French vintners took to the streets in wine regions across the nation Thursday to protest government policies they allege are destroying French wine. In downtown Bordeaux, a sign bearing the name of the city was covered by the word "censuré" (censored) by the region's wine-trade representatives. Protestors in other villages throughout southwest France and elsewhere covered local road signs in towns bearing the names of famous wines. Current anti-alcohol abuse policies have made advertising of wine almost impossible—hence the protestors' allegation that the town names may be banned. "If the current neo-prohibitionist climate continues we'll end up being forced to rename the towns called after an appellation," said Laurent Gapenne, president of the Great Wines of Bordeaux Federation and the owner of Château de Laville.
The demonstrations were orchestrated by Vin et Société, an association backed by the wine industry to advocate moderate drinking. The group hoped to draw attention to the government's policies. The biggest bone of contention is the 1991 Evin law, which sharply restricts alcohol advertising and publicity. Wine cannot be advertised on TV, in movies, or on the Internet (which was not considered when the law was passed). Ads for wine cannot promote it as part of a healthy or fun lifestyle.
As French wine consumption continues to decline, the industry sees the government's policies as a slide toward prohibition. "On one hand the government commends our exports and talks about getting French gastronomy recognized by UNESCO, and on the other hand we're being treated like drug dealers," said Gapenne.
Recent events have pushed the industry to the brink. Until this week, it appeared likely that promoting alcohol on the Internet—including winery websites—would be banned along with television and radio advertising. However, much to the relief of vintners, Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin, the Minister for Health, Youth and Sports, indicated at the National Assembly Thursday that she was in favor of allowing wine advertising on the Internet and that she wanted to revise the legislation so there would no longer be any ambiguity.
Winegrowers are also exasperated by the vagueness around the term publicity. "Just mentioning a wine can be misconstrued as publicity, according to the current definition established in 2004," said Delphine Blanc, spokesperson for Vin et Société. As a result, a journalist was taken to court last year for speaking highly of a Champagne in a newspaper article. This precedent is discouraging many media institutions from covering wine-related subjects. "For the first time a television station decided not to talk about this year's harvest as it didn't want to take any risks," said Gapenne.
The protesters also objected to the government's decision to increase the excise duties on wine to help cover the social security deficit, a measure adopted this week by the National Assembly. As of next year, the new tax will be inflation-indexed. Various estimates indicate that this change will increase the price of wine by 16 percent.
Growers also protested a series of proposals to discourage young people from drinking. The measures are scheduled to be adopted next January and include ending the right to serve free drinks in public places. That could be construed to forbid free tastings at wineries.
Alain Juppé, the mayor of Bordeaux and former Prime Minister, who participated in the demonstration, said he whole-heartedly supported the winegrowers' demands. "History shows us that prohibition never works, he said. "We should educate rather than reprimand."