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French Wine Bureaucrats: Stop the Madness!

2011 October 11
by Mike

Another maverick winemaker has run afoul of French officialdom. Olivier Cousin, a grower in the Loire, is accused of mislabeling his wines and sullying the image of his appellation. The proprietor of Domaine Cousin-Leduc, Cousin practices biodynamic viticulture on his 25-acre farm and makes “natural” wines. In 2005, he stopped seeking the AOC designation because he felt that the rules were too lax and too heavily tilted in favor of industrial winemaking; he was particularly chagrined at the decision to allow producers to both chaptalize and acidify in 2003. Since 2005, Cousin’s wines have been classified vin de table.

One of his bottlings, a cabernet franc, is labeled “Anjou Pur Breton” (breton is the local name for cabernet franc), and French anti-fraud investigators contend that his use of the word “Anjou” is an attempt to deceive consumers into believing the wine has AOC status. They are also after Cousin because the boxes in which his wines are packaged bear the initials “AOC”, an abbreviation that in this instance stands for “Anjou Olivier Cousin.” For these transgressions, he is facing the possibility of a $50,000 fine or up to two years in jail; a prosecutor will now decide if the case should go forward. In the meantime, Cousin just lost a long-running case over his refusal to make a “voluntary mandatory contribution” (yes, that is apparently the actual phrase) to a local wine trade association that he didn’t wish to support, and it is reported that his bank account has been frozen as a result.

Does the word Kafkaesque leap to mind for you? It did for me. Cousin is hardly the first French vintner working in an idiosyncratic manner to be hassled by the authorities, but the fact that he is facing possible imprisonment or financial ruin takes the harassment to a whole new level of perniciousness. This is the kind of thing that happens in places like rural China, where Communist Party hacks essentially function as mafia kingpins and mete out all sorts of arbitrary and cruel punishments; it shouldn’t happen in rural France circa 2011. Sure, Cousin’s use of the initials “AOC” was a provocation, and it is possible that he was also needling appellation apparatchiks when he put the word “Anjou” on his label. But his actions have elicited an insanely disproportionate response.

The idea that Cousin is being penalized in order to protect consumers is a joke, and underscores how dysfunctional the business of regulating French wine production has become. What’s hurting the image of the AOC system is not rebels like Cousin, but all the insipid industrial wines that are routinely granted appellation status. In many appellations, typicité has become a euphemism for mediocrity—or worse. Consumers expect a certain level of quality from wines with the AOC imprimatur, and too often those expectations are dashed. This is the real fraud that is being perpetrated on wine buyers. As Alain Bazot, the head of a French consumer group, put it a few years ago, “There has been a steady fall in the quality of many AOC wines which has completely undermined the confidence of consumers in the system” (I quoted Bazot in a Slate piece I did about the shambolic state of the AOC mechanism).  Putting Cousin in jail or out of business is not going to solve that problem; it is going to succeed only in making French wine regulators look even more capricious and bumbling than they already do.

18 Responses leave one →
  1. October 20, 2011

    same in uk and ireland in france they are super red tape freaks !!LOL

  2. Moredsir permalink
    October 20, 2011

    Thankfully in Australia we respect and encourage organic and biodynamic winemakers.

  3. Rolanda Hurst permalink
    October 19, 2011

    How can one dispute nature? The practice of biodynamic viticulture is not only ethical, but allows for a naturally flavorful production of more floral aromatic wines when avoiding the use of chaptalization to artificially correct sugars levels and the addition of acids, nonindigenous yeasts, and other chemicals which often produce boring predictable wines lacking the subtle, more soft and unique qualities produced by biodynamic methods.
    Let’s embrace Olivier Cousin; certainly not penalize him.

    Rolanda Hurst

  4. October 14, 2011

    Hello from Loire!
    The real problem is that all great producers in Anjou refuse to write it on their label : Mark Angeli and Richard Leroy are “Vin de France”.
    But most are not “angevin”. They don’t care. Olivier ‘s born here. The Cousin’s family have made AOC for generations.
    And AOC Anjou needs all of them.

  5. October 13, 2011

    yes oliver is just like john ruskin in his rejection of modernism and a quest for arts and crafts he uses a horse to plow etc
    the system oliver is against is bust red tape is a joke we need to support his quest for freedom and the arts and crafts ways of old that is the only future for tomorrow sb

  6. Cal Craik permalink
    October 13, 2011

    This whole thing, of course, is completely idiotic and the French “authorities” should simply take a big step back and remove their heads collective heads from dark places. It smacks of the International Olympic Committee ruling last year in Vancouver – they condemned and nearly broke a decades-old family pizza joint for having the audacity to continue using their own name and logo (Olympia Pizza) whilst the Games were being held.

  7. October 13, 2011

    oliver would do well contacting amnesty international ASAP communist france in action here sb

  8. October 12, 2011

    Thanks everyone for the comments. I think we can all agree that, whatever Cousin’s transgressions, the threatened punishment hardly fits the crime. It is a travesty.

    Michel makes a good point about “tradition.” What is a traditional rioja, for instance? Obviously, lots of people point to Lopez de Heredia as being a traditional rioja producer. But, in fact, there is some evidence that riojas back in the day were quite strapping wines; it may be that the Lopez de Heredia style is more accurately categorized as modern. Then there is German riesling. We tend to think of off-dry and sweet Germans rieslings as being traditional. But that tradition really only goes back to the end of World War Two; in the 18th and 19th centuries, German wines were generally fairly dry. The off-dry style only became prevalent after the war years. So I think using the word “traditional” can often be a bit of a minefield as wine goes.

    I agree with Jenny that the AOC system is badly in need of reform. Michel, I’d love to get your thoughts on that subject if you are reading and have the time.

