This week, Olivier Cousin went before a judge. The heinous crime of the pony-tailed vigneron? Truth in labeling.
Here’s the story (which we’ve mentioned before but it’s worth a recap): Cousin farms 12 acres organically–neigh, biodynamically for Cousin who tills his vineyards with horse-drawn plows. In those vineyards in the town of Anjou, he has a lot of cabernet franc, known locally as Breton. So he labeled his 100% cabernet franc wine grown in Anjou as “Anjou Pur Breton.” So far so good, right?
The only catch is that the appellation retains the right to the term Anjou on wine labels and wines bearing the term must meet their criteria, including a blind tasting by committee. And Cousin quit the AOC in 2005 telling journo-blogger Jim Budd, “I stopped because the AOC is for industrial wines as the rules permit everything: weedkillers, huge yields, additives etc.” So the appellation authorities have dropped the legal hammer (gavel?) on Cousin and brought him to court. Read more…
Domaine de l’Ecu, a conscientious estate in Muscadet that makes some of the region’s best wines, has had one of their wines rejected by an approval committee.
To have the right to bear the appellation, a French wine must meet all the rules, which pertain to things like which vines can be planted in a delimited zone, maximum yields and so on. The final aspect of approval is a blind tasting by a committee, allegedly to assure “typicité” or that the wine tastes typical of the region. Usually this is a rubber stamp. But tasting committees, particularly in the Loire Valley where Muscadet lies on the western edge, have been showing a tendency to reject some wines. Paradoxically, those are often singular wines that strive for excellence. In so doing, the AOC system becomes more of an obstruction to quality than an institution to undergird it as it reinforces middling or bland wines.
The estate was founded by Guy Bossard. But it was Frédéric Niger Van Herck, a partner and the winemaker at Domaine de l’Ecu, posted the news that their “Expression de Granite” 2012, one of three bottlings that express the different soil types, has been denied the approval of the tasting committee. Here what he said on FB:
News of the day: Granite 2012 has just been rejected by the AOC tasting committee–and unanimously, no less… Promised for next year, full-on chemistry, mechanical harvesting, commercial yeasts, full use of enzymes, and sulphur galore… It should pass that way.
The worst thing is that everything is sold out and have nothing left… When will these official tastings end that turn the beautiful into standardized products? [my translation]
Long live the French wine!
He elaborated that the panel of five tasters judged his wine to be oxidized, adding “what a bunch of…”
Clearly the AOC has a problem: by rejecting wines from quality producers, they risk becoming a laughingstock by enshrining mediocrity. Read more…
Should a grape grower who practices organic viticulture be forced to spray pesticide? In the face of a bacterial malady hitting vineyards in France, the Ministry of Agriculture has decided the answer is yes.
And the New York Times editorial page is on it. Well, on it four days ago when I was under a snow bank.
INRA, the French state research institute for agriculture, has a very good page (en anglais) on the “highly contagious” and “incurable” bacterial disease called flavescence dorée (aka FD or yellowing disease). Transmitted by the leafhopper (Scaphoideus titanus), it has been affecting vines in France (and elsewhere) since the 1950s. The leaves yellow, the grapes shrivel, and the crop for that plant is lost. Forever. It can be difficult to detect, hence the directive that requires the spraying of Pyrevert, a pyrethrin pesticide.
Emmanuel Giboulot, an organic grower in Burgundy’s Cote d’Or, is facing a 30,000 euro fine and six months in jail if he doesn’t spray his vines that so far haven’t shown any signs of FD. A Facebook support page for Giboulot popped up appeared and now has almost 35,000 likes.
The Times argues that “The law requiring such use in Burgundy is not only bad policy, it is terrible publicity for French wine.” While the policy question is a tough one, there’s no denying that it is horrible PR for French wine. Certainly other countries have FD and may mandate spraying as well but they have not been put under the spotlight. Probably because their authorities haven’t threatened to lock up the dissenters.
It’s not every day you hear urging Americans to drink wine. But that’s what John Kerry did today during a brief stopover in Moldova.
The Secretary of State wasn’t modeling his actions on Thomas Jefferson. Instead, by visiting a winery and raising a glass of Moldovan red, he was trying to help the agrarian economy of the Europe’s poorest country, one glass at a time.
Wine plays a central part in foreign trade for the landlocked country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania where the GDP per capita of just over $2,000. But the lion’s share of those exports have gone to Russia, which has blacklisted Moldovan wine in a trade dispute. So Kerry’s trying to create a new market for Moldovan wine and announced a trade mission that will bring Moldovan wine makers to the US to learn about the American wine market. Look out for a merry band of Moldovans at your local wine shop–it may be as riotous as the Borat wine tasting.
Charles Schumer of New York wants the US Postal Service to be able to ship wine and beer. The number three democrat in the Senate made comments this week to roll back a ban on wine and beer shipping that dates to 1909. He calls it a “win win win,” since it would benefit producers (in NY and elsewhere), consumers and the USPS. Schumer argued that the USPS could gain $225 million in revenues from such shipping, largely because it could offer flat rate shipping at lower rates than FedEx and UPS.
