Flaubert's L'Education Sentimentale is less celebrated than Madame Bovary and less notorious than Salammbô. Nevertheless, a good case could be made for valuing it as not only Flaubert's most subtle and ambitious novel, but even as the most inventive historical novel of the 19th century. Through the central character of Frédéric Moreau and his unconsummated romantic passion for Marie, the wife of the publisher Jacques Arnoux, Flaubert set out to write what he called "the moral history of the men of my generation" — that is to say, the generation who had entered into adulthood at about the time of the 1848 revolution (Flaubert was born in 1821). Moreau glimpses Mme Arnoux on a boat trip down the Seine, and immediately falls in love with her: "It was like an apparition [...] he could not see anybody else in the dazzling light which her eyes cast upon him." For years Moreau nurses his desire, but cannot bring himself to approach Mme Arnoux directly; instead he finds solace with prostitutes. The ending of the story — the "Rat's tail ending", as he called it — is as Flaubert planned it in his notebooks: "Final meeting — visit by Madame — she offers herself. But he no longer finds her attractive and he is afraid of the disgust he might feel. Don't make her ridiculous — he takes pity on her. She leaves — he sees her climbing into the carriage — and it was all over."
More shaped and precise than the novels of Balzac, and unburdened by the pseudo-science of Zola (both novelists who strove to capture a whole society in fiction, albeit on much larger canvasses), L'Education Sentimentale is poised between satire and elegy. It traces the path taken by France from the romantic afterlife of the Napoleonic period to the bourgeois ascendancy of the mid-19th century through the lens of the exaltations and dejections of Moreau's infatuation.
Exaltation and dejection: L'Education Sentimentale moves between these poles, and wine plays a part in the symbolism of that transit. Some of the information about wine in the novel is exceptionally precise, but even when vague, wine is a constant presence in the pivotal events of L'Education Sentimentale. The boat trip on which Frédéric first sees Marie begins in a keynote of festivity to which wine naturally ministers: "The novel pleasure of a trip on the river banished any feeling of shyness and reserve. The jokers began to play tricks. A good many began singing. Spirits rose. Glasses were brought out and filled."
Also, no doubt, emptied. In the middle of the novel, at the lavish dinner party given by the Marquis de Cisy where Frédéric defends Marie's reputation by throwing his plate in Cisy's face, Flaubert takes pains to show the part played by wine in the evening: "The silver-gilt centerpiece, loaded with flowers and fruit, occupied the middle of the table, which was covered with silver dishes in the old French style, surrounded by hors-d'oeuvre dishes containing spices and seasoning; at regular intervals there stood pitchers of iced vin rosé; and five glasses of different heights were lined up in front of every plate, together with a variety of ingenious eating utensils whose precise purpose was a mystery. For the first course alone, there was a sturgeon's head drenched in champagne, a York ham cooked in Tokay, thrushes au gratin, roast quail, a vol-au-vent béchamel, a sauté of red-legged partridges, and, flanking all this, potatoes mixed with truffles."