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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

TINY BUBBLES

I guess it all goes back to the bubbles. They are what attracted that feckless paranoid lunatic Philip IV. As King he was responsible for the economic collapse of medieval France. And the recovery, which finally came after 700 years of poverty and travails, can be traced directly to the Blanc de noirs stained front door of the Abby of Hauntvillers, bottlers of the monastic barfly’s inebriate of choice, the cheap bubbly booze of the pre-bubonic Benedictine generation, champagne.
You see, the Champagne plateau (about 100 miles Northwest of Paris) is so far north that the grapes ripen very late in the year. Now, in standard fermentation, the yeast eats the sugar in the grape juice. The sugar is converted into alcohol and the yeast farts carbon dioxide, until all the sugar is consumed and then the yeast dies. But the wine produced in Champagne was different in two ways. First, the grapes were very sweet to begin with, so sweet that the yeast farted so much CO2 that the wine was filled with bubbles. And second, the wine was bottled so late in the year that there was always yeast still surviving when temperatures dropped low enough to stop the fermentation in each bottle.
Usually the monks drank the juice while it was still saccharine, and what a sad bunch of alcoholics they must have been. But in the bottles and the casks the monks could not consume over the winter (and they tried to drink it all), the spring temperatures re-started the fermentation. Occasionally so much more CO2 built up in the bottles that come summer, they exploded.
Also, the stuff just did not taste very good. And other than the few souls who would have drunk aftershave if aftershave had been invented yet, the residents of Champagne mostly drank Burgundy, from the south. The local stuff was so bad, they took to dumping it all into large vats, trying to kill the taste of the worst of it. Even the vino impaired English resisted consuming the “weird and foaming” wine the Counts of Champagne tried to unload on them. I suspect, if the locals could have drunk the water without dieing, they would have ripped up the champagne grape vines by the roots. But they couldn't, so the vines themselves only survived because of lack of an alternative.
Once every generation a new French King was crowned in Reims, 37 Kings in all between 816 A.D. and 1825 A.D. They used the local effervescence to anoint their new monarch, and to drink a toast in his honor, a real test of their gag reflex, no doubt. But beyond that passing tribute, “dry and beggarly” Champagne remained a stagnant social backwater –until the importation of capitalism.
Did you know that the Muslims invented capitalism? The original dollar was the dinar. Muslims formed the first stock companies, the first banks and offered the first lines of credit. Very astute, these Muslims; because they were promoted based on talent rather than on blood lines. So the hereditary kings of Christendom were behind the eight ball on this one. Which is why it wasn’t until after the Northern Italians profited from the capitalist tricks they picked up from their Islamic trading partners that Northern Europe was finally opened for business.
The Champagne Fairs really got running smoothly about 1270, and they resembled the NASCAR season. Every January the season opened at Lagny. This was followed by the Fair at Bar-sur-Aube, the May Fair in Provins, the “hot air” Fair at Troyes, then back to Provins for a second fair, a fair at Reims, and the “cold air” Fair at Troyes in November. Six towns and about a five weeks for each fair - a week for the set up; stocking the warehouses (the Fairs were strictly wholesale), establishing bank credit (everything was financed by the Italians), partnership contracts were signed, rates of exchange were agreed upon and stalls set up, where the actual business would be conducted. Then there would be a week concentrating on cloth sales (60 European towns sold their wool only at the Fairs), followed by a week of leather sales, a week for spices, and a closing week of hard commodities, grains, salt and metals. Then there would be a week taking delivery and paying debts and sharing profits, before moving on. It was a huge clockwork enterprise that developed over a century. But what made it all possible was that evil, evil, evil horror of all horrors to any modern puesdo-capitalists – BIG GOVERNMENT!
As is noted in Wikipedia, the Counts of Champagne guaranteed “security and property rights of merchants…ensuring that contracts signed at the fairs would be honored throughout (Europe). The Counts provided the fairs with 140 Guards who heard complaints and enforced contracts…weights and measures were strictly regulated.…” The French King even granted free and safe conduct to merchants traveling to and from the fairs, for a cut of the profits, of course. It all functioned because the Counts of Champagne established the fundamental structure and regulations without which capitalism cannot exist.
