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Jefford on Monday: Wine Exceptionalism

Is France poised to ban all discussion of wine on the internet? Will wine writing in France be classified as advertising, and therefore sanctioned under the Loi Evin? Will DRC and Pétrus have to print 'Le vin tue' (wine kills) on their labels?

Picture: Michel de Montaigne – A sign that reads “Serve them good wine and they’ll make you good laws”, Andrew Jefford ©

No. These preposterous scare stories have been generated by a site called www.cequivavraimentsaoulerlesfrancais.fr, and taken seriously by an international wine community always ready to believe the worst about France. They don’t bear scrutiny – though the issues raised are interesting.

This website has been created by an organization called Vin et Société – the lobbying arm of the French wine business. Its ‘members’ are all of France’s interprofessional committees (which jointly represent the interests of both growers and merchants on a regional basis), plus national groupings of merchants, growers and co-operatives. The laudable aim of Vin et Société is to protect France’s wine culture: a multi-millennial creation of infinite preciousness. The manifesto you will find on its own website (www.vinetsociete.fr) is a reasonable and well-drafted document which I’ve happily signed.  

They seem to have decided, though, that being reasonable doesn’t bring results, so it’s now time to be noisy and hysterical. (This may be an astute calculation in a country whose political extremes are bathed a state of permanent delusional hysteria.) Indeed they’ve already scored a hit, in that a key passage in the document on which the stories were based has already been modified.  
The luridly publicized five “measures envisaged against wine”, it turned out, were imaginative extrapolations drawn from a few passing references in a French government discussion document called the Plan gouvernemental du lutte contre la drogue et les conduites addictives (government plan for the struggle against drugs and addictive behaviour). The pdf version of this document is 82 pages long. It doesn’t contain a single mention of the word ‘vin’ — not one. It does, of course, contain plenty of references to ‘alcohol’, as it should: alcohol is a major factor in French road accidents, in clogging up French hospitals and squandering social security money, and in causing family misery. The general tone of the plan is nannying – but the French like to be nannied and looked after, which is why government expenditure is 52.8 per cent of GDP in France, compared (for example) to 38.9 per cent in the USA. The French don’t vote for politicians who promise small government.  

The basis for all of Vin et Société’s arguments is the notion of ‘wine exceptionalism’: that wine is, if you like, the good drug, the cultural drug, the health-bringing drug, and that it shouldn’t therefore be treated in the same way as mere ‘alcohol’. As a long-term wine-user and observer of wine-users, I happen to believe this is true – but it’s hard to prove with any kind of scientific or epidemiological rigour. Drivers drunk on wine mow down child pedestrians, just like those drunk on pastis or alcopops do. Respect for ‘wine exceptionalism’, thus, must always rely on the common sense of legislating politicians. Hence the lobbying effort.  

Given the fact that France is running a social-security deficit of 16.2 billion euros this year, it seems certain that sooner or later the (relatively low) tax on wine here will rise, just like every other French tax: if the French want to go on retiring earlier than everyone else (and living longer than everyone else), the money has to come from somewhere. It also seems likely that we’ll see health warnings on bottles of wine (there are none at present). They may even be as prominent as those used in the world’s leading wine-consuming nation: the USA. But they won’t say ‘wine kills’; I’m never going to be regarded as a copy-writer; and decanter.com will continue to be freely consultable in my village in the Hérault.  

Written by Andrew Jefford

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