- The Washington Times - Friday, May 16, 2003

Wine importers bet big on American consumers’ taste for French wine — before political differences over war in Iraq spilled into the economic realm.

Trade figures from the first quarter of the year show French wine imports increased more than 40 percent from 2002, to $218 million from $153 million, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics released this week.

French cheese imports were up by an even greater percentage.

But most of those orders were made before France and the United States had a public falling-out over Iraq.

Since then, many Americans say they are less likely to buy French products.

More than 40 percent of Americans said they were less likely to buy French products as a result of that country’s lack of support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq, according to an April survey by KRC Research, a division of public relations firm Weber Shandwick.

And sales of top French labels have fallen almost 9 percent from a year ago, April figures from Chicago public relations firm Information Resources Inc. indicate.

“We believe we are going to have to step up our marketing efforts,” said Jacques Thebault, president of Sopexa for the Americas, the New York marketing agency for the Bordeaux Wine Council.

Mr. Thebault said the agency will work with restaurants and stores to promote wines, measures that may be necessary to counter lingering anti-French sentiment.

He said it is still difficult to fully evaluate the impact of consumer sentiment on purchasing patterns.

“We do expect a slowdown [in sales],” Mr. Thebault said. “It is probably a combination of the exchange rate and a short-term shift of consumer attitudes.”

The euro Monday reached a 41/2 year high versus the dollar, making products from the eurozone more expensive when purchased with dollars.

It will take some time to sort out the impact of the exchange rate, supply and consumer demand on prices, Mr. Thebault said.

So far, the supposed consumer boycott has not been universal.

“We have seen some effect [from the boycott]. Not as much as some of the dramatic numbers I’ve seen reported — somewhere in the 10 [percent] to 20 percent range,” said Ed Sands, co-owner of Calvert-Woodley Wine and Liquor in Northwest.

Customers, especially when buying bottles priced at less than $20, are specifically opting for non-French ones.

Other stores, like Landmark Total Beverage and Cleveland Park Liquor and Wines, reported much smaller shifts.

Other importers and distributors saw a drop-off in sales, but are hoping they will pick up as anti-French sentiment fades.

“I’m optimistic our world is going to get better,” said William Deutsch, president of W.J. Deutsch & Sons, a White Plains, N.Y., wine sales and marketing firm. “I think that everybody involved in the French wine and cheese business felt the effects in February, into March. It began to ease up in April, and it seems to be easing a little bit more in May.”

Part of the reason is mixed loyalties — American consumers have to choose between anger at French President Jacques Chirac and an opportunity to purchase a good product, especially the 2000 vintage of Bordeaux wines, widely touted as the best in decades.

“It’s a great vintage. It’s a lay-away vintage, and therefore, people look the other way. They buy their Bordeaux,” Mr. Deutsch said.

Other wine sellers are seeing sales increases.

“Overall, in the bigger metro areas, our French business is up for the year,” said John Janak, Maryland and D.C. sales manager for Franklin Selections, a regional wine importer and distributor.

Peter Ekman, president of San Francisco-based Wine.com, said, “We are trying not to promote French wines. We are trying to work with wines that are politically correct, but the consumers are making the decision in favor of French wines.”

Last month, three Washington business groups — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Organization for International Investment and the National Foreign Trade Council — wrote President Bush, urging him to speak out against consumer boycotts and legislation that hurts trans-Atlantic trade.

They are especially worried that American products — the most recognizable in the world — would be hurt worse by escalating boycotts.

The mixed message on wine imports and sales are not surprising, said Todd Malan, executive director of the Organization for International Investment.

“Is there a difference between sentiment — very legitimate anger — and action? I think there is a big disconnect between sentiment and action,” he said.

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