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My Plea to the People of France: Drink More Wine!

2013 April 4
by Mike

Fifty years ago, you would not have seen a headline like that—that’s because headlines were generally more circumspect, and also because the French didn’t need any encouragement to whip out a corkscrew. A half-century ago, they drank wine prodigiously. In 1965, France’s per capita annual wine consumption was 160 liters, or 213 bottles for every man, woman, and child. That’s a lot of Fleurie and Bourgueil in a year. Did France have a drinking problem? Perhaps, but the country was prosperous; indeed, 1965 was the height of Les Trente Glorieuses, the 30 fat years that France enjoyed after World War Two.

But in the late 1960s, French wine consumption started to drop, and it hasn’t stopped falling. In 2010, per capita annual consumption was down to 57 liters, a 65 percent decline from the mid-1960s. Initially, the trend was driven by changing lifestyles and social mores (no more wine at lunch). The introduction of harsh drink driving laws in the early 1990s helped accelerate it. The laws were surely necessary—France had a high incidence of drunk driving fatalities—but they also reflected a a bizarre, neo-Prohibitionist tilt in French public policy. The French government began to actively discourage alcohol consumption, and it also stopped distinguishing between wine and other alcoholic beverages. Wine used to be treated differently because it was regarded as integral to France’s cultural patrimony, but that is no longer the case. Even more worrying, younger French appear to have little interest in wine; they see it as an old fart’s drink, something for grandma and grandpa. They prefer beer and spirits. The story of France’s fading wine culture was discussed at length in a magisterial book chronicling the decline of French cuisine generally. I can’t remember the author’s name, except that he was American and fabulously erudite and witty (handsome, too, I hear), nor can I recall the book’s title, except that it was very clever. :)

But just because this strange, sad tale has been told before doesn’t mean that it can’t be told again, and the BBC ran an excellent feature last week about the precipitous drop in French wine consumption. It reported that only 17 percent of French adults drink wine on a daily or almost daily basis now, and nearly 40 percent don’t drink wine at all. The BBC correspondent suggested that the diminished thirst for wine was a sign that perhaps the French were losing their art de vivre. That is a depressing thought for anyone who cherished the French way of life and was influenced by it (my hand is raised). Sure, French habits of the table, and a French sensibility in general, can easily be found outside of France these days, which is testament to the power and appeal of the French example. Even so, I’d still rather get my Gallic fix at a moody café in Paris, not Park Slope.

However, the biggest concern I have about the relentless decline in French wine consumption is what it might mean for wine production in France. It has already had a pernicious effect in some parts of viticultural France: the Languedoc, Beaujolais, and the periphery of Bordeaux have all been mired in economic crisis for the last decade due in large part to falling domestic sales. True, la crise viticole, as it is known, has mainly affected winemakers turning out plonk, and even if French consumption continues to plummet, it is unlikely that the finest producers in Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhone, and Champagne will feel any pinch; foreign demand for their wines can readily compensate for any decline in domestic demand.

But the fact that fewer and fewer French are drinking wine, and that wine is losing its prestige in France, could have other onerous consequences. If the French no longer feel any particular attachment to their viticultural tradition, that makes it a lot easier for politicians to do dumb things—like, say, building a railroad or highway tunnel underneath a grand cru vineyard. If you don’t care about wine, if you never touch the stuff, what do you care if some bureaucrats get the bright idea to carve up a hillside in Gevrey-Chambertin? This is why the effort to get UNESCO to recognize the climats of Burgundy as a World Heritage Site is so important; it can protect these vineyards even if the French public is largely indifferent to their fate (winemakers in Germany’s Mosel Valley are kicking themselves because they neglected to seek similar recognition for their fabled vineyards, which are now threatened by that monstrous bridge being built across the Mosel River).  But even if the Côte d’Or is granted World Heritage status, there are plenty of special vineyards in France that could fall victim to “progress”.

