Wine Diarist

French Wine Bureaucrats: Stop the Madness!

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.