For the French, and for faculty in residence at French House Thomas Chevrier especially, wine is not simply a drink.
This January, Chevrier, whose father sells wine in France, took advantage of the possibilities of Oberlin’s winter term to lead a group of students to the picturesque vineyards of France. While there, the group shot footage to make a documentary film on winemaking and the people engaged in the process.
Chevrier and a group of seven students spent 10 days traveling through Alsace, the Loire Valley, Burgundy, and the Rhône Valley interviewing wine sellers, wine makers, scientists, and others involved in every stage of the process of creating this essential French staple. Associate Professor of Russian and Environmental Studies Tom Newlin, a connoisseur of French wine, accompanied the group, assisting Chevrier with the logistics of the trip—driving, cooking, preparing for activities and interviews. The group filmed in shops, cellars, vineyards, and museums, attempting to capture the culture and people surrounding their subject. Copious wine tasting, of course, was also necessary to the project.
For Morgan Daruwala, a third-year neuroscience and French double-major, one appeal of making the film was discovering the reasons behind the cultural devotion to wine. “It was cool to watch people get excited and passionate about what they do, and seeing them talk about their stuff,” she says.
Thanks to Chevrier’s careful planning, the group was able to meet with an impressive number of experts. Their areas of expertise ranged from advising people around the world on which grapes to plant according to their region’s specific soil properties to giving biodynamic wine certification status to growers throughout France.
“Each person we went to was surprised that we were able to get an interview with the last person,” says Jean-Paul Gilbert, a third-year Russian language major. “We didn’t initially totally understand the caliber of the people we were meeting with.”
Chevrier views the way wine is produced as indicative of a larger commentary on the state of our world. “Wine is a product of civilization, made from nature but developed by man,” he explains, and the current landscape of industrial agriculture has posed deep challenges for a cultural product so closely tied to specific places and unique tastes. “You can mass produce it, with a single type of grape grown with chemicals and pesticides, or you can make wine that is more of an art, that is different from bottle to bottle and each having specific characteristics,” Chevrier explains.
This tension between old and new methods of producing wine is a large theme of their documentary, but it’s not the only one. The education in wine the students received from this experience ranged from what Daruwala called an “education in how to appreciate things”—like the subtle tastes and smells so important to wine-drinking—to an improvement of their French speaking skills and understanding of this aspect of French culture.
The process of interviewing and continuously editing, Chevrier notes, adds to the medium’s particular effectiveness as a pedagogical tool—and with roughly 70 hours of footage, the group’s project is extending beyond winter term. They plan to work on the film for the rest of the semester and aim to show it to the public and potentially enter film festivals with their completed product.
There is much more to wine than what you see in the bottle. As third-year computer science major and math minor Louis Daligault put it, “Drinking wine in the United States won’t ever be the same.”