In that riveting book I mentioned earlier, the author talked about the effort to save lait cru, or raw milk, Camembert, which was at risk of extinction. He noted that the French public seemed unconcerned about its fate, which was no surprise: by the mid-2000s, most French knew only industrially-produced, pasteurized Camembert, so what did it matter to them if the raw milk variety disappeared? It’s not a perfect analogy, but you get the point: it’s hard to make people care about things that are not part of their lives, and as the French continue to turn away from wine, one can’t help but worry about what this might portend for Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the rest. Ultimately, the best protection for these regions is an enthusiastic, knowledgeable domestic consumer base. Bizarre as it is to be writing this sentence, the French really must start drinking more wine.

30 Responses leave one →
  1. March 19, 2014

    Thanks a lot for sharing French wine information, it was a great reading…

  2. Alex permalink
    April 11, 2013

    As a french man in his early sixties, I witnessed this decline in wine consumption. I was born in a middle-class family and spent my first twenty years in a small town in Périgord, a place many english people seem to enjoy.
    When I was a young boy, my standard drink for meals was a mix of about 20% red wine 80% water. This was *not* very good, and I preferred lemonade my mother bought from time to time. Most children prefer sweets; then, they were not as available as today. At least, I was used to the taste of wine and could later appreciate a better vintage: wine needs some kind of education the same way some prior knowledge of classical music is needed to appreciate a Bach’s partita.
    In those years, all farmers had a vine on their small average 15 arable acres lands, and they were proud of their wine despite the fact it was a time consuming job and the result was not a grand cru. I remember vendanges as a very festive period. Todays, the average cultivated surface is at least ten times larger, there are ten times fewer farmers, and those small vines have disappeared: we are left with industrial plonks or expansive wines. The starting price for a drinkable wine is around 20 euros; for a family, one bottle per day will cost 600 euros per month: that’s one third of the average monthly wage!
    Nowadays, almost all children drink either plain water or those 1 euro soda drinks, 40 times cheaper than a drinkable wine.

  3. April 10, 2013

    Jeremy, why thank you for the link to Mark’s book! I will check it out.

    Mark, I too have a love for the interweb… having moved to Florence last year most of my ‘friends’ have been from Twitter. It is really amazing! Those not on Twitter or unfamiliar with its potential think I am crazy, but it really opened a lot of doors.

    Vinitaly was great, a shame I only had one day to work and not an extra day to play, but it was a lot of fun regardless.

  4. Frank permalink
    April 9, 2013

    A classmate in the ’60s described drinking Algerian wine that came in a paper carton, during her year abroad. It was what you would expect. If that’s part of the 65% that the French aren’t drinking, I’m OK with that, and so, probably, are the French.

    More to the point: last September my wife and I took a 6-day bicycle trip in the Touraine, staying mostly at small hotels and gites. We resolved to drink only local wines and were not disappointed in the least. (Moelleux Sauvignon blanc with foie gras? I should live so long to have it again.)

    We also noticed the many French people who were there as well, having a meal and enjoying the wine. Our observations were certainly consistent with the idea that they are drinking (and eating?) less, but better. The accounts of the death of good food in France are certainly exaggerated in our experience, notwithstanding that riveting book.

  5. April 8, 2013

    Hi Tim, good to see you. That’s a lot to unpack! I cited Bourgueil and Fleurie simply because Beaujolais and Loire reds are such staples of French wine bars. The expansion of the appellation system in France has indeed been a huge problem, with too many subpar vineyards and wines being granted appellation status. I’d be curious to hear more about the problem with food and wine pairings–while some combinations are obvious and delicious, I think the concept has been taken to ridiculous extremes (punch in a wine, and up comes a recipe for the perfect food accompaniment!). Bu t you make it sound as if it is something actually quite pernicious.

    Where I part company with you is with regard to your last point. I don’t think the French are at all intimidated by wine–in my experience, many of them think they know more about wine than they really do! And French wines, by dint of the geographic labeling, have always been more complicated than New World wines. But I don’t believe intimidation has anything to do with declining consumption in France, and I would also say that the intimidation factor is not such a big deal here in the US, either. More of us are drinking more wine than ever before–if that’s intimidation, I say let’s have more of it!

