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When Winemakers Attack

As French producers' violent protests continue in the Languedoc, solutions to the year-old crisis prove elusive

Mitch Frank
Posted: May 26, 2006

It looked like a scene from a bad reality TV show--When Winemakers Attack! On March 6, more than 120 masked men armed with crowbars descended on the Mediterranean port city of Sète in France's Languedoc region. They targeted two wine merchants' warehouses, dumping thousands of gallons of wine onto the ground. More vignerons formed a roadblock on the highway between Montpellier and Béziers, blocking traffic and setting a police car on fire. When the police arrested nine of the men and brought them to trial, the court simply released them. Charges were dropped against five, while four received suspended one-month jail terms.

The March attacks were just the biggest incident in a wave of violence hitting the Languedoc, all part of an organized campaign by vignerons furious about the economic crisis afflicting France's wine industry. And they're not backing down. On April 28, someone lobbed a bomb into the offices of France Telecom outside Montpellier and painted the letters "CRAV" on a wall.

The Comité Régional d'Action Viticole is a shadowy organization with an estimated 1,000 members and an unknown number of sympathizers who believe the French government is not doing enough to protect small wine producers from globalization. For more than a year now, the group has attacked wine-related businesses and government offices, usually at night. The members have largely destroyed imports of Spanish and Italian table wines, but have also targeted "industrial" French wine companies and other big corporations. CRAV members refused to talk for this story.

The root of their anger is the five-year-long slump in the French wine market. The French are consuming half as much wine as they did 40 years ago, according to the International Organization of Vine and Wine. And because of increasing competition, exports of French wine fell 11 percent between 2002 and 2005. More than 100 million bottles of wine were distilled into industrial alcohol last year, yet many Languedoc producers still have gallons of unsold wine.

"The irony is that 2005 made great wine, but it's impossible to sell," said Thierry Coste, secretary general of the Vignerons Coopérateurs de l'Herault.

Many small vignerons in Bordeaux and Languedoc must decide between selling their wines below cost or not selling them at all. That's leading some to leave the business for good.

Sylvie Courselle, a winemaker at Bordeaux's Château Thieuley who previously worked in Languedoc, admits it's painful to watch, but necessary. "Farmers who do not produce quality wine must retire, and quickly, because they give a bad image to their region."

As France's top source for low-cost table wines, Languedoc has always been vulnerable to the ups and downs of supply and demand. When wine prices plummeted in 1907, a middle-aged farmer named Albert Marcellin led more than half a million angry vignerons into Montpellier. The government responded by sending in troops, and five protestors were killed.

The region's romantic tradition of radical wine producers has persisted. In 1976, rioters and soldiers clashed in Narbonne. And in 1998 and 2002, a group calling itself CRAV set off several bombs. But the current wave of violence has been the longest.

"We have a tradition in this region that the government intervenes to end overproduction," said Jean-Benoit Cavalier, who owns Château de Lascaux in Pic St.-Loup and is president of the Syndicat des Vignerons Coteaux du Languedoc. "CRAV members are disappointed in the level of payouts."

"The CRAV is really a minority," said Coste. "I can understand some people feel desperate, but those who support violence are isolated."

Is there a solution? The government is proceeding in much the same way it has with previous oversupply problems--by paying producers to distill excess wine and tear up excess vineyards--but is also exploring options to improve quality and marketing. A recent report by a government commission suggested creating a Vin de France brand to market abroad, loosening AOC rules and allowing vignerons to use inexpensive oak chips rather than oak barrels to flavor inexpensive wine.

"The government doesn't know anything--and not just about wine," said Coste. He believes any reforms will have to come from the vignerons themselves, who will have to adapt to a global market. "I don't know if this is a crisis or an evolution. But I worry that we're going to lose our identity."

It's doubtful that CRAV will be satisfied until the glut ends and the industry recovers. But many more vignerons will likely be out of the business before then. "I am afraid the crisis is very deep," Cavalier said.

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