by PHILIP WHITE
“One day we shall be so angry about it that we are going to do a demonstration in the street only the French can do and the government will have to listen to us this time!”
So says my winemaker friend from Bordeaux, Jacques Lurton.
I’d sent him an AFP article posted from Bordeaux on Christmas eve, “Sour grapes for French wine in 2008”. This sad account of the neo-wowsers eroding the basic cultural nature of wine in France deserved a rapid response.
Jacques is the man.
Savage demonstrations are indeed due. If the French fall, Australia’s wowser interferist exclusive Brethren pinko humanist Ruddy do-gooders will have a field day. That lot are already on the march. Against the wine lover.
The AFP article claimed wine, “a once proud symbol of the nation's identity, is now swirling in a cocktail of alcohol abuse legislation. Long viewed as a quintessential part of the French lifestyle, along with fine foods and good living, wine is slumping so low in the national esteem that winemakers have even complained of being treated like drug dealers by the government, and their websites put on a par with porn.
“One recent survey highlighting the change in popular attitudes to wine showed that 51 percent of people now considered the national drink ‘risky’.”
“It is a very well documented article and yes it is true”, Jacques shot back. “When you look at it from the angle of a foreign reader it looks like this is a nightmare situation!
“But in France people who want to get drunk never use wine as it is considered a drink to pair with food. Only if you go to a wine producer’s place for dinner or lunch you will be asked if you’d like a glass of wine for an aperitif but in every other private house or at the bar people drink other kinds of alcoholic beverages.”
Raphael Berger, of the statistics centre on living conditions, CREDOC, which issued the study, said "Wine in France used to escape the negative perceptions of being an alcoholic drink ... much of the change in attitude was related to ongoing government efforts to control alcoholism and abuse”.
France's Health Ministry has been reasonably successful in its recent blitz on drink drivers, and “spent much of 2008 preparing new laws to curb teenage binge drinking and alcohol abuse”.
This year will see the legal age for purchasing alcohol increased from 16 to 18, a ban on happy hours and open bars (with a flat fee to drink as much as possible withing a limited time), and a possible prohibition on free wine tastings.
“While French doctors once tolerated a few glasses of champagne during pregnancies” AFP said, “new legislation now obliges producers to print a ‘no drinking during pregnancy’ logo on bottles”.
This new low for quality French producers was previously the domain of the USA alone, which the French had found quaintly ridiculous.
“We all know that 90% of road accident due to alcohol drinking is not caused by wine but vodka and other strong alcohol beverages” Jacques retorted.
“Have you ever seen a young French drinking wine in a night club? If you look at what people buy in supermarkets for parties this is never wine but cheap whiskies, vodkas, cocktails etc. ... mixed with Schweppes”.
"Instead of encouraging moderate drinking, we are frightening people and demonising wine," Georges Haushalter, head of Bordeaux's Wine Merchant Union, told AFP.
France’s wine consumption has slid steadily to 64 litres per person a year from 75 litres in the early 1990s. While this margin was once easily mopped up by export, South America, South Africa and Australia have invaded those low-price markets traditionally regarded as safe property by the French, leaving the monetary collapse of 2008 to savage the upper end of the French portfolio.
While even the Chinese felt wine to be a safe investment haven, the last few months have seen the Liv-ex, the leading fine wine exchange, get big-time jitters, in October recording its largest fall – 12.4% - since its inception in 2001. Liv-ex fell another 5.5% in November, while Bordeaux prices fell 25%.
In value terms, the director of the Federation of Wine and Spirit Exporters (FEVS), Renaud Gaillard, told AFP he sees “a zero increase for the end of 2008 ... The potent mix of negative conditions for 2009 is even more worrying, he said. "There is no indicator we will be coming out of this crisis quickly."
As if all that wasn’t bad enough, 2008 was a difficult vintage in Bordeaux, throwing frosts, hail, torrential rains, and resultant mildew and botrytis at producers. While some winemakers are almost happy, the “vintage was expensive and one of the lowest on record, leading to supply problems and shortages of certain products such as Bordeaux whites”.
Apparently learning from China’s skills in stifling political discussion on the internet, France continues to fail to legally legitimise the Internet as a medium for alcohol publicity. AFP reports “draft legislation leaked to the press earlier this year, which attempted to legalise wine ads, proposed limiting access to wine sites to certain hours -- the same regulations proposed for pornographic sites” ... and, it continues, “self-censorship is rife since Heineken, Moet and Le Parisien have all been convicted of “promoting wine drinking.
“A national magazine article about a Books and Wine fair, which carried the fair's wineglass logo, was also forced to carry a government health warning ... and the Ubifrance 2008 report on exports concludes with a warning that reads ‘This is not intended to incite consumption of alcoholic drinks’."
In October, winemakers in Bordeaux, Champagne and Burgundy painted over road signs pointing to their regions as a protest against wine censorship, and the new wine tax.
“Alleged government hostility to wine reached such proportions in 2008” AFP continued, “that two prominent wine journalists accused the government of hindering wine consumption to boost sales of anti-depressants in order to pander to the stronger pharmaceuticals lobby ... winemakers claim they have been relegated to the category of dealers and angrily complain that France's leading export is no longer trumpeted by the government”.
"Viticulture products are placed in the same category as drugs," Jean-Charles Tastavy, an independent wine producer and member of the Council for Moderation and Prevention, recently said.
The outlook for the future is not bright despite good demand for his wines, Thomas Duroux, director of Chateau Palmer, told AFP.
"In terms of communication, 2008 has been a horrible year," he said. "France is the world's most important wine producer, and we have the most restrictive advertising legislation. Is this because (President Nicholas) Sarkozy doesn't drink, or because our system of (anti-alcohol) lobbies is too strong?"
Sarko? Doesn't drink? Bullshit! Click on his name - that was the second image Google suggested when I asked for "French people drinking".
Back to our friend Jacques.
“It’s a crazy situation” he said, “and nonsense, as wine is so much part of our culture. The wine industry brought more money into the external French balance last year than the entire Airbus business. This has nothing to do with our actual president as this anti wine campaign started long ago when we had a socialist prime minister and Chirac as a president.
“I must say our president wants to help the wine industry to export” he continued “but he is not showing strong signs of changes on the domestic market because it is not a popular subject.
Agriculture in France is less than 7% of the active population and we are seen as people living on subsidies or we are considered very wealthy if you own a chateau so our image is not good enough for the politics to show us as victim. It is true the French wine industry has been too long subsidised and some producers - mostly from the south of France - have given our industry a bad image.
“At the moment the French market remains the largest in the world and there is still possibilities to sell wines in France” Jacques said.
“The problem is more for the large negociants, with their big brands, and champagne producers, who have came to the point of a very expensive product due to grape price, assisted by the export market buying at any price.
“But if you talk to a little producer who cultivates relationships with his clients in France by visiting them an serving them directly? He is still selling wine!
“Another aspect which hasn't helped our wines to be exported is the euro currency which has been too strong for too long against every other currency. Now things are better but it is too late as the world collapse has slowed every thing down.”