At this week's Vinexpo Americas in Chicago, French officials expressed frustration over their country's declining share of U.S. wine sales, but it was an American company that was trying to reverse the slide.
One of the products unveiled at the trade-only event was E. & J. Gallo's new Red Bicyclette line, which is produced in the Languedoc region and will retail for $10 to $12. "By 2006 our goal is to be the number one imported premium French wine," said Jason Knight, a Gallo senior marketing manager.
Held from June 20 to 22, Vinexpo Americas -- a spin-off of the much larger Vinexpo held in Bordeaux every other year -- drew 440 exhibitors from 22 countries to the sprawling McCormick Place convention center, along with an estimated 10,000 industry professionals and visitors. The exhibitor participation at the Chicago event was 25 percent lower than the first Vinexpo Americas, held in New York two years ago.
Several major French companies -- including Bouchard Père & Fils, E. Guigal, Louis Jadot and Taittinger -- sponsored booths, and Spain, Germany and Austria were all strongly represented. There was also a surprising turnout from less-prominent wine regions in countries such as Hungary and Portugal.
"Companies have been careful in spending on promotion," said Vinexpo chairwoman Dominique Hériard-Dubreuil of the shortfall in exhibitors. "But the fact is that in a difficult global environment, these companies have got to reach out to more contacts, particularly in America."
In recent years, France has slipped behind Italy and Australia in wine exports to the United States. French officials vowed at Vinexpo to devote more resources to marketing French wine in the future. "I have one goal: That French wines return to No. 1," said François Loos, minister of trade.
For many exhibitors, any foothold in the U.S. market would be welcome. A half-dozen producers from Algeria, for example, were there seeking distributors. Algeria was wracked by civil war through much of the 1990s, but the nation's vineyards, some planted by the French more than a century ago, escaped the conflict largely unharmed. "We thought Chicago would be a good place to show Algerian wines for the first time to a wider audience," said Hamou Meghdir, president of Meghdir & Sons, an importer in Manasquan, N.J. He was featuring the 2002 Chateau Tellagh from Medea, a Rhône-style blend priced at $10. "Name recognition is the big challenge. Nobody knows anything about Algerian wines," he added.
One of the highlights of the show was a tasting of nearly 100 Bordeaux from the just-arriving 2001 vintage. Participants included châteaus such as Clinet, L'Evangile, Pavie and Gruaud-Larose, though no first-growths were represented. "We felt it was important to support Vinexpo and be here for the tasting, even if we don't have a regular exhibition booth," said Patrick Maroteaux, president of Château Branaire-Ducru.
Larry Stone, the wine director of Rubicon restaurant in San Francisco (a Wine Spectator Grand Award holder), came away impressed by Vinexpo. "It's a good chance to catch up on old friends and new vintages and products," he said. "I only wish this had been a bigger event."
There was speculation among those in attendance about the site for the next Vinexpo Americas, likely to be held in 2006, but Hériard-Dubreuil said organizers had not made a decision yet.