  9. October 12, 2011

    Hello Michel,

    1) yes, thank you for the correction, indeed, yeasts are “selected.” I
    do believe there is a distinction in philosophy in terms of wine
    making between those who choose to harvest, put sulfites on the
    harvest to kill any indigenous yeasts which are present on the grapes,
    and then use a selected one; and those who allow for multiple yeast
    strains to act during fermentation, yeasts that are abundant on the
    grapes of growers working organically and biodynamically in the
    fields. To my palate, the “natural” philosophy of wine making often
    (not always!) leads to more interesting wines aromatically. Industrial
    wines often have one single aroma/flavor profile because of the yeast
    that is selected.

    2) I’m glad you agree that the penalties that Olivier Cousin is
    threatened which outweigh the “crime”! How can we help this producer
    make sure that he is not penalized with a 36,000 Euro fine? Is there
    some way to put pressure on to make sure this does not happen? Would
    you be willing to help?

    3) I agree with you that you can’t have it both ways: decide to be
    outside the AOC and use the word “Anjou.” However, and I am not
    speaking for Olivier Cousin, you would have to ask him exactly what he
    has to say about this, but my understanding is that he is making a
    political statement about the problem of the AOC system. Inter Loire
    is there to promote the AOC, and I can honestly say that I think
    Olivier Cousin own is an incredible ambassador for the wines,
    traditions and culture of Anjou, and more particularly Martigné-Briand
    where he lives.

    It is my understanding that the AOC system is there to defend what is
    “typical” about wines from a certain origin. When choosing, or being
    forced to chose (many of the producers we work with have difficulty
    obtaining the AOC each year) to make Table Wine, as you know, you
    cannot list the place or the vintage or the grape on a label. When
    passionate and honest winemakers who truly want to express and
    represent the “place” they are from through their wines are not
    granted the AOC year after year, while some perhaps less passionate
    producers are using lots of chemicals in their vines (thus limiting an
    exchange between the soil and the grapes, as shown by Monsieur
    Bourguignon…thus less likely to express something of the terroir in
    their wines), machine harvesting high-yielding vines, and using lots
    of additives during wine making, are easily granted the AOC, one might
    say that the AOC system is broken and in need of change.

    I have spent a lot of time in the Loire Valley, and I see how much
    Olivier Cousin does for his appellation: he has helped numerous young
    people start vineyards. He teaches plowing with a horse throughout the
    Loire (not to make money, but to educate). He welcomes people from all
    over the world to his table and his home. He is an absolute Ambassador
    for Anjou and for Martigné-Briand in the world. He travels to NYC to
    Japan and in Europe and his wines are loved internationally, as well
    as nationally within France. There couldn’t be a better representative
    of Anjou. I myself have brought countless Americans to his home each
    year, where he shares his enormous culture with foreigners to France
    who go home changed and having learned something about the
    centuries-old wine culture in Anjou, and more particularly in
    Martigné-Briand. Olivier does this because he loves the land, the
    vines, his garden and horses. To accuse him of “fraud” — of wishing
    to deceive others and trick them — is an injustice. François and I
    have known him for years, and he is certainly the least “deceptive”
    person I have ever met. He educates and shares his Anjou culture
    through his hard work in his vineyard with the world in the most
    generous way possible.

    4)  I do not proclaim to have one definition of what traditional
    French wine making is. I am sure they are many and varied. Certainly
    this variety is what makes France so special. What I meant to say is
    that this winemaker in this town (Olivier Cousin in Martigné-Briand)
    is attempting to respect the land and tradition that he inherited and
    to share it. Certainly there are many vineyards in France which value
    a more international approach to wine making, and are not concerned
    with expressing “place” in their wines or with tradition. I do think
    there is a distinction to be made with these more technological styles
    which are closer to what is produced in the new world.

    All the best,

  10. Michel Bettane permalink
    October 12, 2011

    1 ) To my knowledge, and for Jenny, no yeasts are “made” in a lab : they are selected and dried , which is an other thing.

    2) Of course the punishment has no relationship with the fault and it is necessary for the appellation to moderate the amend.

    3) you cannot be out of an AOC, a personal choice, then name your wine with a geographical name identical to the AOC! Be in or out but not both!

    4) Cousin’s wine are certainly excellent if you are selling them but I admire your ability to define what is the “tradition of traditional french wine making”. In the last thirty years I tried to understand what is “tradition” and unfortunately I have no other answer than “today tradition is yesterday improvement, an to day improvement will be tomorrow tradition.” Return to the past has nothing to do with it!

  11. Jack Bulkin permalink
    October 12, 2011

    Viva La Stupidity.


  12. mauss permalink
    October 12, 2011

    Thanks for this info, Mike. I did put a comment on our GJE blog.

  13. October 11, 2011

    Fine post Mike. Like Jenny I would urge people to sign the petition supporting Olivier either on the site above or on the Glougueule site:

  14. October 11, 2011

    As Olivier Cousin’s importer in the US, I might add that for us, as for many, Cousin’s wines represent everything that an AOC wine should be: they are terroir driven wines that truly represent the place they are from. These wines are what the AOC system is supposed to defend and not to attack! Olivier plows with a horse, uses no chemicals in the vines, has low yields, and makes wine the way it was made before the AOC system even existed. They truely represent the tradition of traditional French winemaking! The AOC system has gotten things backwards to say the least: the defense goes to those who pollute the earth, have yields that are so high that there is no expression of place, and use yeast made in a lab instead of what is naturally present in Anjou! Please support Olivier Cousin and sign the petition we have put on our blog to send to the prosecutor:

    thank you!

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

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