It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Monday, October 10, 2011

What Is Happening To France?

Wine’s central and embedded role in France’s long and storied cultural history is without dispute. It has been a vital part of their economic survival as well as their lifestyle for generations.

The food and drink of a nation is a window into its soul.  Quite revealingly, the French considered wine nothing more than a healthy food accompaniment.  It was always consumed in moderation, and was never really thought to be, in the strict sense of the word, an “alcoholic beverage.” The legal drinking age for wine (and beer) at eighteen (recently upped from sixteen) has reflected that attitude. French youth, via strict parental supervision and oversight at family dinners, consumed wine in a mature and responsible manner.

However, those pleasant, nostalgic days of old seem to be ending. A strong anti-alcohol movement—rooted in a 1991 law that strictly regulates alcohol and tobacco advertising—has unfortunately taken its toll on French wine attitudes and consumption. “Evin’s Law,” as it is known, strictly forbids anything other than factual information in publicity or advertising releases.

Wine tasting reviews, that hint at attractive and enjoyable qualities, that are commonplace in American newspapers and magazines, are now strictly verboten in France. And international wine and spirits companies have their own set of marketing roadblocks as their Internet sites must now adhere to those same restrictive guidelines. As such, their web sites are often inaccessible to French Internet surfers.

In addition to, and what partially validates the above anti-alcohol movement, is the dramatic shift in the alcohol attitude and behavior of French youth. “Le binge drinking,” (the officially term, intoxication alcoolique aigue, never really cut it) formerly the exclusive partying pastime of British and American college-age youths, seems firmly entrenched in the alcohol intake patterns of their French counterparts. Mind altering seems to be the goal as they now drink with reckless abandon—indoors at parties, but more often outdoors in the streets. Getting smashed is what it’s all about, and beer and hard alcohol are the accommodating beverages.

Within the last year or so, numerous raucous binges have occurred in France, often with serious injuries to the participants and significant damages to nearby private property. Many of these events have been organized and promoted via various Internet social media like Facebook and Twitter. As such, crowd sizes soared to the thousands—some articles claim crowds as high as 6,000. (Dionysian, cult-like events in a 21st century setting!)

The last annoying bit of cork debris in the wine glass is a 2008 survey from Credoc, a French research center, which claims that just over half the French feel that wine is not a safe or healthy food product. (Charcuterie—that Gallic culinary art which includes such fabulous creations like pâtés, terrines, galantines and ballotines—is viewed with even more suspicion!)

Finally, and quite dispiritingly, many of the French no longer view wine as their forbears did, for there is also an emerging mind-set that wine is nothing more than a pretentious beverage. Is it any wonder then that wine consumption, per capita, has fallen gradually to a point where it is now fifty percent less than it was in 1980? What is happening to France?

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