Wine is culture. It is also history, especially in France, where some say it is a link to God. Is it, however, food?
A strange question, perhaps. But as the first ripe grapes are plucked around France this fall, the government will decide. While alcohol cannot be advertised, food can. Picture Viagra-like adverts for older drinkers highlighting the cardiovascular health benefits of a glass a day. Or hipper spots trying to lure back youth who have switched to mojitos. The hope is that they will solve France's deepening wine crisis.
The $9 billion French wine industry is in trouble--not the elite vintners of Bordeaux and Burgundy, but the lesser names that make up some 80 percent of the country's production. This year's harvest, weather permitting, looks good--and big. Selling it is the tough part. The more there is, the tougher it becomes--and this at a time when many of the country's second-tier wine makers are struggling to survive. "The French wine industry is in a really bad place," says marketing consultant David Skalli.
French wine's domestic competition comes from sparkling water and sweet sodas, not foreign wines. The French drink barely half the wine they did in 1960. French exports look even worse, threatened by new entrants into the world wine market. In 1998, France sold twice the volume of its international competitors. Last year, for the first time in history, they surpassed France. The question is what to do. Advertising may be one answer. Another is to change the system--and how French wine makers go about their business.
Wine is complicated, and French wine even more so. Try explaining to American and British drinkers how they should select from 57 wine appellations solely in Bordeaux. "In France there are 600 wines in one aisle of a supermarket," says Christian Melani from the studies and markets division of the wine arm of the Ministry of Agriculture. "So how do you choose?"
In the past, French wine makers rarely worried about such things. Make it, they thought, and consumers will buy--assuming the quality is high. Trouble is, modern consumers (even the French) no longer have time or the know-how for such nuance. The solution, vintners are slowly coming to realize, entails simplifying. To reduce the range of choices facing consumers--and better compete against such generics as the ubiquitous California "Chardonnay"--they are showing a new enthusiasm for so-called varietals, wine sold by the type of grape ("Cabernet Sauvignon" or "pinot noir") as New World wines often are. The Loire Valley producer Vinival recently grouped its wines under a new Boire & Manger (Drink and Eat) label aimed at young people, particularly women. They include playful drawings of fish, lambs and chickens to show which dish the varietal best accompanies.
Vintners in the Languedoc-Roussillon region are importing New World consultants and techniques to help ensure low cost and consistent taste. Taste-targeting, long anathema to French vintners, appears increasingly necessary to succeed in the low-cost wine market. "The big problem is that the French wine makers don't realize they have to play to consumer tastes," says industry consultant Gerard Seguin. "The South Africans, the Australians, the Californians, they understand that perfectly." Small wonder that a report commissioned by the French government in 2002 called on wine producers to ape international marketing techniques and learn that the consumer is always right.
Can France's myriad charming little vineyards learn new tricks? Can they afford the marketing and production technologies needed to compete with industrial giants abroad? "It won't be easy," says Seguin. In a nation renowned for its fineries, nuances, subtlety and refinement, it's also worth asking whether the changes needed to save France's ailing popular wine industry might eliminate the charms of its "Frenchness." The very question might be enough to drive someone to drink. Or so they hope.