Wine Diarist

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

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.

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