Marie Antoinette may be popularly credited with spurring the French revolution (and losing her head) with her response to the shortage of bread, but a closer look at the events leading up the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 reveals that access to affordable wine was perhaps an even more important factor. In May a national assembly was convened to air grievances of the common people and demand formation of a constitution. A series of poor harvests and widespread food shortages contributed to general unrest, but the Bastille became a target both because “political” prisoners were housed there on arbitrary orders from the king, and also because it was an armory. But it was not the storming of the Bastille that was the first act of civil unrest in the French revolution, it was attacks on the customs houses where duties on wine were collected.
Wine, however, was not in particularly short supply in the 1780’s. The issue was a tax that was collected on wine as it was brought into the city, which had created an opportunity for enterprising publicans who set up shop just outside the Paris city gates. Affordable wine had thereby been generally available without a long journey at the end of a day’s work in the city. As one member of the legislature, Etienne Chevalier put it in 1789: “Wine is the basis of survival for the poor citizens of Paris. When bread, meat, and other foods are too expensive, he turns to wine; he nourishes and consoles himself with it.” But Paris, a walled city at the time, was growing, and as the walls were moved outward it became increasingly difficult for the “poor citizens of Paris” to maintain easy access to this important source of nutrition and comfort. So it was the customs houses at the gates of Paris that were targeted first in the revolution.
Some 300 years later, the French paradox would confirm the health benefits of regular consumption of wine with the evening meal. If there is a lesson in this historical nugget, perhaps it is this: Let them drink wine. A good baguette wouldn’t hurt either.