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French Winemakers Battle Cheap Imports

SCOTT SIMON, host:

It used to be said that a nation's taste for good wine is a barometer of its civilization. Of course, they used to say that in France, which until recently was the world's unquestioned leader in wine production. But French winemakers are being challenged by cheaper and quite good exports from Chile, South Africa and especially Australia and New Zealand.

Winemakers in the Mediterranean district of Languedoc, France's largest wine-producing region, have been fighting back quite literally. They have attacked wine trucks, supermarkets, even a government office. And they have threatened more violence if President Nicolas Sarkozy does not come to their aid.

Frank Browning reports.

(Soundbite of music)

FRANK BROWNING: Eighty-seven-year-old Paul Gaudiere(ph) only began playing saxophone when he was 50. Back then, he was president of the wine co-op at Gabian in the upper Languedoc region. The co-op was flying high, producing half a million bottles a year from vineyards that were first tended by the Romans. He was still playing at the annual Feast of St. Jean in June, but things aren't looking so good, either for Gabian or for the vintners surrounding the town.

Mr. JEAN PIERRE ROSSIERE (Retired Marketing Executive; Wine Producer; Gabian, France): We're about 80 wine producers here in Gabian and I can say that maybe eight are living from the wine.

BROWNING: Jean Pierre Rossiere(ph) is a retired marketing executive with a few acres of his own grapes who's lending his business knowledge to the local co-op to help turn it around.

Mr. ROSSIERE (Retired Marketing Executive; Wine Producer; Gabian, France): We need to keep our sons, our grandsons here on the territory. Gabian was very, very well known at the Roman period 2,000 years ago. We need to keep it for the next 2,000 years in front of us.

BROWNING: Some 200 townspeople joined Rossiere at picnic tables, sampling sausages ground from local pigs while old Paul Gaudier played. His son Jacques is now president of the co-op. Rossiere translated.

Mr. JACQUES BRUSSEREAU (President, Wine Co-op, Languedoc): (Through translator) The problem is that we are wine producers, we are wine farmers, and we don't know how to market our product.

BROWNING: That's one point everyone agrees on. But it's not the only issue. A half an hour away, Jean Luc Crenier(ph) and his wife tend about 50 acres of vineyard. And they sell their grapes through another co-op at Valrose.

Mr. JEAN LUC CRENIER (Vineyard Owner): (Through translator) Today, the big problem is globalization. Other countries compete against us, and the law, of course, allows. Australia, Chile, and Argentina, even the U.S. They hire people cheap. Our costs are really heavy. Farming (unintelligible) and regulations forbid chemicals. We can't use because they are not considered ecological. In Italy and Spain, it is not like that.

BROWNING: Crenier is a big burly fellow with a hearty laugh, proud of his Occitan heritage, a descendant in blood and spirit of the people who lived in Languedoc a thousand years before they were conquered by the King of France. That's part of the reason he's finishing a seven-year suspended sentence for leading a group of winemakers into a public office and destroying computers to protest what he felt were the government's meager farm support and marketing policies. Crenier has seen his vineyard income falls steadily for the last decade.

Mr. CRENIER: (Through translator) Forty percent. It dropped 40 percent in the last 10 or 15 years. There has always been a crisis in Languedoc, but before it was French laws we had to follow. Now, it is all in Brussels.

BROWNING: To deal with falling prices and the growing wine glut, European Union officials in Brussels have threatened to cut subsidies across the continent, and instead have proposed to pay winemakers to rip up half a million acres of vines - a policy no winemaker likes, least of all, a shadowy group called CRAV, the Regional Action Committee of Winemakers.

This spring, five CRAV members in hoods and ski masks staged a press briefing for France's TV3 just before midnight in a cave to issue an ultimatum to newly elected President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Unidentified Man: (French spoken)

BROWNING: They gave Sarkozy's government a choice - resist the E.U. demands and provide protection against cheap imported wine or see blood in the streets.

Journalist Chris Mercer is writing a book on the Languedoc wine militants.

Mr. CHRIS MERCER (Journalist, Decision News Media): They've carried out various attacks on, for example, trucks - Spanish wines coming over the border into France, also foreign wine stored in vats, government buildings, and also train lines. A favorite trick is to cut the signals on the train lines here in the south.

BROWNING: It's not the first time winemakers in Languedoc have used violence. Exactly a century ago, tens of thousands of Occitans took to the streets. The government sent troops. The locals blew up the train lines, but the soldiers refused to fire on the people.

One of the largest independent wine producers in Languedoc is the Abbaye de Valmagne, a 12th-century monastery with fountains in the courtyard and a vineyard run by Phillippe d'Allaines. The descendant of a long line of aristocrats says the militants just don't understand the world wine market.

Mr. PHILLIPPE D'ALLAINES (Owner, Abbaye de Valmagne): I don't know how the government could protect anybody. It's impossible. It's the world market.

BROWNING: The real problem, d'Allaines says, is French marketing or the absence of marketing.

Mr. D'ALLAINES: We were used, in France, for example, to say taste my wine and buy it, and this was enough. This was very easy.

BROWNING: He cites the British wine market.

Mr. D'ALLAINES: A French producer puts about 50 cents of euro for marketing the wine in England. Australia would put probably two euro.

BROWNING: Four times as much?

Mr. D'ALLAINES: Yes.

BROWNING: Which is fine for large producers like the Abbaye de Valmagne that also receives 30,000 paying tourists a year. Small producers and village co-ops don't have that kind of visibility or income. Even though they'd be paid well for ripping out their vineyards, Chris Mercer says they want the E.U. to invest in wine marketing.

Mr. MERCER: The problem is for a lot of winemakers in the south of France, they see winemaking as a sort of a way of life. They don't see why they should rip out their vines and even plant something else, just like a generic crop. They really don't see it in such a commercial way.

(Soundbite of working in vineyard)

BROWNING: Back in his own vineyard, militant Jean Luc Crenier offers an ominous laugh as to what will happen if the Sarkozy government goes along with the E.U. proposals.

Mr. CRENIER: (French spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

BROWNING: We're hopeful, he says, but if that happens we'll have to consider taking up other actions. Actions, he doesn't care to describe.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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