- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2000

THONON-LES-BAINS, France The statistics are stark: Fewer and fewer Frenchmen drink wine, the nation's pride. Hard liquor and U.S. soft drinks are taking over, and some say the Americans are to blame.
"France is losing its soul," concluded Jean Cavaille, looking over his vineyard near this lakeside town at the foot of the Alps.
Moreover, according to Gerard Nirascou, another wine producer, many can no longer tell the difference between Burgundy and Bordeaux nor are aware of the different shape of their bottles. It looks like "les Americains" are at fault again, he said.
"Our national patrimony is in danger," fumed the conservative daily Le Figaro.
Onivins, the wine-monitoring agency of the French Ministry of Agriculture, says the yearly consumption of wine has dropped from 29 gallons per person in 1980 to 16 gallons today. So far this year, 37 percent of Frenchmen (and women) over the age of 14 have not touched wine.
"They drink whiskey, vodka, those indigestible cocktails and equally indigestible American soft drinks," said Christian Milani, an expert compiling the Onivins statistics.
Another factor against French quality wines is that cheap foreign wine is available at supermarkets and approved by the "distant and anonymous" officials of the European Commission in Brussels, which runs the 15-nation European Union, Mr. Milani added.
Wine growers and merchants appear to be ready to take to the barricades. Earlier this month, hundreds demonstrated in the wine-producing areas of Gard, Aude and Herault to protest "fraudulent imitation wines" trickling or even pouring into France.
"Most of those foreign wines should not be trusted, and some even transit through such countries as Turkey" before reaching the French market, said Denis Verdier of the Federation of Vineyard Cooperatives.
According to Mr. Verdier, the result is that the percentage of those who drink wine every day has fallen from 47 percent 10 years ago to 24 percent in the year 2000.
Restaurants along France's scenic roads claim they are losing money because of increasingly strict alcohol limits for drivers. And yet a half-bottle with a hearty meal should make no impact when you blow into a balloon held by a policeman, whose breath often smells of wine.
Changing lifestyles are also blamed. Long, languid and liquid lunches are disappearing, the continuing work day without the traditional three-hour break in the middle has taken its toll.
According to Edouard Zarifian, a professor who monitors the trend, "there is no question that wine has lost its privileged position in the French society."
As far as the young generation is concerned, Mr. Zarifian said that "wine for them is the drink of their parents and grandparents. Whiskey and vodka are becoming favorites and are usually drunk straight."
Some wine-producing areas of France say their sales of the 1999 product, considered to be a fair vintage, are down 40 percent. The image of a Frenchman gently swirling wine in his glass and sniffing its bouquet can be found more frequently in films than in real life these days.
The wine producers are resorting to a massive campaign, presenting their product in most persuasive and poetic colors.
"Ours is the best product, tested by generations of our loyal clients," said Jean-Bernard Castel, whose wines from the Bordeaux region include the prize-winning Chateau Fougey and Chateau de Haut Coulon.
Antoine Chamvermeil, one of his competitors, promised "a true sunshine" in his bottles. "You will be captivated by its brilliant robe, by its intense bouquet surpassing fruit. You will find an ideal companion to fish from our rivers or a juicy steak surrounded by spring vegetables."
And there is hope. Sales of champagne, associated with festive occasions, have not been affected, and opinion polls indicate that Frenchmen over the age of 55 show signs of returning to the favorite drink of their forebears.
"We have to re-educate our young," concluded Mr. Cavaille who sells his fruity white for a mere $4 a bottle.

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