French Vintners Plan to Sue Government Over Anti-Alcohol Campaign

Nationwide protests are scheduled next month over ads that suggest wine drinking is linked to cancer
Nov 24, 2004

New government ads suggest time is running out for the health of those who drink.
 
French vintners have begun mobilizing against their own government, which earlier this month launched an anti-alcohol campaign that appears to directly attack wine.

On Nov. 23, a group representing 127 Bordeaux wineries informed the government that it will sue to cancel the advertising campaign unless it is stopped by Dec. 8. On that date, French winemakers have scheduled nationwide protests against what many of them call the government's "prohibitionist" attempt to discredit a product that had long been viewed as an integral part of French culture.

The Bordeaux group--the Cercle de la Rive Droite des Grands Vins de Bordeaux, whose members are Right Bank wineries in appellations such as Pomerol, St.-Emilion and Fronsac--said its lawsuit would name Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and the French Ministry of Justice, among other targets. The group plans to seek financial damages equal to the amount spent on developing and promoting the ads.

The anti-alcohol campaign, which suggests that regular drinking causes cancer, is "dishonest, scandalous and just plain false," said Alain Raynaud, president of the Bordeaux group and co-owner of châteaus Quinault in St.-Emilion and La Fleur de Gay and La Croix de Gay in Pomerol.

The main theme in the campaign is: "Day after day, your body records each glass you drink," suggesting that drinking alcohol, even moderately, has an accumulative negative effect on the organs. One visual image that is running in various media shows a glass of wine next to an hourglass (filled with a red liquid that some winemakers allege looks like blood) that implies that time is running out for those who drink. The ad also states in smaller type: "Alcohol promotes cancer in men who drink more than three glasses a day and in women who drink more than two glasses a day."

French winemakers are offended that the ad ignores the many scientific studies that have found that moderate wine consumption has numerous potential health benefits (some research shows that polyphenols in red wine may help fight certain cancers), and that the ad doesn't distinguish between wine and other alcoholic beverages. (If the Bordelais win their lawsuit, they plan to donate the funds to cancer research, Raynaud said.)

The ads, which have started airing on French television and run in national newsweeklies, arrive when vintners' frustrations are at the boiling point. Many French wine regions are struggling economically, dealing with poor sales, dropping prices, a rising number of winery bankruptcies and other setbacks. The crisis may only get worse, as the 2004 crop was large--58.9 million hectoliters, or 25 percent more than in 2003, according to estimates released on Oct. 1 by the French Ministry of Agriculture.

For Alain Suguenot, a politician who represents Burgundy's famed Côte d'Or in France's legislature, the government's new campaign is the last straw. He and other politicians have asked to meet with the prime minister in December to discuss the controversy. "It's literally the drop that makes the bucket overflow," he said.

It won't take much to ignite French winemakers on Dec. 8. Almost every wine region has already witnessed street demonstrations, some violent, from growers demanding that the government pay subsidies to offset their slumping sales and prices. (It costs about 1,000 euros to produce a 900-liter barrel of wine in Bordeaux, but earlier this year an average barrel was selling for 750 euros.) Raynaud fears the coming demonstrations could turn violent if the government hasn't stopped its campaign by then. "And violence might turn public opinion against winemakers," he said.

Winemakers are dismayed because the government seemed inclined to offer help this summer. A series of high-level discussions were held between vintners and politicians, in light of figures showing French wine losing substantial ground to foreign competition. (Between 1998 and 2003, French exports dropped 12 percent, to 148 million cases, while New World wine exports jumped 161 percent, to 161 million cases, according to the Fédération des Exportateurs de Vins et Spiritueux de France.)

In addition, various proposals have been advanced throughout the year to help rejuvenate the French wine industry, from the creation of "super appellations," to allowing traditional regions such as Burgundy and Bordeaux to make variety-labeled wines, to permitting French vintners to add oak chips during the winemaking process.

Yet the new anti-alcohol campaign doesn't come as a total surprise given France's 13-year-old battle against excessive drinking, smoking and drug abuse. The passage of the Evin Law in 1991 marked a major political turn from past health policy initiatives, placing severe restrictions on alcohol beverage advertising.

In fact, last June, Burgundy had to end its own pro-wine campaign, launched in 2003, after a national alcoholism prevention group filed a lawsuit. An appeals court ruled that the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne (BIVB), a trade group, had overstepped the boundaries by using images of a seductive woman and overly poetic language to describe wine.

Last year, the national government cracked down on driving under the influence, enforcing a 0.05 blood alcohol limit that is more stringent than restrictions in the United States. That prompted a winery trade group to begin offering "doggy bags" for unfinished bottles in restaurants.

Other wine regions appear likely to back the Bordelais against the government. "I favor legal action," said Suguenot, who is also the mayor of Beaune. He said the campaign "libels wine. Wine shouldn't be associated with death but with gastronomic traditions." He predicts that producers from various regions will file several lawsuits unless the ad campaign comes to a halt.

Burgundy vintners are now discussing whether to join hands with the Bordelais or take other action, according to the BIVB. Bertrand Devillard, a Burgundy négociant with Maison Antonin Rodet, said the ad campaign was essentially making winemakers look as bad as "criminal dealers" whose "hands are covered with blood. They are defaming wine, and we are outraged and scandalized."

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