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How the right turned brie and chablis into an epithet


I like brie, that famously runny, aromatic cheese that comes from the Brie department of central France. Brie and Chablis wine, which hails from the Yonne department just to Brie’s south, have been a historic pairing for centuries (although Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher wrote, in the Wall Street Journal, “we wouldn’t say we’re crazy about the combination of Brie and Chablis”).

Yet “brie and Chablis” (or “wine and cheese”) has long been a derisory term for liberals, and no liberals in America arouse the wrath of the right more than San Franciscans. When did wine and cheese become the odious signifiers of those unpatriotic, deviant, nattering nabobs of negativity, the liberals?

I trace it back to the split between wine and beer cultures that Europe saw in the Middle Ages. Where winegrapes could be cultivated in the warmer Mediterranean south, people were Latinized: less warlike, fond of siestas, food, dancing, conversation, good living and lovemaking. In the north, where it was too cold for vitis vinifera to grow, people turned to beer; they were Continental tribes, descendants of Huns, Vikings and Slavs, a warrior society not keen on art or philosophy. They preferred drinking beer from the skulls of their enemies.

We see this split echoed today in America, where Dr. Vino last week wondered “…how did light beer come to be the choice of NFL viewers?” Simple. The NFL reflects the Prussianized, warlike, hyper-masculinized psyche many American males believe themselves to embody (or wish they did). Wine is more the beverage of effete people who go to the Opera.

Wine and cheese receptions have been a mainstay of politics on both sides for a century. When the Harvard Crimson wrote about a Stuart Udall fundraiser in 1976 (Udall, a Democratic Arizona Congressman, was running in the primaries against Jimmy Carter), the writer described an event he went to as “a typical wine-and-cheese gathering.” Nothing Republican or Democratic about it, just bipartisanly political. But by 1980, the phrase somehow had become anti-Democrat, although when “cheese” was replaced by “brie” and “wine” by “chablis,” I will leave to future historians to figure out. When John Anderson, a Republican congressman from Illinois who was a sort of Ross Perot-style maverick, was running for President, he was portrayed by the right as not conservative enough. A columnist for the Washington Post, Mark Shields [himself a moderate Democrat], wrote: “For John Anderson to be a true challenger for the presidency, he cannot be either a ‘spoiler’ or simply the favorite of the brie-and-chablis set.” Did Shields pluck that phrase out from the ether? Undoubtedly it had antecedents. Some think that Leonard Bernstein’s famous party for the Black Panthers, in 1966, was the prototype; that fête was endlessly parodied by Republicans as bleeding heart “limousine liberal” pretension, and, after all, Lenny (the ultimate liberal Democrat), was a Jew, plus he was bisexual, and his beautiful foreign-born wife, Felicia, the quintessential Upper West Side hostess, served wine and “Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts,” according to Tom Wolfe, who wrote about it.

Little Roquefort cheese morsels! It was perhaps understandable that the right confused roquefort for brie, which may have been easier for them to spell. How easy for pretzel and beer loving Republicans to satirize that citified appetizer (and with crushed nuts, to boot). By 1982, “the wine and cheese crowd” had entered the political lexicon as a metaphor for Democrats: here’s The Texas Monthly describing “the hatred that the Okies from Muskogee feel for the wine-and-cheese” crowd” to explain Texas’s transition from FDR stronghold to Reagan country.

They’re still doing it. Yesterday, as the world famously knows, the San Francisco Forty Niners played the New York Giants for the NFC championship. Just before the game, a New York Daily News columnist, Filip Bondy, wrote that Niner fans are “overrated,” likening them to “Strange, exotic plants”, “not fat enough” and “softer” than Giants fans–in other words, San Franciscans are insufficiently brutal. Bondy was making a funny, of course, but the tweak was enough to prompt the San Francisco Chroncle’s sportswriter, Scott Ostler, to pen in response, “49ers fans’ courage not measured by Brie and wine,” he headlined, although Bondy used neither of those terms. But then, you can’t blame San Franciscans for being a little defensive after decades of getting their butts kicked by the right. As recently as 2008, Pat Buchanan (who knows something about demonizing his political opponents) still was ranting about “the chablis-and-brie set of San Francisco,” even though by then, the characterization was shopworn. Incidentally, being “brie-and-chablis San Franciscans” didn’t seem to hurt the 2010 Giants or, for that matter, five Super Bowl-winning San Francisco 49er teams (1981, 1984, 1988, 1989, 1994).

Yes, San Francisco lost last night. They played like mensches, and I hope after the game they went wherever they went and enjoyed some well-deserved wine and cheese.

  1. Ah, the best wine writing on any blog anywhere. I am in New York this week and listened to the 49ersiu loose over a dinner that included grilled Brie and CNDP. How appropriate this post.

  2. James McCann says:

    Wait, didn’t Steve claim last week, somewhat indignantly, that he did not write about politics here?

  3. This is about politics, but it is not political. It’s analysis that has to do with wine.

  4. James McCann says:

    Right, and Republicans have trouble spelling Roquefort and disliked Bernstein because he was a Jew. A VERY sophisticated analysis.

  5. James, don’t be naive. With Republicans such as Newt Gingrich resurrecting Saul Alynsky–someone nobody ever heard of–that party has a long history of sub-rosa appeals to anti-Semitism.

