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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.

Comments (23)

David wrote:
03.01.07 at 6:58 AM

While I do not "love" French wines, you know about the love-hate relationship between Italians and the French, I do prefer them to any other wine except Italian. I disagree regarding regulations. The regulations are the only protection of quality. Without them the wines you and I love would be destroyed as others use the quality denominations to sell junk thus destroying the quality producers.

There is no limit to what one can make and sell, the limitations are that if the wine is not quality they cannot call it by its appelation or Denomination. The only reason to eliminate these laws would be to allow low quality wines to use high quality names. The reason low quality producers want to eliminate the laws is simply that they are unable able to defraud the consumer the way the laws are currently written.

These laws are a good thing, You may not remember the scandals of the French wine industry in the 80s, it nearly killed the entire industry.

Why is defining quality a bad thing?

Why is transparency about quality of materials, methods and blends a bad thing?

Again current laws do not prohibit a producer from making any blend, adding as much sugar as desired, or pumping the alcohol content with artificial means, they just cannot call it a certain type of wine.

Alder wrote:
03.01.07 at 8:15 AM


Defining quality is not a bad thing. The problem is that most of these laws DON'T guarantee quality in any way, shape or form. How many bad wines have you had that bear the name of a French Appellation? I can tell you I've had a lot. This connection between the two is a myth. Meanwhile some (not all, mind you -- some of these regulations are just fine) of these regulations PREVENT winemakers from making better quality wine in a given vintage because they regulate things like tonnage per acre of harvest, exact varietal mix with very little leeway, oak programs, etc. These aren't bad things on their face, and in a perfect year, perhaps they might be geared to quality -- but they are inflexible and do not take into account how the world really works.

In any case, even if France did nothing to change its appellation regulations and just concentrated on the marketing problems that this political candidate highlights, they'd be in a heck of a lot better shape.

Dick wrote:
03.01.07 at 8:25 AM

David: While your comments are totally "right on" in a discussion of wine quality, you miss the point of this discussion. I read the article at decanter.com referenced in the 1st post and determined this is not about wine quality. It is about advertising and promotion. Here in Oregon & Washington we suffer from a similar problem. The wine industry is very young here. We do not have years and years of reputation to ride on. These high quality wines win awards in competitions all over the world, yet we are not able to advertise or promote such accomplishments to new markets because there is some alcohol in it. Whether you "love" French Burgandy or Oregon Pinot Noir, you should be allowed to get information about both by what ever means the producer wants to (responsibly) publish.

TJ wrote:
03.01.07 at 9:06 AM

Alder, to play Devil's Advocate for a 2nd...How many low quality wines have you tasted bearing the name "Napa Cabernet" or "Napa Merlot"?!

One of the other intersting things about the French politician is that he doesn't drink! It was a big to-do when he took a sip of some wine and made it a big photo op.

Being here in CA we have access to many great wines, not only from CA but internationally. My local supermarket (www.nuggetmarket.com) has a WONDERFUL wine selection and much of it is in the under $20 range.

I don't see much advertising about wines, but I am aware of where to look. Granted I'm a bit more educated in wine than your avereage american citizen.

We have some interesting wine laws here, that hurt the overall wine trade of america. Granted, not as bas as the French restrictions!

Steve wrote:
03.01.07 at 10:07 AM

I have to agree with David.
The laws are there to protect the quality.
And if a passionate producer wants to be creative, he/she simply side steps and produces a declassified table wine. If
it's good, it sells regardlessly. (Some examples are Domaine de Trevallon
near Provence or Benedicte de Rycke
in the Loire.)

Good wine doesn't need advertising
If France's wine industry
as a whole does not show as big a dollar
sign as the other country's and yet
they are still producing high quality wines that are being snapped up all over the world, it only means they still have some passionate winemakers who make wine with care in small productions. Would you rather have France's wine industry flourishing because of massively advertised large scale plonk (i.e. Yellow Tail)?

la guarda de navarra wrote:
03.01.07 at 10:34 AM

Sarkozy have good ideas for french wine, but in Spain the Gobern of Zapatero compares wine with alcoholics drinks.
It`s no good for Spain and It`s very bad for people who loves wine.
In June we will know the solution.