  6. April 8, 2013

    Hi Tiana Kai, welcome to the site; thanks for stopping by and for the kind words. Yes, face-to-face is best, but a virtual community isn’t so bad, either. Because of email and Twitter, I’m in touch with many more people than I would be otherwise. No, we’re not chatting over a glass of wine, but I still find it fulfilling in its own way. And Jeremy has correctly identified the book to which I was referring, as well as its very modest author. Have fun at Vinitaly–I’m jealous!

  7. Jeremy permalink
    April 8, 2013

    Tiana,

    The book I believe Mike is referring to is “Au Revoir To All That: Food, Wine and the End of France” by one Mike Steinberger (what a coincidence!).

    http://www.amazon.com/Au-Revoir-All-That-France/dp/1596915064

  8. April 7, 2013

    Monsieur Moreau, thank you for stopping by. That’s very interesting–so the French, in general, are drinking better quality wines? I must admit that I’m always struck by the fairly poor quality of many of the wine lists in Paris, especially at the bistros and brasseries, and at the uninspired selections in many of the wine stores. I find it maddening, given the sensational wines that are so readily available to these establishments. That said, the modern bistros that have given the Paris food scene some renewed vitality typically have very smart wine lists, and obviously, there are some excellent wine shops in Paris. At any rate, it’s encouraging to hear from you that the French are drinking better quality wines. All is not lost!

  9. April 7, 2013

    Yes, Robin, the world has changed considerably, and there is certainly an incredibly dynamic drinks culture here in the US now–it is wine, it is craft beer, it is craft spirits, etc. A very good time to be a drinker in the United States!

  10. April 7, 2013

    The assumption that the consumption of wines was Fleurie or Bourgeil, Bordeaux and Burgundies, is incorrect. What few people recognize was that wine was simple and there was not wine and food matching. Aramon (the most widely planted grape variety into the ’80s) was king and sweetness in wine was, NOT an American phenomenon, was treasured. If the wine was unpleasant a splash of Cassis, a cube of sugar or whatever the consumer preferred was OK. Consumption was so great that France has historically the largest importer of Italian wines and Port – which is served BEFORE the meal, even vintage Port.

    In many ways the French were hoist by the petard of making wine too special. AOC wines were rare (less than 4% of production in the ’60s) and mostly exported. Our misguided assumptions of what people were drinking in France needs to be corrected and updated and information about consumer preferences radically revised. And don’t get me started on the wine and food ‘matching’ we have invented in our imagination and pawn off on the unsuspecting public! :-)

    Consider that wine in France has become intimidating and unnecessarily complicated and thus the simple enjoyment of wine as an everyday beverage has lost out.

  11. April 7, 2013

    Hey Mike, this is my first time on your site. It seems like younger generations are moving to what is ‘cool’? I agree with your non face-to-face point made in the comments. It seems like we are all drawn to our awesome iPads rather than connecting, for real. Maybe we can all buy each other virtual bottles of wine on Facebook when it’s someone’s anniversary or to salut their first born.

    Right now I’m on a train to Vinitaly and if I was not glued to my iPad I would probably be grabbing some wine and initiating useless chit chat, which typically ends up in interesting conversations. The world is smaller than we think and this whole train could do some good to grab some wine rather than instagram their journey.

    Great read. Is the book you refer to Wine Politics?

  12. Dan McCallum permalink
    April 6, 2013

    Monsieur Moreau,
    Of l’Avenue d’Oberwesel ?
    C’est vous?

  13. Christian Moreau permalink
    April 6, 2013

    The French drink less , but drink better quality
    And this i agree 100%

  14. RobinC permalink
    April 5, 2013

    It’s like global warming. The whole planet is changing. I can already see it in the proliferation of beer dinners and cocktail bars here in my humble town. Margaritas will be the norm at weddings and bar mitzvahs. One has to adapt or be thirsty.

  15. April 5, 2013

    Dan, thank you for mentioning the other, even more striking example of how the French have ceased to be French. Sad, really. Perhaps the anti-Americanism they occasionally express is a form of self-loathing–they recognize that they’ve become too much like us! The possibility that they were lying about their philandering–that’s truly disturbing. It’s like finding out that there is no Santa Claus.

