The End of France?

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).

Stressed out

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?

3 responses

  1. Interesting stuff. Would never have thought that South African wine would be making gains in the UK. Pretty sad for French wine considering the vast difference in quality!

    • I don’t think the SA wine is crowding out the first growth French products — it’s the mediocre lower and middle market stuff that is losing ground.

  2. On July 10 UK’s newspaper, The Telegraph, announced that French wine is now in fifth place, with Australian, US, Italian, and South African wines more frequently splashing across British palates. France had the number one spot for centuries but has been in decline for some time prior to current events.

    The problem is not the wine itself but is partially due to the weakness of the Pound vs Euro that has made French wines more expensive in this climate. The average price for a bottle of wine purchased in Britain is £4.25, which includes a higher rate of taxation than other popular beverages such as beer. Add to that the confusion with French wine labels, especially for the younger consumers, and New World wine becomes ever more attractive.

    Looking at the global wine industry, France is not much worse off than, say, Napa vintners who are also struggling to keep their wine club members ordering while simultaneously begging their distribution companies to not kick them to the curb. For US wineries, the dead spot at retail is the $50 – $150 price range unless you have a cult following. Many retailers are telling me that the dead spot is starting at $35 and above. Why else would Heidi Peterson Barrett of Screaming Eagle fame be hitting the road to promote her wares (La Sirena)? The affected are not just French or US wineries but nearly every region except Argentina and Chile, whose producers were perfectly positioned for this economic crisis.

    France cannot possibly be exempt from this economy with the possible exception of First Growth and “Super Second” Bordeaux, Burgundy’s DRC and the like, and maybe one or two cult Rhone producers; even with these venerable producers, the market continues to soften. To not only state, but to write an entire book about the end of times for France is the most preposterous thing I have read lately. With such drama, I have to wonder if Mr. Steinberger watches Jerry Springer reruns or something. This is alarmist rubbish at its lowest level and Mr. Steinberger’s subject matter could have been more accurate to depict the cataclysmic decline in book sales! That said, I cannot comment on his spin regarding French cuisine although it is difficult to believe that cuisine itself, as great as it is, has much to contribute to France’s GDP.

    Also the French appellation system deserves mention – that ogre-like institution that Mr. Steinberger claims is tearing apart French wine estates. There are so few people that understand any region’s appellation system that his claim is simply untenable. Virtually every single country and every single wine region in the world sought to model itself after France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlèe. Although the concept was cutting-edge at the time (not perfect) the AOC concept only allowed a consumer to benefit from it if she or he took the time to know the rules of that particular appellation. Buying a wine that has the word “Napa” on the label doesn’t guarantee the purchase will be great, enjoyable, memorable, or even good. It only guarantees that at least 85% of the fruit was sourced from within the Napa AVA. The fact is that the appellation system is of marginal value in today’s wine-buyer’s stream of consciousness and isn’t going to make or break anyone, let alone a country.

    One of the other issues arguably may be France’s teetotaler President, Nicolas Sarkozy who denounces drinking in general, although he’s reportedly been seen sipping himself. But the contrast to former President Jacques Chirac is immediate and drastic. Prior to Monsieur Chirac becoming president, he was the Secretary of Agriculture and in fact was the man who elevated Château Mouton Rothschild to First Growth from Second Growth in 1973. The current leader is on a soapbox about health, the former was about wine and the industry of wine. Apparently President Sarkozy has no faith in the plethora of medical studies that validate the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption and continues to promote his personal views and agenda to his nation.

    It is unfortunate when anyone is faced with shuttering their business but considering that some 200 to 300 million cases a year come from France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region alone, much of which is vin de table quality, is it really going to be devastating to see some of the clutter fall by the wayside? Some estates may go away but the whole country? Not even close.

    David Boyer –

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