No topic has dominated wine as much as politics in the past few months. Frayed international relations have led to recriminations and reprisals. Although 11 of the 15 UN Security Council members were on the fence or opposed to the Iraq war, France has caught the most popular and elite ire in the US.
Given their highly symbolic nature, much of this sentiment has been targeted at French wines. Those who supported the war have denounced French opposition by boycotting or not drinking French wine. (Others bought French wine to ceremoniously pour down the drain, a type of protest that comedian Lewis Black described as “having a bouquet of…idiot!”) On the other hand, those opposed to the war often went out of their way to buy and drink French wine, as reported in the SF Chronicle. But the net result is that the “nays have it” as French wine sales declined by 20% from mid-February to mid-March, according to Wine Spectator.
This is not likely to affect the 10 largest brands imported to the US since only one of them is French. According to the annual Impact wine market survey, and reported by Frank Prial in the NYT, George Duboeuf, the Beaujolais producer, was the only French firm in 2002, ranking eighth.
The rest of the top ten brands come from countries that were members of the “coalition of the willing” in the war effort. Australia, which contributed 2,000 troops, also contributes three of the best selling wine brands, Rosemount, Lindeman’s, and Yellow Tail, a brand launched last year and rapidly sold 1.4 million cases in the US. Italy, where popular opposition to the war topped 80%, ended up contributing logistical support to the war. To the US wine market, Italian producers dropped five “big ones,” including Riunite, Bolla, and Ecco Domani. With jug and flavored wines like those, it sounds more like a coalition of the swilling…
Chile’s Concha y Toro produced the largest imported brand to the US with 2.1 million cases. Chilean opposition to the war may have escaped popular attention, but it has not escaped the eagle (hawk?) eyes in the Bush administration. They have delayed a free trade agreement with Chile and accelerated one with Singapore, a more supportive country. Hmm, that’s not much help to wine lovers.
But Chile has not been unaffected. In one of the more humorous stories on this war and wine, a Mississippi wine retailer decided to make a political statement and give away his stock of French wine. Finding high demand for this free wine, he threw in some German wine as well. Having that stock also rapidly exhausted, he threw in a few bottles of Chilean wine for good measure. However, instead of using the trash can ceremoniously placed by the shop door, people put the free bottles in the back seats of their cars and drove off. (Clarion-Ledger 2/28/03)
There is a lesson from Mississippi for all those who can separate wine from international relations. While French wine sales are down sharply, total wine demand has remained stable. That means the shift has been only away from French wines. With plenty of French wines on their shelves, retailers are likely to try to move them through sales and discounting rather than giving them away as in Mississippi. Even the future prices for the Bordeaux 2002 vintage have declined, thanks in part to Robert Parker’s cancelled trip to the spring barrel tasting. Thus frayed international relations have caused bargains from “Old Europe” for wine lovers. Let’s hope that we don’t start looking to “New Europe” for our wine imports!