Dozens of winegrowers from France's Languedoc region swept through three supermarkets in Nîmes on March 30, in search of wine they believe is threatening their livelihood: low-priced Spanish wine. To the dismay of supermarket staff, who stood watching, the vigilante vignerons climbed the shelves, smashing wine bottles and emptying boxed wine cartons onto the floor of the aisle. They piled shopping carts with more bottles, which they subsequently dumped on the pavement of the parking lot.
The growers—the combined forces of the Jeunes Agriculteurs (JA) of the Gard region and the recently formed Syndicate of Vigernons Gardois—argue that the packaging of these wines hoodwinks consumers into thinking they are buying French wine. "We undertook this sweep to put pressure on the supermarket," said Zoé Cuxac, a JA spokesperson.
A day later, Madrid responded with a scathing letter from its ministry of foreign affairs to counterparts in Paris, denouncing the continued attacks on Spanish wine as an "attack on freedom of trade" and a "blatant violation of the single market, a fundamental pillar of the European Union."
This is not the first action by the JA. On Jan. 17, the activists drove to the toll booth at Gallargues-le-Montueux on the A9 autoroute, on the border between the Gard and Hérault departments. They encircled tanker trucks, demanding to see the bills of lading detailing their cargo. "We made sure they understood we would not hurt them or their truck," said Anais Amalric, copresident of the JA.
A tanker belonging to a French négociant had picked up Spanish wine in the port of Sète, which was to be delivered to Saone et Loire for the production of flavored wine. The activists opened the valves and emptied the tanker onto the pavement.
Violent protest by winemakers in the Languedoc is nothing new. It dates back a century. And for more than a decade now, a group called the Comité Régional d'Action Viticole (CRAV) has been attacking targets. Their anti-globalization complaints were even picked up by French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.
In separate attacks since January, the graffiti tags of the Comité d'Action Viticole (CAV) and CRAV have been found at various crime scenes, including a tanker truck in Narbonne emptied of its cargo of Spanish bulk wine; the torched Béziers offices of Vergnes and Passerieux, one of the biggest wine brokers in France; the destroyed pick up area of a drive-thru supermarket; an arson attack on the building housing the refrigeration system of an Intermarché supermarket; shopping carts set ablaze in supermarket parking lots; and two explosions targeting négociant Jeanjean in Saint-Félix-de-Lodez.
For the Spanish government, the violence represents "a bankruptcy of the rule of law." The arson attacks are being investigated by Montpellier authorities. In the past, French prosecutors have gone after both CAV and CRAV, whose actions have included kidnapping, vandalism and bombings.
It's unclear whether the JA activists will be prosecuted. "We don't know. We're waiting for the phone to ring," admitted Amalric.
Unlike the CAV and CRAV combatants, the JA activists don't hide their identities. And recently they announced softer battle tactics. "We realized it wasn't the best image for us—that of 'destroyers,'" said Cuxac.
"We're a syndicate, and we want to have a dialogue, said Amalric, who has 99 acres under vine and sells to a local cooperative. "If I hid my face behind a balaclava, we wouldn't be meeting with Prodis [the wine subsidiary of Carrefour]."
JA's leaders met with Carrefour management in March. The supermarket is a top retailer for wine in France. JA members hope the meeting will be the first step toward securing a three-year supply contract with fixed prices for their wine and long-term partnerships with the supermarkets and négociants, said JA copresident Lionel Puech.
JA has also recently launched an educational campaign that includes handing out flyers outside supermarkets. "We've included a coupon for a 5 percent discount on wine bought at the local caves and co-ops," said Cuxac.
But neither flyers, nor coupons, nor even attacks on supermarkets change the fact that Spanish bulk wine is almost half the price of French bulk wine, and the prices are stable. "The Spanish sell the wine at €32 per hectoliter, and with the transport to France, it arrives at €40 per hectoliter," said Puech, who runs his family's 89-acre vineyard in the Pays d'Oc. "We sell at €80 to €85 per hectoliter. We don't have the same labor costs, and they can use cheaper vine treatments banned in France."
Last year, France imported more than $730 million worth of foreign wine, and the vast majority, the equivalent of 68 million cases, was bulk wine without Geographical Indication or varietal. More than 61 million cases came from Spain. The cheap table wine is used for bag-in-the-box, high-volume brands and flavored wine drinks.
"Over the last decade, Spain has reorganized part of its entry-level wine production. They are producing large quantities in an industrial way. Italians are also quite well organized," said Philipipe Castéja, CEO of négociant Borie Manoux and a council member in the trade group Fédération des Exportateurs de Vins & Spiritueux de France.
In France, struggling growers are grubbing up vines and leaving the land fallow. "We lost 5,000 hectares [12,355 acres] last year because of structural problems with agriculture in the south," said Casteja. "There's been no effort to encourage people to create bigger estates."
"In the Languedoc, we've lost 13 percent of the vine surface area in 10 years," said Puech.
In an interview with Wine Spectator, Henri Cabanel, who is both a winegrower and a senator representing Hérault, offered a suggestion: "Rather than resisting and fighting with each other, I think we, the growers, need to develop a strategy with the négociants and supermarkets, agreeing to supply them with a certain amount of low-end, mechanized production while respecting French quality. It's a win-win solution."
Cabanel owns a 67-acre vineyard in Servian, selling his crop to the local cooperative, Les Vignerons de l'Occitane, of which he was once the president. He argues that cooperatives are well placed to manage vast, irrigated, mechanized vineyards.
Most growers are producing wine with Geographic Indication, which is held to higher standards and costs more to make. "The négociants need wine without Geographic Indication and growers aren't producing it," Cabanel said. "It's wiser to supply the entire price range. This is a commercial strategy."
Castéja agrees. "We have the space, the same climate. Spain has done it. France can do it."
Given a larger supply of wine at low, stable prices, French exporters say they will not only remain competitive but conquer new markets. "We, the French, can sell more wine," said Castéja. "Definitely."
But JA leaders are skeptical. "French vineyards have been through many crises. We were told by the négociants that we produced too much wine, so we changed the grape varieties, chose clones that were less productive, invested in our cellars to improve quality," said Puech. "And now they say we must produce more at a lower quality. That's taking us back 20 years. We'll never be able to compete with Spain's low prices—our payroll taxes are higher."
And so the debate continues. But will the young vignerons continue with negotiations and peaceful protests? Or will bottles start smashing again?