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Published: Sunday, 9/5/2004

If you call it a 'food,' will it still taste the same?

BY MICHAEL WOODS
BLADE SCIENCE EDITOR

CHATEAUNEUF DU PAPE, France - After whining for years over plunging sales, French wine makers have hit on a new way to get the public uncorked over that coup de rouge.

Oh, the French! They want to change wine's legal status, and make it a food. No longer would wine be an alcoholic beverage subject to the 1991 "Evin law," which banned advertising of alcohol on TV and at sporting events.

An amendment to the Evin law, now before the National Assembly, France's parliament, would make wine advertisements as legal as those for bread and butter, camembert, and foi gras.

From Alsace to Bordeaux to Champagne, French wine makers are pressing for the measure as this year's bumper crop of grapes heads for barrels, bottles, and "no sale" signs on the cash register.

"Life for the average wine maker was difficult when this went into the bottle," said Jean Trintignant Philippe, pouring a sample of Domaine Trintignant's 1996 Chteauneuf-du-Pape Reserve, produced near here. "Now life it is nearly impossible. Production is too high and prices are too low. Exports? They are disappearing.

"Worst of all, everyone is drinking less wine, especially the young people and that's very, very bad for our future. So voila, here you are. It's a crisis."

Here in the Ctes du Rhne wine region in Provence, the wood smoke still curls from the chimneys of ancient stone chateaus.

The Rhne River sparkles like diamonds in the late afternoon sun as it cuts through vineyards that stretch from horizon to horizon.

The reality behind the idyllic scenes, however, is wilting the world's most famous wine industry. Shook by a plunge in domestic wine consumption and global competition, French vintners are trying to survive.

Wine is both beverage and bastion of French life, an industry that employs 300,000 people with exports approaching $10 billion annually. All the statistics tell a tale of woe.

Wine exports, for instance, are running 10 per cent lower than 2003, continuing a plunge that deepened when some Americans boycotted French products in retaliation for France's opposition to the second Gulf War.

France now faces stiff competition from trendy, high-quality wines produced in other countries, including the "new world" wines of United States, Australia, South Africa, and Chile. Imports of California wines, for instance, increased more than 15 percent last year. Familiar American labels such as Gallo and Turning Leaf get prime display space in stores.

Domestic wine consumption has been falling since World War II. In 1960, each person in France drank an average of 120 quarts of wine a year. By 2003, the per capita wine consumption was barely 58 quarts. More than half of the population never drinks wine today, including most people under age 35. Those consumers-of-the-future increasingly favor bottled water, soda pop, and fruit juices.

Overall wine consumption in 2003 dropped by 5 per cent, and consumption in cafes and restaurants fell 15 percent. Wine industry groups blame the national government, which is pressing a national crackdown on drinking and driving.

The sales dip has left chateaus and warehouses bulging with a stockpile of unsold wine that some estimates put at more than 6 billion bottles.

Legislators from wine producing regions have lobbied heavily for amending the Evin law, which they see as the key to increasing domestic consumption. In addition to allowing more ads, it would allow printed advertising without a health warning notice, "The abuse of alcohol is dangerous for your health. Consume it in moderation."

A "white paper" submitted to the Ministry of Agriculture in late July presents the rationale for reclassifying wine. It defines a "food" as any "substance with nutritive components that are absorbed by the digestive tract," and describes wine as a "special" food with special nutritive and health benefits.

Agriculture minister Herve Gaymard has promised that a campaign to promote responsible drinking would accompany an amendment of the Evin law.

"Our message is one of moderation not prohibition," Mr. Gaymard said. "The spirit of the law is not in question. But after 13 years it needs to be looked at again."

Groups concerned about alcohol abuse strongly oppose the amendment.

Dr. Alain Rigaud, president of the National Association for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Addiction, pointed out that 60 per cent of people treated for alcohol problems in France abuse wine. About 30,000 people die in France annually from alcohol-related causes. He termed efforts to exempt wine from the Evin law "a flagrant contradiction of the health laws seeking to reduce alcohol consumption."

Those laws aim to reduce alcohol consumption by 20 per cent within four years. He predicted that wine advertising will encourage people to drink more, and increase alcohol's toll.

The French are not alone in seeking to make wine a food. Similar measures have been introduced or discussed in Spain, Italy, and several other Old World wine producing countries.

With studies showing that two glasses a day cuts the risk of a heart attack, could the United States be next?

"I initially support the concept of the classification of wine as a food source provided it is explained and supported that socially responsible consumption of wine is part of a healthy food group," said Nat DiBuduo. He is president of the California wine industry group, Allied Grape Growers.

Gladys Horiuchi, a spokesman for the Wine Institute, said the industry group could not comment because it had not studied text of the French legislation. But, Ms. Horiuchi said the U.S. wine industry has advertised responsibly under a strict code first issued in 1949. It requires all ads to be adult-oriented and socially responsible.

"I can tell you MADD would fight any proposal of that kind in the United States," said Lynne Goughler, vice president of public policy for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "We consider wine an alcoholic beverage, not food."

Humorists have been having a field day with the wine industry stimulus efforts. None may have topped one observation about the wine-as-food measure, made by Patrick Besson, a noted author and Le Figaro's literary critic.

"Of course wine is food," Mr. Besson said. "I know people who eat little else."

Contact Michael Woods at mwoods@nationalpress.com.



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