You can't believe you're in Paris, do you ? Along the seedy streets and provincial-looking buildings of this part of the 12th arrondissement, millions on tons of wine have transited through over the last couple of centuries...
Many of you probably already visited the new Quartier de Bercy in Paris (Pdf document in French with maps and history), a mix of residential buildings, parks, restaurants, fancy bars and shops, even a multiplex cinema, most of them around the Cour-Saint-Emilion pedestrian street. As fun as the place can be, especially on a summer evening, it is mostly an empty shell compared from the huge gated wine district on the ruins of which this new neighborhood was built.
Here are a few pictures selected from many more pictures that I shot in the entrepots de Bercy in the late 1980's before they were levelled somewhere near 1993 to make place to the modern quartier de Bercy.The original quality of my slides is not fully rendered by my home scanner but it's enough to have an idea of how the place looked like then.
Until well into the 1960's, the Entrepots de Bercy were a bustling professional neighborhood, a gated enclave entirely devoted to wine and spirits where Nécociants, coopers, bottlers, label printers and cork dealers, among others, runned their business and helped supply the then-still-huge demand for wine by Parisians.
In the 19th century, Bercy like other communes (for example what is now the 12th and 20th arrondissement), was incorporated into Paris city limits. The discussions leading to this merging of additional communes into Paris were complicated because of this octroi (tax) question. Here is a document (in French) about the negotiations regarding the merge of communes and the octroi at this period. On page #20 of this Pdf document, there's also a funny drawing which was printed in a French newspaper in 1860 featuring Paris as a woman and her new children : Belleville, La Villette and Batignolles inpersonated as three little girls, and Bercy who looks like an unkempt little boy drinking directly from a miniature cask...
Whatever, in 1860, this Bercy wine & spirits compound merged with Paris and this allowed for some unclear reason the négociants to avoid the tax, so more of them came from Burgundy to build facilities and stock wine there.
In Bercy, barges kept being used after the introduction of railways, as you can see on this historic-Bercy page (click on the pics to enlarge), and casks kept arriving on the right bank of the Seine.
I remember having seen many names of obscure Négoce companies and spirits brands on the buildings, many of them probably closed down since. I guess that they delivered wine and other alcoholic beverages to a string of cafés, bars and restaurants in Paris and the region. I read an interview of François Fanton on the web (the Maison Fanton seems to be still around), he was saying that in the 1960s' there were 200 négoce houses here and all sort of artisans made a living from the wine business, coopers, boatmen, wine-rackers, commis (assistants), bottlers, ironmongers, vat makers, label printers, wine-filters manufacturers... He adds that there were also some special people dubbed the "sénateurs de Bercy" (Bercy senators), half street-bums, half day-laborers, they would work a day for a négoce and be paid in liters of wine. The hard work included moving casks with a capacity of a few hundred liters each into the buildings.
Earlier in the 20th century, individuals and families routinely ordered their wine in casks and a typical small order would be a 110-liter demi-pièce (cask), which was the normal monthly consumption of a family with its servants, according to Mr François Fanton who witnessed this era.
We all know that wine consumption hit records in France in the past, but we usually think about the 100 liters per capita and per year that were downed in France in 1960. The wine consumption was already slowing down and it would contract more in the second half of the 20th century because of health motivations, different workplace rules and driving laws. Concerning the 19th century, we have the chance to have under the hand a thorough study made by an economist and high-ranking administration officer named Armand Husson. Mr Husson's report, les Consommations de Paris [Pdf] 19,7Mo (in French), which was written in 1856, lists in detail what the Parisians of this era ate and drank. If you follow the link to this Pdf document of les Consommations de Paris, you first pass the bread and the meat chapters before arriving to the drinks section (about at mid-scroll) : everything is listed there, beginning with the prices of full casks of many different Burgundy Climats. Imagine : Romanée Conti or Clos Vougeot cost 800 Francs (for a pièce, a 228-liter cask), only twice the price of a Pommard Clos des Mouches. Follows prices for tonneaux (equivalent of 4 casks each) of Bordeaux wines, then prices for Champagne, then more "vulgar" wines, like Macon (80 Francs a cask), then the other French regions.
The architecture of the entrepôts de Bercy changed after regular natural disasters, like the fire of year 1820, which destroyed many buildings of négociants. Thereafter, thatched roofs ( the fact that there had been thatched roofs is another proof that builders were coming from the provinces) were forbidden and new buildings were made of stone instead of wood. Another recurrent problem was the river Seine overflowing its banks, as there was no man-made dikes then to protect Bercy. In 1877, Viollet-le-Duc ordered large infrastructure works including a dike along the Seine and organized, square cobbled-street in the place of the previous anarchic Bercy village. The dike was probably not high enough and a major inundation happened in 1910 and this picture shot back then shows where the water rose [picture on left]. This 1910 inundation was particularly devastating, there were floating casks and foudres every where as far as one kilometer away (anyone interested by a cask of Romanée Conti 1902 ?). Some casks were stuck atop trees, some others on roofs which they had damaged in the process, all sort of wine-related objects were strewn everywhere covered with mud. The dike was reinforced after this disaster which destroyed enormous quantities of wine.
Many artists also took advantage of the abandonned vat houses and facilities to paint huge murals and weird paintings. I came accross many of these Art works as I visited repeatedly the entrepôts de Bercy and I shot quite a few pictures of these paintings, you can see a few of them on this page.
Today, you can visit the few remains of this former wine district of Bercy, starting from Cour Saint-Emilion (Métro Cour St-Emilion - line 14), which is a lively pedestrian street bordered by renovated chais/négoce facilities. And you can even find a good wine bar there : the Nicolas wineshop & wine bar...