WINE: The Crisis of Quantity in the Midi

International Herald Tribune

March 9, 1976

France has another wine crisis on its hands and it is not just another case of fraud. This time, neglect, short-sightedness and stopgap methods on the part of the government have driven the growers of the south into armed revolt that resulted in two deaths and a score of wounded during a shootout with the riot police Thursday.

For more than two years, the growers have been demonstrating with increasing violence, and repeated warnings by local authorities and leaders of growers' organizations were ignored by both the French government and the European Economic Community.

Because of this the result was all but inevitable, but it might have been avoided by the simple practice of a wine policy based on quality rather than quantity. Monday-morning quarterbacking? Not for the elements of the French wine industry that saw the need for the development of quality wines in the south nearly 20 years ago.

The area involved concerns four departments along the Mediterranean coast, from the Rhône River to the Spanish border: the Gard, the Hérault, the Aude (where most of the recent violence has erupted), and the Pyrénées-Orientales. This area produces most of France's vin ordinaire, as well as a scattering of officially recognized quality wines.

The problem has its origins in the Algerian war, which lasted from 1954 to 1962. Algeria furnished France with wines of deep color and high alcoholic degree (14 per cent or more by volume) that were blended with weaker, thinner French wines to give them more body and make them more palatable to the consumer.

Once Algeria became independent, it was obvious that it would not long be possible to count on this source for heavy wines. But Italy could always take up the slack, and with the Common Market developing there was to be a huge new duty-free market for French wine.

There was indeed a demand for French wine. But not for vin ordinaire. The Germans, Belgians, Dutch, eventually the British and even Italians increased their consumption of quality appellation contrôlée wines enormously, and virtually ignored the rest. At the same time the French themselves drank more and more quality wines and less of the ordinary.

This trend was foreseen by such firms as the giant Nicolas, which began investing in experimental vineyards and offering expert advice on grape types, winegrowing, winemaking, etc. to growers of the Midi as early as 1957-58.

The government, on the other hand, encouraged quantity with a system of buying of the degré-hecto, so much for each per cent of alcohol times the number of hectoliters (26.4 gallons) available. Where a natural and soul-satisfying product like wine is concerned, this is like selling Picasso by the meter of canvas or Rodin by the ton of bronze, as Le Monde's Robert Escarpit put it.

No effort was made to improve quality until about five years ago with the beginning of experimental cooperative vineyards organized by the Institut Technique du Vin and backed with matching government funds. The idea is to show the growers how to make quality wines and to prove that it pays. Furthermore, the consumer's reactions are also studied and fed back to the producers.

It involves a study of the producer's soil to determine what grape varieties in what proportions will do best there and to update methods of cultivation, fertilizing, growing, spraying, determination of yield versus quality, winemaking, the whole works. And to organize distribution outside the usual shipping network.

The trouble is that much of the initiative must come from the growers themselves, who hesitate to try new methods when they are close to subsistence. Nine out of 10 growers own less than the 20 hectares (about 50 acres) that are considered necessary in the Midi to support a family. When you decide to rip out inferior vines and try better varieties, there will be no crop for as long as five years. And in a field as tradition-bound as winegrowing, any innovation is slow to become generalized.

A policy of quality has, in fact, begun, but it is only in its infancy. The results will not be available for several years and the crisis is immediate. Distillation of 4 million hectoliters of Italian wine as decided by the EEC may help somewhat but only in the short run. What if the crop this year is as abundant as in 1973 and 1974?

All this could have been avoided by starting on quality 10 years earlier. There is likely to be further tension and even more armed revolt unless widespread and costly measures are taken immediately to alleviate the growers' situation in the Midi. Growers throughout the country side with those of the Midi, as questioning of winegrowers from all parts of France at the current week's Paris Agricultural Fair proved. Many stated their basic antipathy to leftist policies but said they would vote leftist the next time out of disgust with government negligence on top of irritating regulations.