    Winepine, we have indeed become a very happy dumping ground for the (good) wines that the French no longer seem to want. As for China–funny you should mention that. I see The New Republic just published a piece about China’s Francophilia. I would include a link, but The New Republic is now behind a paywall, so I won’t bother.

  16. April 5, 2013

    Fear not France. You keep making it, and we’ll keep drinking it.

    In 10 years it’s all going to markets in China anyway, so the US might as well enjoy it while it lasts!

  17. Dan McCallum permalink
    April 5, 2013

    So, in search of a rationale for the 65% decline in wine consumption, the factors with the highest degree of correlation seem to be the demise of the lubricated luncheon and an accompanying disinterest in the pleasures of extended conversation. Not mentioned yet is that the French have also turned their diffidence towards what was once their favorite sport. Instead, monogamy has become almost a new norm. It must be acknowledged, however, that the stats on this trend are in dispute, as some sociologists claim that 20th century infidelity had been overstated due to social pressures to conform.

  18. April 5, 2013

    Francis, wine is very popular with young urban professionals–what used to be know as yuppies. So, yes, it is very a la mode, which is fantastic–it is a great wine moment in the US. That said, we did indeed start from a very low base, and on a per capita basis, the French still have us beat. But the US surpassed France a few years ago to become the biggest wine-consuming nation.

    I am sure face-to-face conversation is declining. People waiting for planes and trains no longer really talk to one another–they are busy with their phones and iPads. But on the other hand, there has surely never been greater written interaction than what we see now–this conversation is testament to that. And while face-to-face is certainly preferable, the fact that this kind of discussion is now possible is pretty neat in its own right.

  19. April 4, 2013

    Mike

    That last par in the previous post should have read

    ” Might this rise and increase…”

  20. April 4, 2013

    Jack: Sounds like we are fellow travellers. And possibly of similar decades if not vintages. And I take your point about the “new style” consumption of the famous properties. Breaks my heart when I know firsthand of the creation of Bordeaux cocktails, like Petrus and Coke to satisfy the needs of a casinos customers.

    Jack/Mike: I suspect that in general, not just with the French, that the art of conversation is under real threat. So many new mediums now exist, that for a whole lot of folks conversation is plain unnecessary.

    Mike: In regards to wine being on the rise in the USA, please correct me if I’m wrong, but I have the impression that the per capita consumption is rising off a fairly low base. Might this eise and increase be (partially ) explained by that, unlike France, drinking wine is “a la mode” , and therefore it is not seen as an “old persons ” drink?

  21. Jack Bulkin permalink
    April 4, 2013

    Francis and Mike, in America there is still conversation with wine but maybe not as much in this distracted age that we live in as there used to be.
    Being a single guy, I still get out occasionally to the Wine Bars. There are some tables with vigorous conversation (usually 4 or more people) but less conversation in smaller groups as the distracted check out the phones, texts and Facebook between sips rather that wax poetic about the crap that is mostly poured by the glass at those establishments.
    Francis I have been a wine lover for nearly 40 years. I have purchased, loved and consumed great wines for most of those years. I am fully aware of the increased quality in great vintages that allows lesser Chateaux to rise wthl the bigger ships. My cellar composition has reflected those changes in this era of Grand Cru buyers who are Russian oligarchy or Chinese Nuveau Riche. I did say “Great” French wines, that to me mean First Growth quality and Grand Cru Classe. Wines I used to buy before the Chateaux began to consider them as luxury goods and not merely something to drink with a fine meal.

  22. April 4, 2013

    Francis, as the landlord here, I’m allowed to take some liberties, and “handsome” was one such liberty!

    Thanks for the kind words re the book, and you make a very interesting observation. Wine does stimulate conversation like no other alcoholic beverage I know. Has declining wine consumption in France hurt the art of conversation there? I have no idea. It is certainly true that we live in a very distracted age, and yet wine consumption is on the rise here in the United States, and presumably wine is bringing people together at the table, encouraging more face-to-face interaction, etc. Who knows, maybe some people are even turning their phones off over dinner if there is a bottle of wine on the table.

