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Sometimes the real nature of protectionism comes through

This startling story from France even made yours truly, who has become a jaundiced observer of French political life, sit up and take notice. Apparently, a bunch of people styling themselves as protectors of the Gallic wine industry have issued an ultimatum to new French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, that unless those evil cheap imports from countries such as Australia (the horreur!), New Zealand (Rainbow Warrior, anyone?), South Africa (enough said), America (the Great Satan) and other places are stopped, then supermarkets, offices and other places will be dynamited.

Suppose that people in such venues get killed. I think that such a terrible outcome might begin to get across to the politically and economically uncommitted the true nature of the thuggery that sometimes accompanies protectionism and any form of coercive interference with voluntary economic exchange. Ultimately, such folk believe that you, the consumer, or worker, or entrepreneur, are beholden to buy, produce or sell not on the basis of freely consenting exchanges with your fellows, but on account of some state of affairs that the protectionists deem right and proper. In this case, the wine industry of France, or at least the mass-produced bit of it, is under threat from the cheaper stuff from other parts of the world. (I think it is safe to assume that the producers of Latour or Lafite are unlikely to be worried). I am actually off to Southwestern France in early June for two weeks’ much-needed holiday and the Languedoc region is one of the places where these thugs hail from, apparently. I tend to notice that whenever I visit France, which is quite often, it is hard to see non-French wine in the shops. So if these thugs are getting upset at the arrival of a relatively small amount of foreign imports, they would go totally batshit if they saw the mixed wine-racks in Sainsbury’s or Tesco’s in a standard English town.

Sarkozy’s time in office is unlikely to be a quiet one.

23 comments to Sometimes the real nature of protectionism comes through

  • Actually, as far as I can tell they are most concerned about the fact that the government is making noises about cutting their subsidy.

    I have to say that residents of France do benefit from the vast overproduction of French wines because we get quite decent stuff for very little cost. I’ve had pleasent discussions with friends about where we think the bottom line is and I think the general concensus is that, unless it is a 2 for 1 special offer, you really ought to pay more than €2 (£1.40) a bottle. At the other end there isn’t much point in paying more than around €5/ bottle because until you get up to €25 plus grands vins the difference in quality isn’t there.

  • Nick M

    Francis, that is pretty much the conclusion I came to over wine through years of experience. Having said that, as a Brit, we’re talking rather more than 2 Euros… And of course, for consistency you can’t whack the Aussies or NZers…

    I love to hate the French agricultural sector. They are just so bolshie. The great irony is that seeing as even little French provincial markets boasts top-class local produce I don’t think they have too much to fear… But still they agitate. Why? Because they are French! That’s what they do!

    BTW The Jap Agriculture minister just hung him/her-self! I hope whatever parrot-faced wazzack currently residing at DEFRA takes note. I once temped for the buggers and it made Fred Carno’s Circus look like a model of efficiency. I was once sacked and then rehired 20mins later… To the same job. Les grand wanquers!

  • Julian Taylor

    I notice that under Blair’s regime the traditional lamp posts in Whitehall and Downing Street were replaced with more modern ones which do not have that right angle bar so handy for stringing two MP’s on each lamp post. I presume he was hedging his bets against himself and his Lady Macbeth being strung up by crazed fox-hunting French wine afficionados suffering from massive nicotine withdrawal.

  • Phil A

    I have to say that, whilst good French wine is pretty good, much of the medium to lower end (that we in the UK can be on the receiving end of) of the market seems of variable quality, so you can’t quite trust it.

    New world wine however is usually of a much more reliable quality, you know what you are getting.

    Also, over here, because of taxation, a significant chunk of the cost of a bottle of wine is tax, so transport costs are a less significant part of the cost of a bottle of wine than they might otherwise be.

    That’s why French wine looses out in the UK.

    The threats? Nothing unusual really, just another one to add to the list that includes british lamb.

  • chuck

    Ah, well,

    The Lanquedoc rwgion was also one of the centers of the French resistance in WWII. You’ve got to take the bad with the good.

  • WalterBoswell

    Francis Said:

    [I] think the general concensus is that, unless it is a 2 for 1 special offer, you really ought to pay more than €2 (£1.40) a bottle. At the other end there isn’t much point in paying more than around €5/ bottle because until you get up to €25 plus grands vins the difference in quality isn’t there.

