French wine sales drop after war in Iraq

By By Stan Torgerson / wine columnist
July 7, 2004
Since the war with Iraq began French wine sales in this country have reportedly dropped dramatically. Some critics say it is revenge by the American consumer because the French failed
to support the United States military effort.
The French say it is because our government is trying to punish them for their attitude toward the war. I don't believe either one of them is totally correct.
In my opinion sales of French wines are down for the simplest of reasons. They have priced themselves out of the American market.
The winemakers in Bordeaux and Burgundy are absolutely convinced theirs are the greatest wines in the world, worth every dollar they decide to charge, with customers everywhere waiting breathlessly for the next vintage. The truth is there is market but it is a rapidly shrinking market and you and I are not part of it.
I've been studying the state of Mississippi's July wine list. These are the wines available to retailers in our state and whomever the buyer is at the state warehouse he or she must have a reason for devoting this many dollars and this amount of warehouse space to the French. You and I are not that reason.
The alleged greatest wines from Bordeaux were classified as First Growths back in 1855. No, that is not a typographical error. The year 1855 is correct. There were only four on the list and it is unchanged except for the addition of one more about 30 years or so ago. The five are Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour, Haut-Brion and Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Mouton is the Johnny-come-lately. It was originally a second growth.
Four of them are available in Mississippi if you think you can afford them. The Lafite Rothschild 1995 would sell at retail for about $420 per bottle. Chateau Latour 1995 will cost you about $490 for one bottle at your favorite package store. The Haut Brion from the same vintage year is just $350, a bargain if you'll forgive my cynicism. Mouton Rothschild 1996 is about $300. Although it is not a first growth, Chateau Cheval Blanc from the 1998 vintage is the priciest of all at approximately $500 for a single bottle.
There are less expensive wines on the list of course, but even most unclassified wines are at the $80 to $100 level.
As for red Burgundies, the state only offers six of them. Their prices run about $125, $85, $65, $60 and a cheapy at $30.
Over the years I've tasted all of the Bordeaux except the Cheval Blanc. I've also drunk most of the Burgundies except for the priciest, the $125 Domaine Bertagna Clos de Vougeot.
Most of them are outstanding. We recently had a private tasting involving other collectors who own wine cellars at which we drank three Mouton Rothschild wines from the 82, 86 and 89 vintages, about $2,000 worth, give or take, at today's prices. There were others as well but these were the feature wines. They were wonderful, but were they worth $2,000? Much as I enjoyed them I would not go into the open market and buy replacements at that price level.
The simple truth is there are so many well made and delightful wines on the market today in the $10 to $25 price range that the French no longer are the only source of quality bottlings. If you are the average wine drinker with somewhat limited experience you would not enjoy an expensive Bordeaux or Burgundy one bit more than an outstanding cabernet sauvignon from California or a great grenache from Australia or a top level pinot noir from Washington or Oregon. Probably less. You have to develop a palat over the years that can seek out and enjoy the nuances and subtle flavors of a Latour or Lafite or a Domaine Bertagna.
In my opinion, the only reason the state warehouse stocks this level of inventory is for the casinos. The operators buy them as gifts for their high rollers. But what is the actual cost of a $250 or even $400 bottle of wine to keep a gambler at their tables who may lose $10,000, $20,000 or more in a single night?
Granted there is also a small market composed of people who want and can afford the very best. And worldwide the Japanese buy a substantial share of wines from France, regardless of cost.
But the problem of France's declining sales is not the American with an alleged chip on his shoulder over the lack of help for the war in Iraq. Plain and simple, their wines just cost too much.

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