The Champagne Country


By ROBERT TOMES. New York : Hurd and Houghton.
ROBERT fear, or hope, that photography will supersede tourists, and at last take travel out of literature, scarcely concerns this admirable book and the books of its kind. The class is as yet small, but it increases ; and it is probable that in travel, which is a sort of contemporary history, there will be more and more works devoted to a single phase of European life, as studied in a particular city or province ; just as, in the history of the past, the tendency is toward the illustration of certain periods, or even episodes, in the lives of nations.
The chief topic Mr. Tomes discusses is the manufacture of champagne wines; but his book is also descriptive of life in Rheims and the adjacent country, as he knew it during two years’ residence in that ancient city. Indeed, it is only when the reader remembers his former ignorance of everything concerning champagne, excepting its pop and sparkle and flavor, that he realizes how thoroughly instructive Mr. Tomes’s agreeable pages are. In them an intelligent sympathy follows the grape through all the processes of its change to wine;—through the vintage, when it is gathered by the yeomen of La Champagne, from their own land, and sold to the great champagne lords of Rheims; through the expression of its juice in presses obedient to the trained and sensitive touch of hands which give neither more nor less strength than is adequate to the extraction of the most delicate flavor ; through the season of its first fermentation in casks, and its second in bottles ; through its “marriage” with the kindred juices, whose united offspring is champagne; through the crisis when it is doctored with the cordial that bestows a life-long sweetness; through its final corking and sale in every civilized country. As Mr. Tomes’s style is light and easy, and as he has a quick, unforced sense of humor, his information is as delightful as it is honest. He counts nothing alien to him that concerns champagne, and he sketches with a pleasant and graphic touch the champagne lords and their history, beginning with the great Clicquot (whose widow, after inheriting him so many years, died only the other day), and bringing down the list with the Heidsiecks, the Roederers, Moët and Chandon, the Mumms, and De St. Marceaux, last but not least of the great champagne houses. As appears from their names, most of these are Germans, and, according to Mr. Tomes, most of the business of Rheims is conducted by Germans, who far excel the French in capacity for commerce. They are the agents and chief clerks even in French houses; it is some German of enormous physique and iron constitution who is selected as commis-voyageur to sell the wines and attract custom, by pouring them out and convivially drinking them wherever he goes. Mr. Tomes’s conviction is, that this commercial traveller leads a difficult and precarious life, for he cannot eject the wine when once taken into the mouth, as is the custom of the more fortunate dealers in selling to buyers at the manufactories.
It is around the wine-trade, the great central feature of life in Rheims, that Mr. Tomes groups notices of the city’s minor traits, and gossips of its cathedral and ecclesiastical history, its picturesqueness, its antiquities, its dulness, its contented and prosperous ignorance, its luxury and depravity. His pictures are always artistic, and have an air of fidelity, and we may believe that they reflect with sufficient truth provincial society under the second French Empire. Society it is not, of course, in our sense, and perhaps civilization is the better word. Many of its characteristics are those common to all Latin Europe, — a religion and an atheism alike immoral, an essential rudeness under a polished show of good-breeding, an inviolable conventionality, and an unbounded license. But to these the Empire has added some traits of its own, — an intellectual apathy to be matched nowhere else, a content and pride in mere material success, an enjoyment of none but sensual delights. The government seems to have besotted the provinces in the same degree that it has corrupted Paris.
Mr. Tomes treats an unworn topic with freshness and authentic skill, and we welcome his bright and candid book as a more valuable contribution to literature than most contemporary novels and poems.