All over France workers are swarming through the vineyards, filling their baskets with grapes and taking them to the presses from where the heady must runs into the great fermentation vats. This year, however, there are no stale jokes about peasants' feet tramping out the wine. There are no jokes at all.
A number of wine experts were consulted to find out what was causing this monumental lack of bacchic joy. Jean-Baptiste Chaudet, wine merchant at 20 Rue Geoffroy-St. Hilaire, summed it up bluntly:
"I think we're going to have one of the worst vintages of the century. For the moment it seems even worse than in '63 or '65, and God knows those years weren't brilliant.
"In many vineyards they are harvesting grapes rotten on the inside and still green on the outside.
"I don't know of a single corner of France where the wine will be good. One of the regions least touched by rot is Chablis, but even there the grapes are not mature.
"In Bordeaux I think they may not even given an appellation to the classified growths. There may not be any Médoc or Graves or Saint-Emilion, just plain Bordeaux."
This gloomy forecast is echoed by Bernard Jacquet, cellar master for the firm of Louis Latour at the Château de Corton in Burgundy. He is afraid that the Burgundies may also be declassified and carry no vintage year.
Bernard Péret, this year's winner of the Prix du Meilleur Pot for the wines he serves in his bar, at 6 Rue Daguerre, is not much happier about the Beaujolais.
The best-exposed hillside wines may not be too badly off, but the ordinary Beaujolais from the flatlands is another matter. The vineyards are soggy, the vines are mildewed and the grapes are so much water.
Water is the whole problem. Water everywhere, all the time, so much water that it won't run off and so little sun that the grapes got no chance to ripen.
According to Jean Bouscarel of La Tartine, at 24 Rue de Rivoli, who was the 1965 winner of the Prix du Meilleur Pot, there was some hope until the middle of September. Despite a late, rainy spring and summer, there was some good sunny weather in the second half of August and early September which cut down on the developing rot and mildew.
Whatever optimism arose then quickly evaporated after Sept 15. Disastrous floods swept the Rhone Valley, inundating and uprooting the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Storms lashed Burgundy and Bordeaux just before the harvest. Only the Mediterranean coast escaped this deluge, but very few fine wines are produced there.
The vendange began late everywhere, about Oct. 1, and in some areas it is just getting started. There is plenty of wine, more than last year, but the very abundance of this watery vintage is rapidly pushing up the prices of previous good ones. In this situation, speculating on wine may be one of the sharpest investments ever made.
Only the sugar merchants are happy, because by adding sugar to the fermenting wine its alcoholic content can be raised enough so that it will keep and can be transported without danger. Sugar, however, also kills the freshness and individuality of a wine.
If there is any silver lining to this particularly black cloud, it is only that the really good wine-sellers somehow always manage to come up with a few good exceptions to even as poor a year as 1968.