Justin wrote:
03.01.07 at 10:34 AM

I think this really comes full circle to what Alder originally posted, French wine laws and marketing are so asinine and backwards that it really does hurt not just production, but also the market of new drinkers. If they are trying to capture new markets in Asia (while there are still many viable "new" elsewhere), this would be a perfect time to enact new laws and governance that would not only open the door to China, but also help to capture the vast margin of new drinkers in the US. A place where wine drinking has been on rise for several years. French wine above all else should be accessible to new and old drinkers alike, who can fall in love for the first or thousandth time with the complexity and beauty of French wine - why limit that with a governmental generation gap?

David wrote:
03.01.07 at 11:42 AM

Alder - I totally agree on the advertising side of the game but then, when my 1rst daughter was 4 days old she sucked on Prosecco at New Year's Eve, we used grappa when they cut their teeth and they drank a water-wine mix at the dinner table since forever. I have never seen them get drunk, they do not drink soda pop, and do not drink anything except wine and beer. I do not agree with bans on advertising for alcohol, sigarettes or anything else except pharma. I do not think that there should be age limits on alcohol consumption but then I believe the family has responsibility teaching their children how to become reasonable adults.

An example of how a good producer can make and sell a great wine without the appelation are the super tuscans. When Sassicaia, Tignanello, Solaia et. al. were created they were simple called red wine. Once they proved their value they were recognized, and protected, under the name Super Tuscan. IGTs went through the same process. I hope the US wine market will understand the importance of transpearancy and enact appropriate legislation.

Alder wrote:
03.01.07 at 9:49 PM


Sorry to single you out here, but your point of view is missing out on a very big slice of reality. The French wine industry is in shambles and is near the point of collapse. You, like many consumers it should be said, seem to consider only the high quality winemakers at the top of the pyramid. The "high quality wines that are being snapped up all over the world" represent only a small portion of France's wine industry (just as $20 and up Napa Cabernet represents only a tiny portion of the US wine industry).

MOST of France's wine industry is producing large scale plonk. And so is most of the United States. Yet in the USA you don't see winegrowers blowing up buildings, threatening to kill people, and rioting in the streets. Why? Because our winemakers can make a decent living growing grapes for plonk without government subsidy. And why can they do that? Because the people who buy those grapes and make the wine are free to market it the way they want and free to make the wine however they want, as long as they adhere to some (much less restrictive) laws about appellations.

Great wine, I agree, does not need advertising. Good and not so great wine, on the other hand (which is what 95% of the wine drinkers in the world consume), needs a hell of a lot of advertising. Just ask Fred Franzia, Jess Jackson, E&J Gallo, Christian Brothers, etc.

The ONLY way that France's wine industry will flourish again is if it can sell massively advertised plonk -- because that is what most people drink.

Bertrand wrote:
03.02.07 at 12:55 AM

Hi Alder

The french wine situation is not as monolithically bad as you seem to see it (from my point of view). Of course there are those plonk producers who have problems with the reduced subsidies from the european agriculture system and regularly riot (this typically french street-protest culture..), but maybe there's too much of these high-yield wines around anyway...

If I may add a remark, I think that what french wineries also need is :

_ End to the systematic breath checks along roads that dissuade the french to drink when they dine out. The US method is better : pull a driver for a breath check only when spotted as driving erratically.(Alas, the present system is unlikely to change because the french public thinks that many lives were saved on the road through systematic checks)

_ Withdrawal of many of the regulations/administrative work that the french administration imposes to the wineries and which are money/time hungry (many vignerons told me they need a full-time employee to fill the administration-requested documents). What the french wineries need is not additional protection, more state intervention or new labelling, they just need less pressure from the state and its many administrations.

_ Restore a healthy economy for the country. The french economy today is anemic, the consumer is very timid, and the 35-hours week and excessive tax pressure have much to do with it.

Steve wrote:
03.02.07 at 9:31 AM

Hi Alder,

Thanks for adressing me. I really value your opinions and that's why this site is one of my favorites.

