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02.28.2007

Coming to France's Rescue

I love French wine. I really do. I love lots of other wines, too, but the wines of France hold a special spot in my heart. Which is why, perhaps, I find myself so angry and frustrated at the country's seeming inability to save itself from an increasingly desperate situation when it comes to its wine industry.

Declining consumption, global competition, and what I see as utterly idiotic marketing and appellation laws are choking the French wine industry to death. It's both depressing and infuriating at the same time.

This week, however, there were two rays of sunshine amidst the gathering gloom of a scary future that begin to illuminate a path out of the dire situation in which the country finds itself.

The first came in the form of a campaign promise from the right-wing presidential candidate. Now I know nothing about this guy Nicolas Sarkozy. I have no idea what his politics are. He could be a holocaust-denying, anti-environmental, puppy-hating fascist for all I know. That doesn't matter. What matters is that he has the balls to promise something that I have yet to hear any other politician in France suggest: changing the alcohol advertising laws.

In case you're not aware, let me give you a little background primer on how advertising wine and spirits happens in France: it doesn't. You cannot advertise wine or booze, or suggest in any way that it might be fun, delicious, or even healthy to drink. The lengths to which government censors go to enforce this draconian policy is laughable, and it is one of the chief factors responsible, in my mind, for the decline in wine consumption in France, especially among the younger generations.

Whoever this Nicolas Sarkozy guy is, he definitely has the right idea.

There seems potentially to be another caped crusader in France's future. Or rather, a billion or so of them. While French teens are switching by the millions to beer and soda-pop, China's middle class and nouveau-riche are switching to wine, and increasingly to French wine (though Australia has already gained a pretty solid foothold in the country's wine market).

Will China single-handedly save the French wine industry? It's doubtful, but China represents a large force at both the bottom and the top of the market -- cheaper wines for the masses, and expensive wines for the several hundred million new millionaires that China adds to its population each year.

A Wall Street Journal feature article today talked about one of Bordeaux's prominent winemakers, Jean-Luc Thunevin, who has hired a young tri-lingual Chinese woman to help him break into that market in a big way. She's even translating his blog entries into Chinese!

Between the China and Sarkozy, France got a small shot in the arm this week. I hope the effects don't wear off too soon.

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