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Grapes of Wrath

The Union for Viticultural Action has sent a video message to President Nicolas Sarkozy. In it, balaclava-clad vintners threaten that "blood will flow" unless the farmers can earn a decent living from their vineyards.
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In France, the idea of the righteous agrarian freedom fighter doesn't provoke laughter as it would in the U.S. The nation cheers when the farmer-firebrand José Bové bashes in a MacDonald's. It is the French way of showing solidarité for the farmer, who occupies a cherished position in French culture as the embodiment of the country's agrarian heritage. Recently, some wine growers in France have promised to do Bové one better by taking up arms to force the government to raise the price of wine.

The Union for Viticultural Action, or Crav, has sent a video message to President Nicolas Sarkozy. In it, balaclava-clad vintners threaten that "blood will flow" unless the farmers can earn a decent living from their vineyards. Crav is serious: they have exploded small bombs in grocery stores and have hijacked a truck containing foreign wine. Instead of increasing prices, the European Commission has proposed tearing up acres of vines across Europe as part of the effort to reduce Europe's wine surplus.

Of all regions in France, Languedoc is the one that could most afford to cut back on its grape cultivation, and is a target of the EC's plan. The region grows about a quarter of the vines in France, and produces some 60% of the vin de pays, or common wine priced to be drunk daily. According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, Languedoc is "the land of the proud peasant farmer," and the farmers that make up Crav qualify for that distinction.

Observing changes in the American wine drinking market can give some idea of what's driving the Languedoc farmers' anger. For Americans, French wine is confusing: the bottles have complicated labels with hard to pronounce names. Most people have no notion of the differences among the French wine regions and don't know which grapes are grown where or what the influence of terrior might be. If the average wine drinker can't read the label, he can't decide which simple vin de pays might be nice with tonight's takeout chicken.

But Americans understand, and therefore buy, Australian shiraz and Napa Valley cabernet. The wines are sold everywhere, the labels are simple and attractive and the prices are either low or easy to justify. To a certain extent, some grape varieties have become like Popsicle flavors. Put "merlot" on the label, and you take the guesswork out of buying wine.

Simplicity in the store carries through to the glass as well. Australian, American and other New World wines can be very fruit forward, with a lush opulence on the palate and high alcohol content to match. This style has proved popular with drinkers and critics stateside. Simple labels, plus easy drinking wine, plus increased interest in wine in the U.S. equals bottles sold: it's a smart way to sell it, and makes producers happy.

The happiness isn't shared everywhere, of course. French and other Old World wines can be subtle, reveling in the glories of their distinct terrior, but these distinctions and these qualities can be lost on the American palate, particularly for budget-priced wine.

Langedoc producers are also very unlucky they do not own land in Burgundy or Bordeaux, where canny growers produce pedigreed wines that are as luxe and sought after as Lamborghinis and priced accordingly. Not only do these producers and negociants have a product worth coveting, they also know how to create a marketable mystique.

What to do for the farmers of Languedoc, after the violent rabble-rousers are stopped? Film a French sequel to Sideways, where two lovable screw-ups drink a swath from the Rhone River to the Pyrenees and rhapsodize about Roussillon, therefore fueling the export market's thirst for Languedoc wines? Getting French scientists on the stick to create a petroleum alternative from Grenache grapes, thereby solving the world's energy crisis and making French farmers the planet's heroes, and not just French ones?

There have been some efforts to promote French wines stateside, such as magazine ads reminding everyone to buy real Champagne from France, not sparkling wine from some other region. Last summer some jaunty ads for Beaujolais were incongruously plastered on buildings in my Bed-Stuy neighborhood. (Memo to the French Ministry of Trade: try Manhattan) Even if these attempts have little effect, an effort by growers' associations and importers to move the wines in the U.S. might convince the farmers to keep their guns in their sheds at least until they see the financial results.

Perhaps the farmers should just give in to the Penguin - the Little Penguin, that is. Just as cartoon characters work to sell breakfast cereal on Saturday mornings, a winsome drawing has stood producers of cheap Australian wine in good stead. But if Crav doesn't like cute (and militants never like cute) it could help to just make the labels easier to understand. I was in a wine store a few days ago, scratching my head in the Burgundy aisle and deciding whether I could spend more than I should. Many of the midrange wines I studied were labeled "pinot noir" in defiance of tradition, which omits the name of the grape. Americans like to know the varietal, and Burgundy growers have proven willing to steer them to their offerings by stating what's in the bottle.

Maybe the Languedoc farmers' real problem is the U.S.: Americans don't like terrorists, so it would be advisable to tear off the balaclavas, hire a team of Disney animators, and start to experiment. If it won't hurt their pride too much, perhaps the peasant farmers of Languedoc can direct their energy to increasing their wine's presence on dinner tables abroad, and allow jumpy French grocers and truckers to relax.