    Sorry for going a bit OT here, I Just took your advice and bought a bottle of 2 euro 50 wine instead of the usual 6 euro from the local Champion Marche. But riddle me this if you will, what about the Châteauneuf du Pape types in 12 to 18 price range, worth the effort or not?

  • Bruce Hoult

    On a slightly different — or perhaps the same — topic, someone has been repeatedly in the last week or so been posting links on reddit to articles about NZ’s mid 80′s agricultural reforms and our elimination of subsidies.

    The articles are of course totally true, and I would love to see the rest of the world follow what we did 20 years ago (and for our present government to continue the job), but I wonder why people are picking this particular time to point it out.

  • I bought some wine from the corner shop today. It was Australian. I like Australian wine much better than the French kind, but sadly, the wine was not for me.

    Much to my horror, the man serving me (one of a pair of asian brothers) asked to see ID. I can’t comprehende why he would want to see ID, me having a substantial beard at the moment and having bought booze from that shop for the past 4 years or so. I then realised that my wallet, with driver’s lisence, was at home. I had picked up a note and my keys on the way out, nothing else.

  • Who do they think they are, DeBeers?

  • Peg C.

    As an American, I was very happy to boycott French wine after their perfidy over 9/11. As an ex-Californian I usually preferred CA wines anyway. But since discovering Australian wines (especially Marquis-Philips’ Sarah’s Blend), nothing else will do. Hopefully there’s a case coming to me for my birthday in a few days…I’ve dropped enough hints. I definitely recommend Aussie wines!

  • Pink Pig

    I live in the US, on the east coast. I’m just about as close to France as I am to California. During the 70s, I bought French wine almost exclusively, despite the ready availability of California wines. But over the last 30 years, I’ve noticed a fairly drastic drop in the quality of French wines, even the allegedly good ones. Now I buy California and Australia wines in about equal measure. I don’t even look at the French wines any more.

  • MarkE

    My nephew is very nostaligic for the time he lived in Spain, so whenever I visit him at his present home in Paris I try to take a bottle or two of decent Rioja. This satisfies his nostalgia, and gives me the great satisfaction of importing wine to france (it is available in Paris, if you know where to look, and are willing to pay, but where’s the fun in that?).

  • Nick M

    CL,
    I get IDed in the the USA. I’m 33 but apparently look younger. Never happens in Europe. I once bought a bottle of wine in a Krogers in Atlanta and I had to flash my passport. The check-out lady noticed the issuing office was Liverpool and asked me if I knew the Beatles! I probably should’ve spun some yarn about living just up the road from Ringo Starr’s mum or something but I just couldn’t be arsed.

    Bruce,
    That’s a story that should be more widely told. It is absolutely relevant because my understanding is that part of the reason us Brits can enjoy so much top-notch plonk from NZ is that your farmers had to move into high value products such as wine. Kiwi fruit I can take or leave frankly but a crisp NZ white is a true pleasure. But can you imagine the French farmers if they were told that agricultural subsidies were going to be phased out. They’d have Sarkozy’s head on a pike. His head if he was lucky.

    Here’s a true story from Lancashire. It was on the local news. Dairy farming uses a lot of water. It’s a major expense so a lot of dairy farmers have their own source. On this particular farm they realised they could get more for bottling their spring water than selling the milk from the cows. There is something clearly dementedly wrong with the UK agriculture sector when something like this is the case. It’s almost as though Toyota discovered there was more profit in selling lumps of steel than Corollas or Intel decided to wholesale sand and copper… It’s nucking futz!

  • Bruce Hoult

    Nick, yes that’s exactly right. Lots of what used to be pastoral farming has turned into vinyards and kiwifruit orchards and avocados and cherries and flowers and all sorts of other things. Much of the latter couple of things mentioned are in Tokyo retail shops fetching huge prices within 18 hours of being picked. To do that they have to be absolutely top quality.

    Much to everyone’s surprise, it has turned out that dairy farming, done intelligently, is extremely profitable. I’d have been a lot better off financially if I’d taken over my parents’ dairy farm than I am as a computer programmer. Whole provinces that had been producing sheep or beef or even wheat now have irrigation systems and small paddocks and milking sheds dotted all over them. Not only that, but hundreds of young NZ dairy farmers have not been able to find farms in NZ and have gone to Australia — mostly around Melbourne and Adelaide — and turned sheep and beef farms there into very profitable dairy farms.

