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A Perfect Example of France's Problem

I've oft bemoaned the sorry state of bureaucracy that bogs down the French wine industry. The country has a huge albatross on its back that prevents it from both being as competitive as it could be on the world market, as well as simply thriving at home (French wine consumption has plummeted in the last 10 years).

A lot of people like to argue with me that the French laws aren't that bad, that they really aren't hampering development of the industry, and that marketing isn't the problem, etc. This always blows me away considering the powers that be continue to pass laws like this one, a recent statute that will require any article about wine published in any French newspaper to carry the same health warning disclaimer that an actual bottle of wine must carry.

That's right. The country that brought you the French Paradox is now worried that you might think wine is actually good for you, so the government (kind paternal figure that it is) will be stepping in to set you straight.

This is not just a silly news story that we can all laugh at and say, "Oh, those silly French!" This is a symptom of a serious malaise, that if left unchecked, will gradually turn France into a country that produces a few top wines for the rest of the world and very little else. The French populace will be drinking more beer and spirits than wine, and the producers who grow and sell the lower end wines that make up the majority of France's wine consumption will have starved to death or will be forced to get out of the business.

Anyone know Sarkozy's e-mail address? He needs a dope slap for letting this happen.

GOVERNMENT WARNING:  (1) According to the Surgeon General, women
should not read any text which might encourage them to enjoy 
a glass of wine during pregnancy because of the risk of birth 
defects.  (2) Consumption of media related to alcoholic beverages
may encourage consumption of the same, which impair your
ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause
health problems.

Comments (22)

Arthur wrote:
01.12.08 at 11:25 PM

Alder, I think there is a middle ground to be found here.

The fact is that humans are fad-driven. Combine that with the tendency of marketers in any industry to play up vague positives of any product and you may face a public health problem when the product you are dealing with contains 14% ABV or more. Yes, wine is a beautiful thing but too much of anything is not all that beneficial.

I acknowledge that we cannot, and probably should not, legislate behavior, judgment or stupidity. However, whether you believe that the state exists to serve the needs and interests of the individual (health welfare included) or if it exists to oversee the needs of the many and to ensure that the excesses of one do not impinge on the needs of the many (ie public healthcare funds, fiscal losses to one or a society stemming from injury due to drunk driving, etc) I have to say that it probaly is a government’s place to guard against the consequences of the public’s excesses.

I say all that in spite my personal political and philosophical leanings.

Alder Author Profile Page wrote:
01.13.08 at 8:48 AM

OK, but we're dealing with journalists here, not with marketers. Do you really think an article in the NY times, for instance, contributes to the "public excess" enough to merit a health warning?!?

David K wrote:
01.13.08 at 8:50 AM

Sarcozy's too busy getting laid with super models to bother.

Dean Tudor wrote:
01.13.08 at 12:20 PM

From the FIJEV:


From: FIJEV [mailto:[email protected]]
Sent: January 11, 2008 3:42 AM
Subject: Wine journalism equals advertising?

FIJEV Communiqué

FIJEV considers unfair and dangerous the recent decision made by the Paris County Court in the case of Association Nationale pour la Prévention de l'Alcoolisme et des Addictions vs Le Parisien newspaper. This decision says editorial articles about wine must be regarded as advertising and as such, under the French law, must be accompanied by a health Warning (Alcohol abuse is dangerous for your health).

We protest with the utmost energy against this assimilation.

Our job as journalists is not about selling. We do not simply "communicate" or "advertise", we inform. We participate in the consumer's education to quality, our aim is not to encourage a higher consumption.

This decision of justice must be reexamined and revised. Please help us.

There is no financial interest at stake, just our integrity and repute as free journalists. Freedom of speech.
Support us, by lauching a petition, by writing articles on this subject, by transmitting this communiqué, by improving it, by any action you can think of.

This cause is just.

Thank you.

Secretary General

Blake Gray wrote:
01.13.08 at 7:19 PM

This isn't really a wine story -- it's an outrage of a much, much larger kind. This is about freedom of the press. France is leaving the community of enlightened nations with this law.
Think about it: if Sarkosy can demand that newspapers run a government-approved message beside articles, what's to stop him from demanding a similar government-approved message extolling his political party? Every time a newspaper wanted to praise the opposition, they would be forced, in the interest of balance, to run niceties about the administration.
It's a slippery slope. Start telling the printed press what they must run, and then you can tell them what they can't say.
I hope all French publications test this law by refusing to obey it.

carlos Serafim wrote:
01.13.08 at 7:38 PM

Right after Government Warning it should say " if you are a stupid person or if people tell you that you are, please read the following warning".
That way, the proper people will have been warned and everyone else can get on with the pleasure of wine.
Kind of like when the bus driver says "will the ugly people please stay at the front of the bus and the beautiful people move to the back so others can get in at the next stop" It really works.

