up drinking well-water only.

thor iverson said...

Thuggery doesn't, as a rule, help address thuggery. Frick doesn't help his case in a wider sense by engaging in it, no matter what Monsanto or others do, and no matter how his actions are viewed in occasionally nutty France. (Not that all countries don't have their moments of nuttiness.) But he is not going to stop GMO by plowing a vineyard in Colmar any more than his buddy Bové stopped globalism by trashing a McDo.

I mean, I can stop the rabbit that's eating my lettuce by shooting the rabbit. But I can't stop rabbits from eating my lettuce unless I sit there with a shotgun 24/7. There are better paths to a solution.

And: yes to your thoughts on boycotts. If I avoided everything with which I disagreed, I'd be...well, I was going to make a snarky political comment here, but let's stick with this: I'd be depriving myself of a lot of things I really enjoy. My life is not free of such avoidances, but I've learned to parcel them out for the things that really, truly matter.