Allors! Wine is not a criminal product!

The French are in an uproar of wine labels that, in the words of one vintner, “will ruin the soul of France.” Though consumption is declining, I imagine most fans still see wine as the French national beverage, so the announcement that legislators are adding a large health warning on every bottle of French wine comes as a serious affront to many. 

Of course, to us Americans, this seems old news. I made my first trip to Bordeaux not long after the United States mandated a health warning label on wine in the late 1980s. Following studies that indicated it was problematic for women to consume alcohol during pregnancy, the federal government mandated a warning on the back of wine bottles, a caution that has been reworded a couple of times but that remains on alcoholic beverage containers 30 years later.

At the time, French vintners were circumspect. Over dinner, I asked the late Jean-Eugène Borie, the proprietor of Château Gloria (and the man who inspired my love of Sauternes) what he thought about the warning to pregnant consumers. “Well,” he said with a look of circumspection, “it seems only fair you should also include a notation about how helpful wine can be in getting pregnant in the first place.”

La Plus ça Change

French Minister for Solidarity and Health Agnes Buzyn

French Minister for Solidarity and Health Agnes Buzyn

The French are not laughing now. While in the US we have a label on the back of the bottle, French Minister for Solidarity and Health Agnes Buzyn is proposing a label 2 centimeters (nearly an inch) high on the front of wine bottles. Speaking to Agence France Presse, Pierre-Henri Gaget, internationally respected winemaker and director of Maison Louis Jadot, said, "We don't carry the plague and don't want to be tarred with the same brush as cigarette manufacturers.” He wasn’t alone – 64 of the country’s most respected wine producers joined together in accusing the government of “spreading fear.” The manifesto continued, “We are the guardians of an exceptional heritage: French winemaking. Every day, by exporting our produce (sic), we share with the world, novices and wine buffs alike, a part of the soul of France.”

The French are in a bind: studies show that more than 25 percent of women consume alcohol throughout their pregnancy and there is a steady rise in teen binge drinking. On the other hand, the wine industry thinks putting a huge warning label on the front of bottles of wine selling upwards of $500 each is a huge affront to the country’s image of refined luxury. 

In fairness, this is not the first instance of a warning – current law requires wine bottles to carry a graphic design warning against consumption during pregnancy, but it’s a good deal less alarmist than the new proposal and there is no mandate regarding its size or color. Advocates say they need to add a warning against teen drinking. Opponents say plan this for a large label goes too far and risks turning wine into a “criminal product.” “To stick two warnings on the front label with a red line through them is unbearable,” says Gaget. Will the new steps cut into sales of the country’s greatest wines, like Jadot’s elegant Burgundies? Probably not, but it is possible classically elegant and subdued wine labels are a thing of the past and French vintners are seeing red.