Arthur wrote:
01.13.08 at 10:35 PM


As I said in my original post, a middle ground needs to be found.
The warning lables are over the top -especially as a perfunctory requisite on any piece in any way related to wine. If you are reviewing a wine, presenting a winery profile or a winemaker interview, these cigarette box-like warnings are silly.

However, I have seen too many pieces that just regurgitate some press release about one wine extract or another being shown to do something or other to a specific hybrid mouse cell culture in-vitro without any commentary, critical thinking or putting the findings in context.

The majority of general public does not read The Lancet, Nature, the New England Journal of Medicine or whatever scientific publication that comes to mind. They get their knowledge of scientific advances from publications like the NY times or CNN or their local news show. One only has to watch the flow of the information form initial press release to reporting in a local/national newspaper or on TV to see a version of 'silent telephone; at play. Even dedicated "Science Writers" fail miserably at conveying the essence of the true essence of the subject they wrtie about/comment on.

In this context, requiring writers to discuss the counterpoints of the finding they report is quite fair.

Carl wrote:
01.14.08 at 2:14 AM


Could you provide a reference on this information? Is it really Sarkozy's doing? Seems out of character. So far, he's seems more about reducing government and allowing business more leeway. That's why he's being bashed by the left as Yank-lover.

Eric wrote:
01.14.08 at 4:01 AM

I am in agreement with your opposition to the law but for different reasons. Wine has been shown in numerous studies to be of health benefit. Further, I expect it could be demonstrated easily that the public at large is aware that excess alcohol consumption is detrimental to health. It is of course of value to have media attention brought to this issue.

However, the know-it-all, patronistic, ugly-american comments and tone, i.e. "Oh, those silly French!", "He needs a dope slap", are really beneath you. I imagine many of the great vignéron of France of whom you have interest would welcome a visit of someone of your knowledge and stature, and that many would agree with your core criticisms. However, I expect most would be offended by the unnecessarily patronistic approach you employ in the making your points.

I realize that this is an editorial but even in editorials, statements are supported with facts, arguments are well-constructed and supported. Your conclusions are unsupported. There are no facts, no linkages. I realize you need to produce substantial content but why not just stick the facts and your opinion of them rather than making unsupported statements and predictions?

- "The country has a huge albatross on its back" - what albatross? how huge?
- "that prevents it from both being as competitive as it could be on the world market," - how? causal evidence? example(s)?
- "as well as simply thriving at home (French wine consumption has plummeted in the last 10 years)." - totally unsupported. "plummeted" > how much? are you trying to link something undefined to an undefined result with no causal evidence? what exactly caused the drop in wine consumption?
- "This is a symptom of a serious malaise," - what malaise? serious, how serious? how is it a symptom?
- "...that if left unchecked, will gradually turn France into a country that produces a few top wines for the rest of the world and very little else." - no evidence whatsoever. does the reader just take you're word as an expert for it?
- "The French populace will be drinking more beer and spirits than wine," - totally unsupported prediction
- "and the producers who grow and sell the lower end wines that make up the majority of France's wine consumption will have starved to death" - totally unsupported prediction
- "or will be forced to get out of the business." - totally unsupported prediction
- "the sky is falling!"

What's next...a predition that French WMDs will get into the hands of Al Quaeda?

Alder wrote:
01.14.08 at 8:51 AM


I think you got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. In case you hadn't noticed, this isn't the New York Times, and you haven't paid for a subscription! :-)

I am free to make sweeping generalizations, errors, gross overstatements, snide remarks, humorous asides, swear like a sailor, and generally ignore whatever journalistic conventions I choose to, and throw in a dangling participle to boot.

You want factual reporting on this issue, go read the Decanter article.

You want the opinion of someone who loves French wine and thinks the French legislative bodies are out-of-touch nincompoops that are blinded by tradition, stick around.

