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Let Them Eat Cake
Thoughts on the French Wine Industry in 2004

Two weeks ago Vinexpo, a very French driven wine exhibition, was held for the first time in Chicago. While we were there, we lucky enough to attend a panel discussion on the future of French wine in America, moderated by non other than Robert Parker of the The Wine Advocate. The panel included some of France's most notable wine professionals including Chateau Lynch-Bages proprietor Jean Michel Cazes, winemaking consultant Michel Rolland and Vinexpo CEO Jean Marie Chadronnier.

The discussion focused on France's floundering wine industry. It seems that while the demand for the top Chateaus of Bordeaux and other famous regions has never been better, producers in the middle and lower end of the spectrum have seen prices fall by up to 50% over the last 10 years and exports fall by 9% in the last 12 months alone.

The real issue is France's inability to compete with inexpensive, easy drinking, well-marketed, understandably labeled wines from Australia, California and South America. The complex and arcane AOC system instituted in the 1930's and designed to ensure quality seems to be loosing its relevance in the new century. AOC (Appellation Controlee) rules prevent growers from adopting modern vineyard practices, dictate what grapes can and can not be grown within AOC areas and prevents the use of grape varietal names on the labels. The result is that while LaTour continues to sell their entire production based upon their status and and panache as a classified growth, the majority of lesser known producers find their revenues falling and distribution shrinking.

The real irony of all this is that while this Vinexpo was a showcase for French wines, the biggest story was Gallo's new label. Now on its way from France to a grocery store near you... Red Bicyclette, new Vin de Pays wines from Gallo featuring bright red and yellow labeling clearly proclaiming their varietals Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay (Vin de Pays may use a varietal name because they have no AOC designation). The wines are designed to sell for about $10 and are sourced from the Languedoc, France's largest unclassified and most depressed wine region. And, as was lamented by a French journalist, if the venture is successful and Red Bicyclette meets Gallo's expectations, an American company could become France's largest wine producer within 3 to 4 years.

The panel discussion involved much defense of France's wine making heritage and contributions to modern wine making technology along with a lot of hand wringing about what should change to help them compete on an international level. The reality here was that the successful Chateaus of Bordeaux and Domaines of Burgundy sponsored and paid for this event while the bulk of French wineries were back home trying to figure out how to pay their mortgages.

The entire expo was a lavish event with massive tastings of fine Bordeauxs and elaborate booths that make most trade shows I have attended look like the Boone County Fair. The second night of the event we were invited by the Commanderie of Bontemps of Medoc et Graves & Sauternes et Barrac (a centuries old trade association comprised of some of Bordeaux's finest Chateaus) to a gala black tie dinner that bordered on the decadent. Held in the grand hall of the Field Museum that had been draped and set for a massive banquet, we were treated to an induction ceremony of honorary members to the Bontemps, followed by a five course dinner personally prepared by Wolfgang Puck. By the time Chicago Mayor Richard Daley had been made an honorary member and the wine began to flow, we were ushered to our assigned seats. Each table was sponsored by a Chateau and when I realized our table's sponsor was the legendary Chateau d'Yquem, I have to admit to being intimidated. I could just see this scenario playing out, "Well, yes, I call myself the Wine Guy and sell wine to people who actually drink it." Luckily, no Yquem representatives graced our table so Linda was spared the potential embarrassment.

The white wines had flowed like water, but the dinner wines were truly amazing... we were served a Chateau Montrose 1990 (a Robert Parker 100 point wine), the 1988 Chateau Latour and finally a 1986 Chateau d'Yquem with the dessert. I would estimate that the wines served just at our table of ten (which was one of 40 tables) must have had an auction value well in excess of $1,200. This was largeness on a grand scale on the part of Bordelaise. And, while we certainly enjoyed the evening, you couldn't help but wonder at the contrast between the prosperity of these Chateaus and the desperation of their fellow producers from less aristocratic locations.

I have been to Versailles and it only takes a short tour to understand the French revolution. The overwhelming wealth and decadence of that palace probably doomed Marie Antoinette long before she told her starving subjects that they could "eat cake." And, while I don't think that the members of the Bontemps are in danger of facing the guillotine, France's wine industry as a whole needs a revolution if it's going to survive. Sure, Chateau Latour can sell all the wine they can make to wealthy collectors based upon their name. However, international consumers who actually drink the wine they buy want to know what's in the bottle. Simply telling them that it's filled with Chateau Snardknot just doesn't work anymore. If the French don't wake up soon they may not have a wine industry, but just a luxury trade.