2008 has been all sour grapes for French wine, a once proud symbol of the nation's identity now swirling in a cocktail of alcohol abuse legislation.
Long viewed as a quintessential part of the French lifestyle, along with fine foods and good living, wine is slumping so low in the national esteem that winemakers have even complained of being treated like drug dealers by the government, and their websites put on a par with porn.
AdvertisementOne recent survey highlighting the change in popular attitudes to wine showed that 51 percent of people now considered the national drink risky.
Wine in France used to escape the negative perceptions of being an alcoholic drink, said Raphael Berger of the statistics centre on living conditions, CREDOC, which issued the study.
And much of the change in attitude, he said, was related to ongoing government efforts to control alcoholism and abuse.
France's Health Ministry, which has successfully cracked down on drink driving, spent much of 2008 preparing new laws to curb teenage binge drinking and alcohol abuse.
Measures due next year include increasing the legal age to buy alcohol from 16 to 18, a ban on happy hours and open bars where a flat drink all you can fee is charged and a possible prohibition on free wine tastings.
While French doctors once tolerated a few glasses of champagne during pregnancies, new legislation obliges producers to print a no drinking during pregnancy logo on bottles.
Positive though the aims may be, the new head of Bordeaux's Wine Merchant Union criticised the approach. Instead of encouraging moderate drinking, we are frightening people and demonising wine, Georges Haushalter told AFP.
Not surprisingly, domestic wine consumption, while still robust, has continued to slide, falling to 64 litres per person a year in comparison to 75 litres in the early 1990s.
Until 2008, booming exports compensated for much of the domestic slide, notably to eager British and US wine buffs.
But this year's global economic turmoil has stalled these markets, leaving wine exports for the first nine months down by almost 10 percent in volume, according to France's export development board Ubifrance.
In value terms, the director of the Federation of Wine and Spirit Exporters -FEVS, Renaud Gaillard sees a zero increase for the end of 2008.
The potent mix of negative conditions for 2009 is even more worrying, he said. There is no indicator we will be coming out of this crisis quickly, he told AFP.
On top of this year's drop in demand, producers had to manage one of the toughest growing seasons on record including frosts, hail and torrential rains that sparked off vineyard disease such as mildew and botrytis.
Although many wines from the 2008 vintage are described as being very good, the vintage was expensive and one of the lowest on record, leading to supply problems and shortages of certain products such as Bordeaux whites.
Communicating about wine has been another thorny issue this year, with the government so far failing to legalise the Internet as a medium for alcohol publicity.
But such problems are not limited to the web.
After a number of recent successful court cases taken by France's anti-alcohol lobby against Heineken, champagne giant Moet et Chandon, and national daily newspaper Le Parisien who were all judged to have broken the law by promoting wine drinking self-censorship has kicked in.
In one case a national magazine article about a Books and Wine fair, which carried the fair's wineglass logo, also carried a government health warning.
And the Ubifrance 2008 report on exports concludes with a warning that reads This is not intended to incite consumption of alcoholic drinks.
Among winegrowers, resentment is so strong that on October 30, the industry took to the streets, daubing paint over road-signs for the Bordeaux, Champagne and Burgundy regions to protest alleged wine censorship as well as a proposed new wine tax.
The tax since has been adopted though the government may be caving in on other matters.
Health Minister Roslyne Bachelot recently suggested wine advertising on the web might be legalised early next year, but many in the industry remain sceptical, saying they will wait for results.
Draft legislation leaked to the press earlier this year, which attempted to legalise wine ads, proposed limiting access to wine sites to certain hours the same regulations proposed for pornographic sites.
Indeed, spiralling claims of alleged government hostility to wine reached such proportions in 2008 that two prominent wine journalists accused the government of hindering wine consumption to boost sales of anti-depressants in order to pander to the stronger pharmaceuticals lobby.
Even winemakers claim they have been relegated to the category of dealers and angrily complain that France's leading export is no longer trumpeted by the government.
Viticulture products are placed in the same category as drugs, Jean-Charles Tastavy, an independent wine producer and member of the Council for Moderation and Prevention, recently told a local wine publication.
The outlook for the future is not bright despite good demand for his wines, Thomas Duroux, director of one of Bordeaux's most famous chateaux, Palmer, told AFP.
In terms of communication, 2008 has been a horrible year, he said. France is the world's most important wine producer, and we have the most restrictive advertising legislation.
Is this because (President Nicholas) Sarkozy doesn't drink, or because our system of anti-alcohol lobbies is too strong?
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