It was a relief to see that the glass hadn’t broken when my framed master’s certificate from the Confrerie de St-Etienne fell off the wall. Then I wondered if it were an omen because it fell just as I was surfing to see if that brotherhood had scheduled its harvest banquet while I will be in Alsace next September. This exalted order was founded in the fifteenth century, in the village of Ammerschwihr, a few kilometers from Colmar. Its first written records date to 1440 when it was known as Herrenstubengesellschaft, truly a male club.
My induction was much later than that, dating to 1974. I am grateful for the changes that have taken place in the intervening 500-plus years. Originally it was very restrictive and quite rigid in the conduct of its meetings. No shirt sleeves, no gambling, no swearing. There were only twenty men in the beginnning, and they were a powerful force in the region. They determined just about everything having to do with the raising and nurturing of vines, the production of wine, and, above all, who would be selected for membership. Sons of deceased members could join, daughters could not.
In 1848 the Confrerie went missing. There is no provable explanation, but most archivists in the group think it was because the young men in turbulent mid-nineteenth century France wanted to break from all tradition and would not join. Others said it was because government authorities feared the group was seditious, but a friend, something of a cynic, said it was because the 1848 vintage was so poor it did not deserve a celebration.
Today’s Confrerie resulted from the re-building of Ammerschwihr after World War II. The town had been all but annihilated by Allied bombings, so the villagers, instead of giving up their town, formed the Friends of Ammerschwihr to call attention to their pluck and reconstruction programs. That society gave the Confrerie a rebirth in the spring of 1947.
Though serious in purpose, the new iteration is a fun-loving crowd, and when their leaders have finished grading the wines and lobbying for improved wine law, they host four or five grand reunions every year to spoof themselves, honor their past, sing bawdy songs, and eat and drink well into the night. Today’s Confrerie is open to women and to anyone who can demonstrate a genuine interest in and knowledge of wine with, of course a special allegiance to the wines of Alsace.
One becomes an apprenti by distinguishing by taste the difference between a vin ordinaire and un vin fin. After a year, the candidate can become a compagnon by correctly in a blind tasting picking out a Riesling, a Gewurztraminer, a Pinot Gris, and a Muscat. We maitres, however, have to stand before the grand jury and demonstrate a sound knowledge of Alsace wines and swear to drink Alsace wines for the rest of our lives.
After the inductions, jury members eulogize the wines and command us all to swallow, absorb, consume, taste, and appreciate these marvelous gifts of God. And then, we raise our glasses, mugs, goblets, chalices, beakers, or whatever else is handy to those who made these gifts possible.
I put my certificate back on the wall and determined to live for the fall reunion.