  6. Great entry, Steve. Really interesting and insightful.

    Wonder what impact a teetotaler (Romney) in the White House would have on the wine industry…thoughts?

  7. This post kind of made me laugh and was entertaining. However, as a historical nut I feel compelled to point out that your historical analysis of the Middle Ages is almost 100% inaccurate. The only part you got right was that Northern Europe drank more beer and Southern Europe drank more wine. Other than that, it was completely wrong.

  8. Rogersworthe, perhaps you’ll point out what you think was wrong.

  9. James McCann says:

    Rogersworthe, the point of posts like this from Steve is not to be accurate, it is to advance his agenda. He pretends that Saul Alinsky’s name was just pulled out of thin air (Mr. Alinsky was a major issue in 2008) and ignores the anti-semitism within the Democratic party and the Occupy Movement (both inconvenient for him).

  10. Kurt Burris says:

    Steve: I didn’t even know you had an agenda. (Unless it is in your briefcase from the last conference you attended.) I think Mr. McCann is being a bit overly sensitive.

  11. It is important that we deride, relentlessly and brutally, the modern American right. The party that pretends to be about liberty, but is really attempting to advance an agenda of a Christian theocracy. The party that lauds a race to the intellectual bottom. A party of racist, jingoist xenophobes who think that a bronze age fiction has a place in governance, legislation and foreign affairs. A party that is quite, well, un American

  12. UPS trucks always turn right … right? or is that Left?

  13. Hark ye, Heimoff, you’re forgetting the history,
    of my great-great-and-so-on grans, the goths;
    Who drank honey-wine in their mead-halls,
    and then imbibed what beverage under rule of Rome…Bud?

  14. Steve,
    I have to agree with Rogersworthe. Not being a historian, but I can say I thought Kant et al were philisophers, of course going against the northern europeans not being “keen on Philisophy.” I also would guess some beautiful blonde Sweds might be fond of lovemaking, even if they are from the north (of course I might just be hoping they are fond of that:). And Art: ok, so it’s scary, but Edvard Munch’s The Scream is certainly Art, and certainly of The North. Among many other paintings of his. Ok, not middle ages, but you know what I mean. Well, if not there is always the Matthias Grunewald triptych in Colmar, France, and area, as you know since it’s a wine region, that has been traded like playing cards between Germany and France for centuries.

    Finally, the opera comment. Ok, so I am the brie and chablis type, in so far as the politics are concerned. But I am more a northern European opera fan, i.e. Mozart’s Singspiel The Magic Flute (translated from the Deutsch for ease of read). One of the best pieces of music ever written, NOT written in the Italian style, the style of W.H. Auden’s “Goodbye to Mezzogirono”, rather in a truely German singspiel style: stand and sing, talk, stand and sing again, etc.

    All that aside, love the post and 99% of the rest. Always have to save a little hate for the 1% 🙂

    Michael P.

  15. Thank you Michael P. I hope to give you much more good reading in the future!

  16. Sorry to come back in so late, but mainly it was the idea that the North were warlike and barely more civilized than cavemen while their Mediterranean neighbors were drinking wine, discussing philosophy, and taking afternoon naps. I believe the idea that before Medieval times, it was the Romans who spread Mediterranean wine culture across Europe is pretty well accepted. The Romans also brought the idea of grim efficiency to the war machine and extreme brutality with its spectacles (gladiator games) and its regular punishments (crucifixion was commonplace and a rather horrifying way to die). This didn’t just go away with the dissolution of the Roman Empire.

    Medieval Spain was a blood bath of race/culture wars with political consequences that still reverberate even today with the Catalunyan and Basque regions constantly battling for independence from Madrid. The French Revolution I need not elaborate on. The years that followed were also quite harsh and bloody. Provence, the ideal to Americans of Mediterranean culture, was extremely poor and violent and fought hard to remain independent of France until the 1700s, and after that grudgingly bore a hatred of their overbearing bureaucratic overlords in Paris.

    Italy had constant petty, cruel, and bloody wars pretty much from the time of the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire until after World War II, and that’s not even talking about the stranglehold the different Mafioso groups have had on Southern Italy for centuries. Greece in Medieval times, which produced some of the most coveted wine from Santorini in Europe during the Middle Ages, was ruled by the Ottoman Empire where Muslim and Orthodox Christian relations were always strained and erupted in bloody rebellions until the last one in 1830 actually stuck and formed the modern Greek nation.

    So, I do ask, what part of the Mediterranean did you have in mind when you said they were less warlike and fond of just living the good life? I think that is more an American perception of the Mediterranean than any sort of reality. Their Medieval temperament was just as petty, warlike, cruel, ethnocentric, and brutal as any region in Northern Europe. They just so happen to drink wine instead of beer and take afternoon naps to avoid the heat.

  17. It was Mo Udall, Stew’s brother, who ran for president in 1976. (But you knew that, because you quoted from the article that says it was Mo!)

  18. James McCann says:

    Breaking News!!! Steve Heimoff is a 1 percenter! He revealed this evening that his effective Federal Tax Rate is approximately 29%. That would put his taxable income at $400,000! Congratulations Steve!

    Welcome to the club. Your password, handbook and membership card are in the mail.


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