Shipping wine by mail is long overdue. In fact, I suggested this for the USPS last year, but since Schumer’s words carry more weight in Washington, I’m glad he’s reached the same conclusion.
However, it doesn’t go far enough. According to The Leader, a paper in Corning, Schumer’s proposal would only permit shipping from wineries (or breweries) to consumers. It makes sense to only give businesses the right to ship since they could put in place the proper age verification mechanisms for recipients. But only allowing wineries makes the mistake of excluding retailers. While we will take what we can get, if Schumer really wants to make this a “win” for consumers and the USPS, his proposals should include the right for wine shops to ship via the mail too. Not only do wine shops offer imported wines, which account for a third of wine sales in the US (and more in NYC, I’d venture to say), but shops often have better pricing than wineries. This, of course, is why Schumer would not want to include retailers. Consumers would obviously rejoice but so would the USPS since their anticipated revenue from wine could swell to $350 million to reflect the share of imported wine in the marketplace.
A final point: if the USPS shipped wine, it would greatly highlight the 39 recalcitrant state governments that still prohibit retailers from out of state to ship. While Schumer is challenging outdated drinks shipping laws, why not put an end to that one too.
The growers in the Sancerre AOC are more pissed off than pipi du chat. According to Jim Budd, their hackles have been raised because the national appellation bureau is closing their Sancerre outpost and centralizing regional functions in Tours, about 120 miles away from Sancerre. Jim says the growers find the situation so frustrating that they have talked to intellectual property experts about withdrawing from the AOC framework and using Sancerre as a trademark.
For all (both?) of the wine law buffs among us, this would present a sticky situation. INAO, the regulatory authority, is zealous in defending their geographic indications against FOREIGN transgressions and imitators. But what if a bunch of growers effectively withdrew from the AOC system and wanted to take the name with them. Sancerre has huge name recognition so the stakes are high–it will be fascinating to watch how this plays out. Perhaps it is bargaining to get their local office back but the growers’ frustration may lie deeper than that.
It’s the latest evidence that the AOC system is broken.
The federal government has shut down “nonessential” services as of today. Surprisingly, that means that the federal agency that regulates the wine industry is also largely shut down. This is surprising because the agency collected $26 billion in revenues for the government–you’d think they would want to keep that flowing.
I spoke with a staffer at the TTB a few weeks ago while I was writing a story about wine label art. In the course of our conversation, he told me that the agency has experienced a surge in requests for label approvals. When they were formed ten years ago, they received 89,000 requests for label approvals whereas today they get 152,000 label requests. A 40% growth in wineries and a 60% rise in brewers have driven the surge. (Meanwhile, because of budget cuts, their headcount has been reduced from 520 to 471 over the same period.) I also spoke with some vintners who complained that the label approval process had slowed this year in the wake of the sequester. And now with the shutdown it will have ground to a halt.
Whenever TTB officials return to work they will have a ton of wine labels awaiting their review. The whole situation is enough to drive one to drink…
Before the shutdown occurred, the TTB did take a preliminary step to approving 11 new AVAs within the existing Paso Robles AVA.
Stephen Erlanger, the Paris bureau chief of the NY Times, holds forth on the notion of terroir in the opinion page.
The concept is fascinating for its power to readjust markets along quality lines for products that might be prone to commoditization (hmm, I recall reading a brilliant book about this somewhere. . .). It’s clearly political since lines have to be drawn somewhere and those outside the zone might even stage bloody protests, as happened in Champagne 100 years ago, for example. The idea could be interpreted as conservative since it contributes to propping up a rural, yeoman sort of life.
But Erlanger overreaches when he writes that “The notion of terroir is essentially political, at heart a conservative, even right-wing idea.” There’s nothing right-wing about it: I haven’t heard Marine Le Pen on the stump arguing for the AOC by saying, “Long live Volnay! Down with vin de table!”
Although terroir is a powerful concept, it has limitations administratively as the AOC system has shown. Also, it’s not the only way to signal quality or even protect quality, as a company brand (estate name) can often serve as a better indicator of quality than simply reading the place name. Also, if you’re looking for a product that’s made in a certain way–Biodynamically grown, fair-trade certified–there are tons of organizations that offer third-party certifications that have little or nothing to do with terroir.
Erlanger concludes his piece with a doozy: “The preservation of terroir is finally a kind of unwritten conspiracy between the farmers and the wealthy, as well as the bourgeois bohemians of the big cities, who will pay more for quality, for freshness, for artisanal craft and for that undefinable authenticity that is the essence of terroir.”
Ah, bourgeois bohemians–I thought David Brooks had his own space on the op-ed page? But, really, a “conspiracy”? Sorry, but I didn’t know that tin-foil hats came in AOC styles.