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Jefford on Monday: Hitting first

Andrew Jefford looks at two recent political controversies for French wine, and considers their impact...

French wine’s global image has made a poor start to 2016.

Most French winemakers, of course, have pruned their vines assiduously, seen to the wellbeing of the often-superb 2015 wines in their cellars, dutifully paid their taxes, attended all the trade shows and fulfilled their orders with the courtesy, honesty and efficiency which characterises small and medium-sized French family businesses.  France’s wine and spirits sector produces the country’s second largest trade surplus after aviation and – as Wine-Searcher’s latest list of the world’s top 50 most expensive wines (drawn from 8.5 million wines offered) shows – France continues to produce almost all of the world’s most desired bottles of wine.  Wine is unquestionably a success story for France.

What the world noted in early April, however, was a bunch of Audois wine-growers emptying tankers of Spanish red wine onto motorway tarmac while the local police lounged about and did nothing.  The same set of growers (led by Frédéric Rouanet) had already made headlines back in February by threatening to block the southern stages of this year’s Tour de France, having declared themselves in a state of ‘black anger’ at the idea that a Chilean wine brand called Bicicleta might be allowed to sponsor those stages of the tour which will take place in Switzerland, Andorra and Spain.  Childish, hilarious – but true.

In part, of course, all of this underlines the extraordinary deformation of reality brought about in our lives by internet media culture.  Neither event is of any significance whatsoever to French wine at large, other than for its media impact: the photographs and messages it sends around the world.  In this sense, the media is a powerfully anti-democratic tool, since it assigns an unwarranted importance to those who shout loudest, or who commit eye-catching illegal acts or acts of violence.

In the Tour de France case, the threats and remarks of M.Rouanet (‘In this matter, we’ve decided to hit first and discuss afterwards’) were widely reported.  Yet the Tour de France is also going through South West France, where Cahors’ Honorary President Jean-Marie Sigaud (who is also a grower in Fitou in Aude, by the way, at Clos l’Aventure) welcomed it for the chance it would give to communicate positive messages about the region and its wines.  ‘We live in a globalised world,’ he said.  ‘There is no legal means to stop anyone choosing a sponsor.  I respect the position of the Audois growers, but this fight doesn’t belong in this epoch.’

He’s absolutely right, but you won’t have read those remarks in foreign coverage of the spat, just as you won’t have heard from those many growers in the Aude (and every other French winemaking département) who were horrified to see the wine made by their Spanish colleagues tipped on to the motorway by M.Rouanet and his friends.

More broadly, though, these incidents reveal three fundamental problems inherent in French wine politics.

The first is that chaotic ambiguities surrounding the ways in which the Loi Evin relates to the promotion of wine mean that France remains institutionally schizophrenic about its greatest agricultural product.  Despite the best efforts of French Senator Gérard César and others last year (Jefford on Monday: The President and the Montravel bomb), even the modest reforms proposed in 2015 to the interpretive framework of the Loi Evin were eventually knocked back.  (All political reform in France is met with hysteria.)  There’s nothing wrong with Chilean wine being promoted via the Tour de France outside France, of course; the only injustice is that no wine at all can ever be associated with the Tour inside France itself, and with the publicity caravan which precedes the Tour (which is what many spectators enjoy most).  This is a shame, because the Tour is not only a sporting occasion but a French cultural institution, and in some ways the major tourist event of the French summer.

(For the record, it has subsequently emerged that talks had been going on between Jérôme Despey of FranceAgriMer and the Tour de France organisers for a year about ways to increase wine exposure on the Tour without stumbling into the minefield of the Loi Evin.  Suitably sober information leaflets on wine regions are to be made available to Tour followers.)

A second problem of French wine politics is that the French wine community doesn’t speak with one voice.  Each region fights its own corner, and defends its own interests; so too does each sector; and the glaring inequalities within some regions, too, leave the weakest actors on the French wine scene with a sense of alienation and antagonism.  Wine communities in other countries are often embattled, but manage to act with a greater sense of solidarity and cohesion.  If there is any substance to the claims by Aude growers that Spanish bulk-wine competition is unfair and even corrupt, then the French wine community as a whole should pursue the matter by political means, using the framework of European wine law.  There is, though, no French wine community ‘as a whole’, and no wise counsel to stop the growers of the Aude giving the rest of the world the impression that French winegrowers are parochial, myopic and given to acts of vandalism.

The third problem is a more general one in France: that resorting to illegal acts in France in pursuit of some particular grievance, usually during strikes and demonstrations, not only goes unpunished by the law, but is often rewarded with success in the long run, as well as flattering the self-esteem of those taking part as they enjoy their little 1789 moment.  Unruly or greedy factional interests often get their way, and no politician ever dares take on ‘the street’ – even though ‘the street’ is entirely unrepresentative of French society at large, and often puts society at large to enormous cost and inconvenience.

When we are talking about the bullying of a sporting organisation in terms of the sponsorship it should accept, or the destruction of other people’s property in transit, you have to hope that the Aude growers’ campaign is doomed to failure – since what would constitute success?  No non-French products promoted on the Tour de France?  Unsaleable French bulk wine given a further lease of life by wasteful subsidies when it can be produced more cheaply elsewhere?  That is not a happy future, even in the Aude.

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