At the very top, you say you love French wine. I love French wine too, but I'm not sure if it's for the same reason as you. For me, it is because of all the stories behind every bottle, the individualism expressed by the passionate artists, and the great variety out there. To me, for $13
a bottle, Francois Bauer's 'Brand' Grand Cru Riesling fascinates me far more and fuels my love for French wine, not the souless Red Bicyclette and its massive advertising campaign and cute label.

It is for the same reason I love French food over big box fast food restaurants. Food and wine is a special occassion to be savor every night. It doesn't have to be expensive, but low cost does not mean we have to all eat TV dinners either. The French laws are there to preserve culture. It is this identity which makes food and wine there so special. To have it overrun by fastfood chain stores and globalized winemaking would strip away this French identity.
And what would it mean to "love French
wine" when the wine is no different from
mass produced wine everywhere else?

Alder wrote:
03.02.07 at 9:31 AM


Thanks for your comments. Great points.

And, OK, perhaps I was being _slightly_ too dramatic in my characterization.

Alder wrote:
03.02.07 at 9:36 AM


We definitely love French wine for the same reason. But we seem to disagree on whether or not the low end of the wine market should be allowed to thrive or not. I do not drink, nor do I have any desire to, any mass market French wine. But I acknowledge both its right to exist, as well as the need for it in the marketplace (Just as I do YellowTail and Two Buck Chuck).

I think we also have a different assumption about what would happen, say, if a few apellation regulations got relaxed. Not enough to let someone make Syrah and put Cotes-du-Nuits on it, but enough to let someone alter their yields in a rough year. Or acidulate if they felt it would help them make a better wine. Your opinion seems to be that this would lead to every wine-tasting- the-same-sky-falling-Mondovino-premise sort of thing. I disagree.

Carl wrote:
03.02.07 at 9:43 AM

I must agree with Bertrand. Alder's characterization of France's wine industry as "near the point of collapse" is more than misleading hyperbole. It's downright balderdash. Just because grape growers are demonstrating and causing mischief, it doesn't mean the industry is on the verge of collapse. It means they're French and they have to uphold certain traditions handed down through Socialist generations.

I was born and raised in California and lived the first 40 years of my life there -- 20 of them as a wine drinker. The last seven years I've lived mostly in the Cognac region of France. That doesn't make me an expert on French wine or French law, it just means I've tried a LOT of French wine and conversed extensively with French citizens and wine drinkers. In my opinion, the reduction in wine consumption among young French people, and by extension the tribulations of the French wine industry, is not primarily because of advertising or legal restrictions. It's mostly because of changing attitudes and customs regarding eating -- that's right, eating.

In France, and in Europe in general, wine is food. I have never seen wine consumed in France without being part of a meal. Fifty years ago, French people drank wine with their meals as a matter of course. Many people never ate a meal without drinking wine, (most French people do not eat an actual breakfast). That is what is changing. People are starting to eat more quickly, sometime even frequenting (gasp) fast food outlets. What is the best pairing for a Big Mac? Right.

Times change, tastes change. In the U.S. of 50 years ago, people regularly mixed cocktails before dinner. Martinis were particularly favored. Beer came out of cans that read "Schlitz", and wine -- all wine -- came from Gallo. Red wine was for spaghetti and you were as likely to have a glass of bourbon whiskey with your filet as a glass of wine. Fifty years from now, things will probably be very different from today (surprise!)

Wine exports from France to the U.S. have taken quite a hit lately too. There are two big reasons for this: 1) American wine has improved greatly, 2) Because of the exchange rate, French wines are now much more expensive. As recently as seven years ago, ten U.S dollars bought you 14 euros or a very respectable bordeaux from the Medoc or Pomerol. These days, $10 gets you 7 euros, or enough for a mediocre bottle of beaujolais. Believe me, I know all too well. Swilling good wine has become a very expensive habit at my house!

Alder wrote:
03.02.07 at 10:02 AM


Thanks very much for the comments. It's sort of surprising to see everyone characterizing these riots as simple "traditions" and trivial displays of childish frustration. I'm not there, so maybe they are, but blowing up buildings, trucks, torching warehouses, etc. doesn't sound trivial to me.

But to be honest, that's just a small part of the data (really a symptom of the problem) I use to make my assessment that the French wine industry is in serious trouble.