  23. April 4, 2013

    Agreed, Jack–if Hollande was not a drinker before becoming president, he is surely is one now!

    Blake, we are sopping up all the wine they no longer drink, so perhaps we should indeed be encouraging them to drink even less wine–more for us!

    Francis, thanks for stopping by, and you are absolutely right–grand cru Burgundy and First Growth Bordeaux are not only the French wines around, and there is still plenty of good stuff available at modest prices. In fact, I’d say that we in the United States have never had a more interesting selection of French wines than we do today, and many of them are very affordable. Foillard makes brilliant wine, and you can pick it up for $25 or $30 a bottle. Ditto Lapierre, ditto Coudert–and we haven’t even left Beaujolais! I will only part company with you regarding Raveneau and Dauvissat, which unfortunately have become very expensive in the US, particularly Raveneau. But even so, you can still pick up the Dauvissat Forest for $50 or $60, and that is a consistently outstanding bottle of wine. Of course, I liked it even more when it was $30 a bottle!

  24. April 4, 2013

    Mike,

    An excellent piece and one which leaves me again lamenting the decline of French culture so well captured in that superb book written some time ago by that very clever – but handsome? – author ????.

    I can’t help but wonder whether there is some nexus between decline in wine consumption and the rapidly disappearing art of conversation. It’s world where there is so much stimuli competing for ones attention; check the email, post to Facebook , take a pic and tweet. all this and more as opposed to engaging in discourse with the person or persons that you are with.

    There is something about wine which by its very nature demands some attention, some appreciation and some consideration. Certainly it would seem that it’s a helluva lot easier to get hammered by vodka, with its simple, anonymous , personality, than the enjoyable thought provoking questions posed by consuming even modest, characterful wine.

  25. April 4, 2013

    Hi Jack, I’m in complete agreement about the madness of the French in regards their tax regime. In their pursuit of “egalite” they are flushing everything down the toilet. ( our current government here in Australia is going down the same futile path ).

    Where I differ is on the affordability of great French wines. Yes, Cru classe Bordeaux and Cru burgundy from the big “name” appellations is now out of reach for most. However there are still many “great” wines available from the less “fashionable” areas. Beaujolais by Foillard, Coudert or Chermette, Chablis by Billaud Simon, Pattes Loup and others, not to mention Raveneau and Dauvissat which can be hard to find, but still remain affordable when one is lucky enough to stumble across a bottle. The wines of Alsace, “grower” Champagne, Bourgeuil and Chinon from the Loire, the list goes on and on for opportunity to drink daily, wines which are truly inimitable.

    Thirty years ago, I was fortunate to import the legendary wines of the Côte d’Or , Rhone Valley etc and drank them on a daily basis. Alas those wines – but not the memories of them – are long gone. Now, we still enjoy great French wines on a daily basis, thanks to the producers I’ve mentioned above.

    Good health and good wine to you always

  26. April 4, 2013

    You know, Mike, this is France we’re talking about. You might be more successful by writing “America Demands France Drink Less Wine.”

  27. Jack Bulkin permalink
    April 4, 2013

    I don’t know if Hollande drinks Mike, but his ever decreasing poll numbers surely will lead him to a Bistro soon even if he didn’t. It seems that America is just the opposite of France. Poor diets, alcoholism, obesity and ridiculous DUI enforcement have not only not cut alcohol drinking but it has increased despite them.

  28. April 4, 2013

    Jack, ineptitude and corruption is a bipartisan thing in France, but it is truly amazing that this guy got caught with money stashed abroad. A bit inconvenient for Hollande, I’d say. At any rate, plenty of French can still afford to drink decent wines; many are just choosing not to. And at least they no longer have a teetotal president (I assume Hollande drinks–I hope so, anyway!).

  29. Jack Bulkin permalink
    April 4, 2013

    It is difficult to afford great French wine unless one is a Billionaire. It is also difficult to afford average French wine when even thie clueless Socialist Politicians have squirreled away their cash to avoid the huge taxes that they have tried to impose on the Nation. Cash is King. The King is dead. Long live the King. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22027376

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