- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2004

DIJON, France — Here’s to your health, mon ami.

The French government is considering a plan to reclassify wine as “nourishment,” a step that would defy medical science but ease advertising restraints and give a boost to producers who are fighting a desperate battle for survival.

Wineries hope the reclassification also would address a decline in consumption by removing the stigma of alcoholic excess from those who believe that two glasses a day — the amount approved by doctors — is not enough.

Spain adopted a similar measure last year, much to the relief of its winegrowers. But in France, the powerful wine lobby is facing resistance both from the medical profession and officials in charge of road safety.

The government is sensitive to the arguments of the medical profession, which sees the notion that wine is nourishment as amounting to “scientific mystification.”

But the government also is concerned about the slow decline of an industry that employs 200,000 and is closely linked in many minds to French history, identity and civilization.

For some years, French winegrowers have suffered from increasing competition from high-quality wines made in vineyards ranging from Australia to California, South Africa to Chile, resulting in falling export levels. Domestic consumption, meanwhile, also has fallen amid health concerns and changing tastes.

Here amid the vineyards of Burgundy, wine is a desperately serious matter. Backed by wineries, the Chevaliers de Tastevin, an exclusive fraternity of wine experts, urged an ambitious program of educating the young in the art of wine drinking and “its role in French history.”

In the past 40 years, wine consumption in France dropped from 105 quarts a year per person to 68 quarts a year. Few young Frenchmen these days can tell the difference between a Beaujolais and Bordeaux — and even fewer care.

In 1980, one meal out of two consumed by the French was accompanied by wine; last year, it was one in four. Those younger than 20 prefer either hard alcohol or sweet soft drinks scorned by gastronomes as unworthy of accompanying a civilized meal.

The government hopes to remedy the situation by allotting advertising funds and freeing wine from a law imposing public warnings such as “The abuse of alcohol is dangerous. Consume it in moderation.”

But the medical profession is not happy. Dr. Michel Reynaud, a psychiatrist and member of the French Association Against Addiction, thinks even the existing warning is not strong enough. “Moderation is a trap because everybody can define it according to his desire,” he said.

Doctors argue that a staggering 20,000 deaths a year are attributed directly or indirectly to alcohol, mainly to wine. Doctors point out that since stringent breath tests were introduced on highways, the number of deaths from car accidents dropped from 7,242 in 2002 to 5,732 last year.

The wine lobby is not giving up. Late last month, 105 lawmakers submitted a “white paper” to Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, calling for energetic action to preserve the wine industry and educate the country in “the role and place of wine in society.”

The prime minister then hosted representatives of the National Association for the Prevention of Alcoholism, who informed him that two-thirds of those treated for alcohol problems were dependent on wine.


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