It seems, having grown up in a capitalistic system, we assume a free market is the natural state of affairs. It is not. Regulations create the market. Regulations define the market. Regulations maintain the market. And when the regulations are not maintained and enforced, the market collapses. When one group of individuals, such as nobility, or bankers, can exclude competitors from profit, that is the death of capitalism. And the dinars hit the fan when control of Champagne passed from the reliable Counts to the King of France, Philip IV; the George W. Bush of medieval Europe.
You see Philip was drunk on his own hot air. To finance his dependency he spent his entire life looking for the next bank account to plunder. He gained control of Champagne province when he married 13 year old Joan I, the Countess of Champagne, in 1284. The Fairs supplied him with enough money for wars against the English and two wars in Flanders, one of which he won. The Fair's Guards became political appointees, who bought their offices from the King, and who became addicted to bribes just like the King. Tariff’s were now levied on every wagon load of goods bound to and from The Fairs. And internal border crossings, each exacting a tariff, began to multiply across France as Philip’s losses increased. Philip destroyed the Fairs by removing the regulations that defined the market, and piling on taxes not tied to their profits. And just as the profits from the Fairs began to drop off, about 1306, Joan died. There is some mystery as to why she died. . Some say it was while giving birth; some say that Philip had her poisoned. I’ll bet it was both.
A year later, Philip expelled the Jews from France - after seizing their property of course. A year after that, on October 13, 1307, Philip wiped out his debts to the Knights Templar by arresting all of them – and seizing their property, of course. Later, when their Grand Master refused to admit to even more hidden wealth which Phillip was certain the Knights had, Philip had him slowly barbecued, Texas style.
And then, because there wasn’t anybody left still doing business in France to steal from, Philip began seizing Church property. The church objected but that only slowed Philip down, it did not stop him. And when a French Cardinal was elected Pope, Philip had him placed under house arrest in Avignon, thus ensuring Philip could now plunder all the church accounts he could reach.
By the time Philip died of a stroke in 1314, he had reduced France and Champagne to a disaster area. The Fairs were history, France and the Champagne were broke. A bright, brief shinning light had been snuffed out by greed and stupidity wearing a crown.
Things did not begin to improve again for the backwater province until 1688, when the Abby of Hautvillers received a new treasurer and cellar master, Dom Pierre Perignon. Pierre did not invent champagne. He did not discover it. In fact he saw it as his personal obligation to turn the bubbly into a dull flat dark wine. He failed miserably – Thank God. Because it was Perignon who made champagne drinkable.
I should point out here the obvious, which is that until the 20th century far more people died drinking water than from drinking booze. Every drop of water was filled with pathogens, bacteria and assorted filth. ‘Passing water’ was not an idle description. You were safer drinking your own urine than from a clear rushing mountain stream. You still are. Without the addition of alcohol or chlorine, quenching your thirst with water is playing Russian roulette with bullets in four of the chambers.
Farmers, working the best soil available, grew wheat and hops to brew beer. And monks, who usually established their monasteries on poor soil, grew grapes and fermented wine. Without a source of potable water, meaning a drinkable fluid, a village could not survive. Without a decent tasting wine to consume and sell, a monastery could not thrive.
After 47 years of – dare I say it? – religious attention to detail, Pierre turned the haphazard blending of wines in the Champagne region into an art. He perfected the making of a white wine from the best of dark grapes, the Pinot Noir mixed with the Chardonnay. Under Father Perignon the cuvee, or the vat, in which each blend was made, became the measure of champagne, the equivalent of its vintage. He mixed the juice from various fields and vinters to produced the perfect blend. He added an English bottle, stronger than the French ones, to restrain the 90 pounds of pressure per square inch generated by all that carbon dioxide farted out by the yeast. And by the time he died in 1715 Dom Perignon had created something close to the champagne we drink today.
Today, just down the road from the Abby of Hauntvillers, lies the village of Epernay, on the banks of the river Marne. Within a few square miles of L’Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, in some 200 million bottles yeast is happily farting away. Those bottles of that “weird and foaming” wine, make Epernay in “dry and beggarly” Champagne, the richest little village in France.
And they might have made it there sooner if Philip IV had just stuck to the rules, and gotten drunk on the vino, instead of the bubbles.
-30-

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