Just as worrying are the facts that wine consumption in France is plummeting and has been for a decade. Wine exports are shrinking because France can't compete well with Australia and the US (as you point out), and other new world countries that let their wine businesses actually market their stuff and that seem to be making wines that average people like to drink.

Real estate prices in Bordeaux and all the major wine regions continue to drop as more people get out of the business and the area.

All of this is masked, quite nicely by the gratuitous excesses of things like the 2005 Bordeaux prices, and by the fact that most of us (excuse me for generalizing about you people that I don't really know) represent a totally different sort of wine consumer than your average French citizen (or your average American citizen, for that matter). We rarely encounter the wines and the winemakers and winegrowers that are going out of business every day.

Bertrand wrote:
03.02.07 at 10:58 AM

Don't forget one important factor when speaking about the lower wine consumption in France today : Yes, in 1960, the french were drinking 100 liters per inhabitant, versus 55 liters today. But in 1960, not only were they drinking wine at lunch (today, working people often avoid wine at lunch on weekdays to stay fit for work in the afternoon), but much of the wine drunk in France was 9° to 10° table wine. This low-alcohol daily wine could be drunk in larger quantity than our today's wines that are usually between 12,5° and 14°.

Carl wrote:
03.02.07 at 11:24 AM


Okay, most of what you say is generally true, (how's that for wishy-washy?). Seriously, the "riots" aren't that important. France has been subsidizing the growers for generations now, and the E.U. is finally cracking down. Even so, French vinyards are still the number one recipient of agricultural subsidies in all of Europe so the situation is only going to get worse for the growers. But don't confuse the growers with the the wineries. Yes, almost all of the known wineries are "mis en bouteille" or bottled from estate grapes. But the mass-produced wines use grapes from cooperatives. (I can buy a liter of wine here for less than $1.50 -- it makes two buck chuck look expensive). For the cooperatives, grapes are a commodity, one that has dropped in relative price significantly over the last few decades. The same thing has happened in world sugar, cotton, wheat, and many other commodity markets at various time throughout history. Yes, the decline in domestic French wine consumption along with declining exports will gradually all but kill the mass-produced low end of the French wine industry. That doesn't necessarily mean the end of French wine. In fact, it might just be good in the long run. But it will put a lot of French grape growers out of work and they're not going to take it lying down. The same thing happend to small farms and ranches in the U.S. The difference is that wheat and corn aren't "branded" like wine is. Generic fermented grape juice might be worth 20 cents a liter, but if it came from Margaux it's just not the same species.

By the way, blowing up buildings is a time-honored tradition in France, going all the way back to 1941.

Alder wrote:
03.02.07 at 11:25 AM

Yes Bert, but am I correct in remembering that the numbers of wine consumers (people who claim that their primary beverage of choice is wine) has also been dropping dramatically?


Lee D wrote:
03.02.07 at 1:45 PM

This was a tremendously informative post and series of comments, and I want to extend my gratitude to all involved for broadening my understanding.

Thanks again, and keep up the great work!

Bertrand wrote:
03.03.07 at 12:20 AM

You're right. Wine isn't anymore the only alcoholic beverage in France. Beer and special cocktails (looking like soda) marketed for young people and women have been on the rise for a while.

Joe wrote:
03.04.07 at 5:38 PM

Hi Alder.
Methinks you touched a nerve, based on the plethora of comments! I also love French wines, but I am not terribly worried about the ultra low end, as the selection of good French wines in the shops (and on the restaurant menus) remains strong here in N. America. Perhaps some of those terroirs should not be growing grapes? Regardless, your point that these producers should be given the tools (i.e. get the government out of their way) to fend for their survival is a good one. The Euro has been a killer, but exchange rates go up AND down, so they will have their day again. China will help, so long as China remains strong, and I think the French are smart to be there early (Japan has been great for Burgundy). Thanks for raising a great issue.
PS - Sarkozy is a puppy-hating fascist? The rumour started here...:)

I like looking through an article that will make men and women think.
Also, thanks for allowing for me to comment!

11.12.14 at 8:17 AM

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Look advanced to more added agreeable from you! However, how could
we communicate?

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