But, to answer your questions:

1. Albatross = have you heard the term wine lake? Oversupply? For the past several vintages, European countries have been producing roughly 1.7 billion more bottles of wine than they sell, and France is by far the biggest contributor to that. Millions of liters of unsold wine that are being turned into industrial alcohol. This is the primary reason for recent EU wine reforms (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/5107400.stm), which including ripping out thousands of acres of vineyards to reduce oversupply. Rioting in the south of France, where winemakers (the CRAV) are blowing up buildings because they can't make a living. This oversupply is albatross enough, but the REAL albatross are the laws which prevent people from doing much of anything about it. The laws like the one cited in the article that govern every aspect of the wine industry in France to the point that an actress can't look too sexy holding a glass of wine or the advertisment (for the region of Bordeaux, not even a specific wine) will be censored.

2. Competitive = Again I point you to the recent EU wine reforms that are specifically designed to address this problem. As a percentage of the consumer market French wine sales have declined in the UK in favor of Australian imports, and just this year was the first year in a while that French Exports of wine rose instead of fell. France does not have any wines that compete with the large global value brands like YellowTail, etc. Hell, even Sarkozy says France is uncompetitive, and points to bad legislation as the reason (http://www.decanter.com/news/111170.html).

3. French Wine consumption decline = Between 2001 and 2005 wine consumption across the globe went up by 4%, whilst in France it went down by 11% (according to a study commissioned by Vinexpo). The numbers between 1990 and 2005 are even larger but I can't find them at the moment. The cause of this drop is debated among many, so I don't know why you expect me to know it, but some point to tougher drunk driving laws, some say it's because the wine that ordinary people drink all day long in France has gotten worse (lower quality), and some credit the fact that the younger generation is more interested in spirits and beer than wine and tradition.

4. Symptom of malaise = see #3 and #1 above.

5. Drinking more spirits than wine = my exaggerated fear based on #3. So sue me.

6. The producers starve and get out of the business = there has been a TON of reporting on the issues such producers are facing in the marketplace, mostly trying to understand why these people are blowing up buildings and terrorizing the wine industry. See as an example http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2005/05/01/wwine01.xml&sSheet=/news/2005/05/01/ixworld.html which supports this assertion as well as most of the other items which you claim I have no evidence or citation for.

Thanks for your support !

Blake Gray wrote:
01.14.08 at 5:05 PM

Alder, normally I am not one to find fault with you, but I simply cannot believe you recommended somebody go to Decanter for factual reporting. Linda Murphy is the only writer there who doesn't adjust facts to fit the narrative.

ScottS wrote:
01.14.08 at 7:00 PM

As much as I detest the Bush administration and dislike some aspects of American culture, it takes a truckload of gall for anyone defending Europe to use the word patronizing in reference to Americans:

"However, the know-it-all, patronistic, ugly-american comments and tone, i.e. "Oh, those silly French!""

It is a rather silly law that takes a patronizing attitude towards its subjects.

I was trying to figure out how this fit with Sark's reputation and political philosophy. My best guess is that there is some concern on the part of the French elite about their per capita production in light of the nearly 1 liter/day of wine alcohol equivalent consumption nationwide. Although I'm envious in some ways, that probably isn't a recipe for international economic competitiveness. Well, it's their choice. And it is my choice to laugh at this stupid law, just as I would if American politicians proposed or supported it.

01.15.08 at 12:03 AM

First these wine notices being dangerous to your health are silly. What is this based on? I agree with Herve. Certainly a label will not stop people from drinking or not drinking.
As far as advertising writing about wine does inform and can influence but if we do not read and learn how can we grow in knowledge.
The reason French wine consumption has gone down is the price has gone up! The French are not foolish as we Italians they were raised on Wine. They would love to drink the good French wine but they cannot afford it!
I cannot understand why this would be a surprise...

01.15.08 at 3:41 PM

REally?.....REally!? How long do you think this is ghoing to last? I agree that people are still going to drink no matter the warning. Isn't thee something happening in England as well? something about weekly wine consumption? this is absurd.


Iris wrote:
01.16.08 at 1:03 PM

it's not a recent law made by Sarcosy, but a judgment based on what is called Evins law (la loi Evin) from 1991...it's just the anti alcohol lobby, who's getting more influent (like has the anti tobacco lobby recently).

Eric wrote:
01.20.08 at 12:57 PM

Alder, my point is primarily about the tone you use. My hope is that you could make your points with playing the stupid French card. It echoes rhetoric employed with regards to the French lack of support for the current administrations foreign policy in recent years.

While I certainly haven't paid for a subscription I have patronized your sponsors from time to time.

1) Regarding the albatross, it seems like you've tried to define it as oversupply. The market will take its course regardless of EU intervention. EU monies are wasted in this effort because the market is more efficient and those monies are better left with the taxpayer to re-invest in the economy. However, if I were to call anything an albatross, I would call the taxation rather than excess supply the albatross. Again, as I mentioned before, I agree with you opposition to this new law.

