Blanchet has lived all his life in Dupont-Maisey, a small town of two thousand inhabitants in upper Normandy. The town, born out of agriculture, sits in gently sloping fields with meandering streams and a small river where the locals fish for trout and children swim during hot summers. Wheat and apples were the main staples of the area until 2008, when vines were planted on its southern facing slopes.
To the north of the town the area is heavily wooded – the source of its famed porcini, chanterelles and black truffles sent in autumn to expensive eateries in Paris. Blanchet tells me he is a keen mushroom hunter, a glazed look coming over his face as describes freshly-picked chanterelles in butter, white wine and unpasteurized cream. Blanchet works for a dairy farm just outside Dupont.
By French standards the farm is large, almost industrial – owned by a well-known insurance company. Blanchet recalls when the first herd of beef-cattle arrived in 2012. The farm, which until then had only produced milk, butter, cream and cheese for French supermarkets, was to start producing beef on a large scale. EU subsidies makes beef production hugely attractive and the insurance company, a major pension provider in France and under financial pressure from an ageing population, was aggressively looking to maximise income where it could.
Blanchet recalls vividly when he first realised he was no longer growing facial hair. It was June 2014. Two years after the first beef herds arrived in Dupont.
Müller-Thurgau vines, a cross between Riesling and Sylvaner, was first developed by Dr. Herman Müller in 1882, a Swiss then working in the German viticultural station of Geisenheim. The new hybrid turned out to be early ripening, frost resistant and able to produce prodigious quantities of grapes. Ideal for white wine viticulture in the colder parts of Europe where other varieties struggled to survive.
Winters in Dupont can be harsh and spring unpredictable with frosts not unknown in May. There is ample evidence of Roman habitation and medieval monasteries in the area, though no records of viticulture exist until Müller-Thurgau’s arrival.
They say the French have wine in their DNA, and many in Dupont had looked at their southerly neighbours and wished that they too had been able to produce wine. With global warming, and a new, hardy version of Müller-Thurgau known as the AF1419 variant, it was decided time had come to bring viticulture to the town. A cooperative, appropriately named ‘Terre D’Esperance’ was formed, and under the watchful eye of a German viticulturalist, 500 hectares of vines were planted in the spring of 2008.
According to Blanchet, matters couldn’t have gone better and Dupont bottled its first wines in 2012 just as the first steers arrived at the farm.
“The wines turned out to be wonderful, much better than anyone expected. They were minerally, with aromas of lemons and peaches.” Blanchet recounts wistfully. “The only problem was little or no marketing had been done and the wines remained unsold. Eventually the first vintage was made available to Dupont’s inhabitants free of charge. In 2014 a lot of wine was drunk in the town.”
When Blanchet went to his GP, to see about his loss of facial hair, he knew he was not the only sufferer. Crowds of males waiting at the clinic entrance had become a daily occurrence.
“I was horrified to see so many friends and acquaintances affected as I was. We felt bad our manliness was being compromised though my immediate worry was not for our health but concern that we would become a laughing stock amongst neighbouring towns. I am ashamed to admit that at that moment, I hoped our neighbours would be suffering as we were.”
Blanchet, in his thick French accent, recounts how things got worse. “The doctors at the clinic had no explanation, but the matter should have been taken more seriously. No formal investigation was conducted. I think the doctors were out of their depth and hoped the problem would clear itself. It was only later that year when the men of Dupont started to grow breasts that panic set in.”
“When I heard what was happening in Dupont-Maisey I immediately asked if there was beef rearing in the vicinity. When the answer came back as affirmative, I knew what our team would find when we got there.” wrote Dr Pascal Bisset in La Médecine
According to Blanchet, an investigative team arrived at the end of 2014 and immediately sealed off the farm.
“Administering hormones to cattle is illegal in the EU. Sure, it makes cattle grow fast and it reduces costs drastically. I knew that in Dupont someone must have been breaking the law. I was convinced we would find unheard-of levels of oestrogen in the cattle and soil. My guess was that the ground water had been contaminated by serious levels of this female hormone. It was the only rational explanation given the male population of the town had, by this time, developed large mammary glands. I was very surprised, when after months of testing, we found nothing. I mean nothing. It was hard to believe. We rechecked our findings time and time again. Not a microgram of oestrogen was ever found in the farm or the water. We were back to square one.” wrote Bisset.
“Our breasts were getting larger and with no cure in sight we were despondent. At least we had plenty of free wine to drown our sorrows,” says Blanchet with a weak smile. “I was lucky. My wife was full of admiration for my appearance. We were like kids with new toys. For months we didn’t watch television. Some of my friends were not so lucky. Their relationships broke down and many divorced. Some women simply couldn’t stand their husbands in bras. When Dr Bisset’s team confirmed the culprit was the wine, we were relieved, and the town went teetotal overnight. The story immediately hit the press and next day we were overrun with visitors. The cooperative inundated with orders. It was mayhem. Everyone, it seemed, wanted AF1419 wine.”
“After we found nothing at the farm the town’s wine, considering when it first appeared, became our next suspect. Whilst superficial analyses of samples showed nothing unusual, mice in our labs began to develop feminine traits after a few weeks of exposure to the wine. More detailed analyses of AF1419 showed two carbon atoms had attached itself to the basic form of Vitamin C. These variations are extremely rare but can occur in nature and legally there is nothing to stop the production and sale of wine made from the AF1419 variant.” explained Dr. Bisset at a press conference in the town hall. Blanchet recalls, that at this point, everyone at the meeting applauded Dr. Bisset.
“Over the next few years Dupont-Maisey changed forever.” Blanchard tells me. “The cooperative, now headed by Avril Foley, a Parisienne, has been a massive success and all their wines are sold years in advance and on strict allocation. Their clients, mostly from the far east, especially Thailand, are made to sign non-disclosure agreements and we don’t even know how much the wines are sold for. We think it’s a lot and we haven’t seen a bottle of the wine in years. There are many expensive cars in Dupont these days. Nobody is willing to talk about the cooperative. It’s all very secretive. There are law suits pending. Some men went under the knife. Most of us didn’t. We just adapted and have become a tourist attraction. I wish I had invested some money in the venture. I could have retired by now.”