The rumors of my death are exaggerated — Mark Twain
Rumors are flying about the death of the French wine industry. One source reports that France has fallen to third place in the key UK wine market (behind Australia and the US) and is losing ground to surging South Africa. Other rumors whisper that France will seek authority for crisis distillation payments to deal with the growing lake of unsellable wine. And now a new book with more bad news!
Michael Steinberger writes about wine for Slate and other publications. We share many interests so when I heard about his new book, I just had to get a copy. It’s called Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine and the End of France. The end of France? Gosh. Although just one chapter deals explicitly with French wine, it seems to me that the whole book comments in one way or another on the French wine dilemma.
We have met the enemy …
French cuisine, like French wine, once ruled the world, Steinberger argues, but not any more. Spain has taken the culinary lead, it is said, and many rivals compete on the wine shelf. Who is responsible for this sad situation, Steinberger asks? The answer is clear: the French themselves.
French economic regulations are one factor. They make it very difficult to operate restaurants profitably in France and so encourage the top chefs to look abroad. Flying chefs are like flying winemakers, I guess, leveraging their skills (and celebrity) on a global scale.
Critics are part of the problem, too. Not Robert Parker this time — the Michelin Guide. The pressure to earn and keep precious Michelin stars is enormous, Steinberger argues, making nervous wrecks out of France’s culinary elite. Worse, Michelin has “a certain idea” of French cuisine and service and it is not clear that it encourages the best from French chefs.
The French invented critics like the Michelin Man and now Robert Parker, it seems, and today suffer from their “tyranny.” Exquisite irony!
… and he is us.
France suffers as well from its distinctive institutions, we learn in the chapter about French wine. The French invented the appelation system which now seems to be running amuck as winemaking regions large and small seek the status that geographical indicators allegedly provide. The French have made appelations so important, Steinberger argues, that they have backfired.
Appelations should be a guarantee of quality or typical style if they are to be very useful economically. But, according to Steinberger, the pressure is on to give the stamp of approval to all the wines in a given region because the economic consequences of losing AOC status is so great. Result, bad wines as well as good ones earn the designation, diluting the commercial value of the brand for all (pun intended).
So it seems as though the French have only themselves to blame for their problems, but I think they are not alone in this. We are all frequently our own worst emenies.
Steinberger’s book does a nice job of plotting his personal love affair with France and his ultimate disappointment reflects his great admiration for what French cuisine at its best can be. It is a good read; I recommend it, unless you are trying to diet!
I love France, too, and I am dismayed by the state of the French wine industry, but I think that rumors of its death are exaggerated. The combination of EU reforms and the current economic crisis will certainly stress French winemakers over the next few years. I am hopefully that this stress will produce less wine but better wine. That’s happens when vines are stressed, isn’t it?