    On the other hand, NZ seems to be a good place to do software development as well. There are so many software and internet startups here in Wellington that some people are calling the place Silicon Welly. If you look at Paul Graham’s essay on what it would take to create a sucessful Silicon Valley elsewhere Wellington hit’s nearly every point. The biggest obstacle has been the lack of venture capital, but with the big deals for TradeMe (who beat eBay out of NZ) and a couple of others there are people around who are seeding a whole raft of next generation businesses.

  • a.sommer

    While I am happy to drink Californian and Aussie wines, a friend served an Argentine red at a dinner over the weekend that was quite good…

    French wine… well, the good stuff is generally good, but IMExperience, in the midrange you’re better off picking a californian. Re the low end, if it’s cheap and it’s french, stay away.

  • In terms of bang-for-the-buck and consistency, Spanish wines take quite some beating. Nothing beats a nice Rioja or Navarre in my opinion.

  • Brad

    a friend served an Argentine red at a dinner over the weekend that was quite good

    Most South American wines I’ve had are great (mostly from Peru, but have had others as well).

    I’ve had some great Australians as well.

    And I agree that between $7 and $40 it’s all hit and miss, so you might as well go with the cheaper stuff you like versus assuming the mid range stuff must be better.

    And as for protectionism, it merely hurts the lowest class most. Protectionism (of course) stunts trade, and it is global trade that has brought lowcost goods to the “masses”. Perhaps not true for wine if France if it subsidized (then of course paid via tax) but crushing trade is never good over all for those who have the least. Protectionism is for the elite to remain so.

  • RAB

    I agree. We had a very decent Rioja at dinner last night.
    Tuscan wines are good too.
    We stayed on an Agricola, which is a working vinyard with apartments and a pool, within spitting distance of San Gimignano, about 4 years ago.
    We used to buy a couple of bottles a day off the owners, and even back then their cheapest white , wholesale, was 4 euros a bottle.
    Cracking stuff red and white.

  • Sunfish

    I’m not really a wine guy. I’m a beer geek and brew my own, but not much for wine.

    But the last time I was in Australia, there were some Aussie reds that changed my mind, they were that good. It’s almost like what Melissa Etheridge said about one how guy was so cool he almost turned her straight.

    It was so good, I forgave Australia for allowing Foster’s to be made and exported. It was so good, I got over not being able to get baseball on the TV. It was so good, I almost sent the New South Wales police my CV.

    I wish I could remember what it was, but it got a little drunk out that night.

  • I’m amazed no one’s mentioned this yet. The ridiculous subsidies to French wine are exactly why Australia, New Zealand, California, and various other places can produce wine that is better. When your income is guaranteed by the state, your quality doesn’t have to count for much. OTOH, where vineyard keeping is much more market-oriented, the best wine rises to the top. France can only save its wine industry by letting it compete on its own merits.

    - Josh, more of a beer guy, personally

  • nemo paradise

    Well, you have to take your wine very seriously indeed if you are willing to blow people up over it. But in a world where Palestinian parents photograph their toddlers dressed in suicide-bomber belts, maybe it’s not so outrageous after all.

    America has its share of insane subsidies, sugar being perhaps the most obvious. This is also fitting, given our national affection for nutritionless calories. But we don’t threaten to blow up a Safeway that sells Orangina because it threatens Coke.

    Maybe the French should consider just how few indiginities are actually foisted upon them. Perhaps the U.S. should announce that, as a gesture of humanitarian concern, it will donate 100 tons of Velveeta and 3000 cartons of Saltines to the unemployed North African inhabitants of various notorious French urban ghettos. And, of course, some Coke.

  • If you’re anywhere near the East Coast of the USA, might I suggest Chateau Morrisette wines? Our Dog Blue, Black Dog, and Blushing Dog are all fantatically good table wines that cost about $10 and can be brought at Kroger.

    I went on a tour and winetasting there and they explained that American wines tended to be very consistent year-to-year compared with European wines. I only found California wines while I was in London but Virginia has a very nice growing climate as well, especially for Riesling grapes.

    Also, try Charles Shaw Chardonnay (a California wine) if there’s a Trader Joe’s near you. It’s cheap and it’s really good.

  • Well, you have to take your wine very seriously indeed if you are willing to blow people up over it.

    Not to play the devil’s advocate, but it is their livelihood they are taking seriously, not their wine.