Tue, Jul 20, 2004 - Page 16 News List

France's wine industry deals with its crisis

A new marketing gimmick is evidence that vintners have mounting problems

DPA , Paris

Wine, the elixir of life, especially at one of the countless wine festivals each summer in France. But it's anything but all smiles these days for French vintners as they face a market where consumption has been declining and foreign wines are making inroads.

PHOTO: DPA

The new wine is called Permis de Conduire, or Driving license, and will be marketed with a pink label which is the same color as the document that permits French people to sit behind the wheel of a car.

The wine in the 25cl bottle, the label claims, "corresponds to a concentration of alcohol not greater than 0.25mg per liter of exhaled air or 0.5 parts of alcohol to each 1,000 parts of blood, if two people share the bottle."

In other words, two people drinking one bottle of this wine will be able to drive a car without worrying about surpassing the legal limit of blood-alcohol content.

The wine will be launched later this month with the slogan "Keep your license."

This product is more than a clever marketing gimmick, it is evidence of an industry in deep crisis. Just like another new wrinkle in French dining -- the wine doggie bag.

Several hundred restaurants throughout the country now give their customers glossy white shopping bags with wine-colored ribbons to take their unfinished wine bottles home to "prolong their pleasure," as promotional fliers urge.

The bags are provided free of charge to restaurants by the Wine Council of Bordeaux, in response to a vigorous government program to cut down road fatalities and other alcohol-related deaths.

The objective of the program is to reduce the use of alcohol in France by 20 percent by the year 2007, and it has led to an acceleration in the decades-long decrease of wine consumption in the country.

Nowadays, the average French man and woman over the age of 15 consumes about 68l of wine per year, exactly half the amount drank in 1960, when French society considered wine a staple like bread, and considerably below the 77l per year consumed in 1990.

In addition, French wines are being squeezed on foreign markets by the so-called "new age" wines, made in South Africa, Australia, Chile and the US. As a result, exports of wines from the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions were down about 8 per cent in 2003.

The resulting accumulation of wine reserves has led to a steep drop in the barrel price of all but the most prestigious wines, which has many French vintners worried about their future.

"Today, I am earning zero," one Bordeaux winemaker said. "If that continues, I will stop."

His problem, he said, was that he can not repay bank loans taken out in the 1990s when Bordeaux wine sold for more than 1,500 euros (currently about US$1,820) per 900l barrel. Today, the price has sunk below 750 euros per barrel.

To emerge from the crisis, French winemakers have gone on the offensive, beginning with a concerted effort to reduce the amount of wine they produce.

Instead of the 7 million hectoliters they are capable of producing this year, vintners in Bordeaux have decided to destroy some of their vines and commercialize only 5 million hectoliters, hoping to force prices up.

In addition, and perhaps more important, French winemakers have embarked on a political and media campaign to change the status of their product.

A so-called "White Book" to be presented to Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin later this month declares that wine should be classified as a nutriment rather than an alcoholic beverage.

The consequence of such a change would be to exempt wine from limitations on advertising that forbid regional vintners from publicizing anything about their products but its name, alcohol content and place of sale, as prescribed by a 1991 law.

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