No Boycott On Top French Wines

May 16, 2003
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Depending upon the merchants to whom you speak, the alleged boycott of French wines seems to have spotty support.

A national trade magazine, The Wine Spectator, reports that the French wine business certainly has taken a hit from Americans who are angry at the recent conduct of France at the United Nations Security Council.

But to what effect?

Some hard numbers are now available. According to data provided to the Wine Spectator by Information Resources Inc., a firm that tracks retail purchases in the United States, sales of French table wine were indeed off in late February and March.

French wine sales have declined over the past year, but the recent drop is more marked, and is far larger than a corresponding dip in sales of U.S. table wine.

For the four weeks ending March 23, total sales of French table wine in the United States dropped by 17.2 percent in case volume, and 19.4 percent in dollar value, compared to a year earlier.

For the 52-week period ending March 23, sales were down 13.9 percent in volume and 13 percent in dollar value.

In comparison, sales of U.S. table wine in this country only dropped 1.2 percent by case volume for the same four-week period, and 3.2 percent in dollar value.

American wine sales were actually up 3.4 percent in volume and 3.6 percent in dollar value for the 52 weeks ending March 23.

Despite declines in sales in these two categories, overall sales of table wine from around the world were up 1.8 percent in volume during those four weeks and up 5.6 percent in volume for the 52-week period. That means that the percentage increase in sales of imported wines probably would have been even higher if it had not been for the downward pressure on French wines.

In this neck of the woods, there are few hard numbers.

D&W stores seem to be stocking a lot more Australian wines, indicating that distributors of those vintages are trying to find their way to American palates during the boycott, such as it is.

The same applies to one or two Sam’s Club stores. But those stores still stock Dom Perignon champagne — the snob appeal favorite of James Bond — at about $90 a bottle.

One of the staff at Wayne’s Deli Bakery and Beverage in Muskegon — one of the few places in that town to buy Mumm’s or Cordon Rouge champagne — said sales of French wine don’t seem to have dropped.

“We had some comments about our French bread,” she chuckled, “so we renamed it Freedom Bread, and people liked that. But I haven’t heard any comments about French wines and people have been buying it.”

At Fortino’s in downtown Grand Haven, French wines have not been an issue for years. The store primarily handles California wines because there’s just no demand for French wines.

It’s a different story, though, at Schuler’s Wine Cellars in Grand Rapids. In fact, owner Don Lindner told the Business Journal that the boycott seems to be a story with two chapters.

“If you’re talking about table wine that costs under $30 a bottle,” he said, “then I’d say sales are off, oh, 7 percent to 10 percent.”

But, he added, people who are genuine connoisseurs or who like to invest in wines have driven sales of French Bordeaux wines up by 220 percent.

The reason, he said, is that the year 2000 was one of the best years ever for vintners in the Bordeaux wine-growing region.

Lindner said Bordeaux futures drove prices up at the outset, and the quality of the vintage has turned out to be so superior that people are spending a great deal of money on such wines.

“For those Bordeaux wines,” he said, “there is no boycott.”

He said that prices for investment-grade Bordeaux wines such as Lafitte Rothschild or Chateau Margaux or Chateau Latour start at $450 — that’s $450 a bottle — and top out between $1,800 and $2,000 … again, that’s per bottle.

And the people who want and can afford those wines are paying those prices, regardless of the vagaries of relations between Washington and Paris.

“The funny thing,” he added, “is that the French farmers who grow these grapes and make the wines are no happier about Chirac’s conduct than Americans. They’re real salt-of-the-earth people and they really have been critical of him. Yet they’re the ones whom the boycott would hurt most.”

One thing’s for sure, wines are much easier targets than many other French products. Thanks to multinational investing, French corporations have a controlling interest in a wide range of products marketed in this country.

Chivas Regal may once have been Scottish property, but a French company owns it now. Likewise Glenlivet, Hennessy, and the Jerry Springer show.

U.S. Divers and SeaQuest are French properties.

Car and Driver magazine is published by a French company. So is Road & Track magazine and Woman’s Day magazine. Motel 6 and Motown are French-owned.

The same is true of RCA, Red Roof Inns, Uniroyal, Universal Studios — the music, movies and the amusement parks — plus Zodiac inflatable boats, Krups coffee makers and Wild Turkey bourbon.           

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