2) Regarding the point on being competitive, maybe France can't compete with Yellow Tail. That is up to France's producers and the market to work out. Mimolette probably can't compete with Kraft singles either. It will always be lower in volume and higher in price. I know which I'd rather consumer however.

3) Regarding wine consumption falling in France, the numbers can be deceiving. Most industry numbers that I see are based on volume not value. I remember seeing numbers a couple years back where France was the number one importer of Port (volume). If you were to look at value or segment out the under 10 euro bottles, you'd probably find France insignificant compared to the UK or US. Most industry numbers are based on supermarket, etc. data. Have you seen what Leclerc and Carrefour sell? I live in France and what I can see is consumers trading up. You'll never see that if you look at volume data. The under 5 euro a bottle market is the equivalent to beer and spirits. If the consumer moves from cheap wine to beer or spirits, it has little effect on the quality wine industry.

4) Symptom of the malaise. You are saying the decline in consumption and oversupply are the symptoms of the malaise. Let's assume those vines average 30 years in age. They are a symptom of decisions made a long time ago. Decline in consumption of wine is not necessarily a bad thing. When you go to a restaurant and have a choice between bad wine and a good beer, what do you choose? Table wine is a sunset industry in France. Wages are too high here. The market will take its course.

5) No lawsuit pending.

6) If those producer's starve and get out of the business, so be it. Look, the business is very simply--quality product + smart marketing equals revenue. If you can't figure that out, you can't be a business owner. I would imagine you would not care for the product that most of these producers you are worried about produce.

More than the albatross, policies or anything else, what's hurts the small producer is the decline in the US dollar. Despite that, in my estimation, quality has never been higher. Smart small producers continue to find markets for their quality products.

I find your regular coverage on this segment not consistent with the wines you profile on your site nor I imagine with the wines you drink. It is unlikely that any French producer you like will be pulling out any vines used in the wines you like any time soon.

01.25.08 at 2:29 AM

Please do not confuse the people with the bureaucracy.
Many French still have a culture of taking their risks and do not wish to be explicitly warned. So such red tape does not come from them.
Red tape is produced by people who are paid to produce it. As you know big technocratic government is a problem in the European Union.

Alder wrote:
01.25.08 at 7:30 AM

Felicien, I do not, and thank you for making that explicit. This disease is relatively confined to the government, and does not infect the general public.

Alder wrote:
01.25.08 at 7:33 AM


You want albatross? Here it is: http://www.decanter.com/news/175717.html

For those who can't be bothered to click the link above, the Champagne maker Moet has just been fined about $50,000 for making an advertisment for their Champagne that included.....

....wait for it....

Rose petals that were too pink. So pink that they might, according to the ruling, suggest an association between Champagne and leading a euphoric life.

If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.

Nancy wrote:
01.26.08 at 4:58 PM

Wait! We're getting lost in the point-counterpoint! The real point is to do as M. Lalau suggests and write about it or at least forward this to a wine-loving friend. For those of us without an appropriate soap-box, I'm sure M. Lalau will be happy to forward our comments: mailto:[email protected]

This has a disconcerting resemblance to the neo-prohibitionist movement here in the 80s, which was started, I believe, by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and from which we still feel the impact today. Next it will be the proposed labeling requirements. Merde! Lord, save us from those who are trying to "help" us!

Nancy wrote:
04.07.08 at 5:38 PM

I was under the impression that American-style government warning labels were not even permitted on bottles of wine sold in Europe, still less anywhere near a print article on wine. My information must be wildly out of date. By the way: if we consult "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" I believe we'll find that an albatross is a bird that hangs from our necks, not one we carry on our backs.

slaked wrote:
05.29.08 at 1:05 PM

I think the Government Warning should actually include the following provisions, just to be clear: (1) Waking up in the morning may be too stressful and require you to despair of your life and have a drink, so don't wake up. (2) Going to work will probably suck it hard, and you'll want a glass of wine when you get home, so don't go to work either. (3) Hanging out with friends, discussing literature, politics, or poetry, wearing a beret, or picking up a baguette on the way home is all too closely associated with a good bottle of wine to share with said friends, so don't do any of it. (4) Avoid all light, darkness, sustenance, love, warmth, art, faith or religion, culture, or poetry, because they too are probably going to mean you will want a drink at some point also. (5) Don't have children, but if you do have children, never drink again.

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