Believe it or not, even the French have trouble picking out wine. Like non-French consumers, our Gallic friends are known to scan the wine aisle, glassy-eyed, wondering what is what, what goes well with what, and what is any good at all. Incroyable, non?
The confusion in choosing a French wine based on the label isn't new. To combat the problem, the French had the bright idea to create a Good Housekeeping Seal; in 1935 the Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) system was born. Since then, it has become a sort of overarching megabrand. By giving strict guidelines to the wine industry, for example, the AOC guarantees that when you buy a Bordeaux, the grapes came from the Bordeaux region, they were treated in a certain way, there was a given amount of alcohol in the finished product, and specific grape varieties were used.
The AOC became a sort of promise of a minimum amount of quality. After that, making it really good was up to the wine producer.
Now the system is creaking under its own weight. The French penchant for classification and paperwork (Dewey must have had ancestors here) has created something of a self-diluted mess. Everything from wine and cheese, natural contenders for this sort of thing, to the lowly apple now sport AOCs. Plus, a shrewd winemaker can follow the rules and still make an AOC wine that no one would buy twice. The system ain't broke, but it does need fixing.
What's pulling the mess into question now is the French wine crisis. In short, the wine industry's numbers are heading in all the wrong directions. The world's winemakers' export numbers are quickly catching up to the once-undisputed king, leaving Gallic heads spinning. Consumption on the French home front is down, leaving many viticulturists sitting on growing stocks of wine. Though winemakers can babble on for hours about the problems they face, ask them what they think will fix the problem and you can hear a pin drop.
The message of distress has made it to the top. French agriculture minister Dominique Bussereau has vowed change. "The time for reflection is over," he said at June's VinExpo conference in Bordeaux. "We must act to improve the standing of French wine on markets at home and abroad."
To act, he said he sees the wine industry working in two directions. One stressing quality and tradition, the other, in so many words, chases more of the mass market.
"We must not forget that France can only protect its market position with quality," he said. "Quality" is the French wine mantra and seemingly every wine producer across the country repeats versions of his statement.
Through all the problems, French scientist Philippe Marchenay believes in the AOC system. He and his partner, Laurence Berard, literally wrote the book on one of the system's main tenets: protection of products with terroir, a rather vague French term that combines words like "heritage" and "regionality."
It is easy to hear, when Marchenay reels off a list of his favorite AOC products from around the country, that he recalls the tastes and regions with each item he mentions.
"An AOC gives you a guarantee that what you're tasting is making use of the savoir faire of a particular region," he says, explaining that people are willing to pay a higher price for this guarantee of quality. "If the consumer isn't interested, he buys the least interesting stuff and that's it."
In France and abroad, what the AOC is coming up against, however, is a potential information overload.
Wine is at the heart of the struggle; one of the key components is sheer numbers. With less than 50 AOC cheeses, for instance, there is a reasonable chance that a self-respecting Frenchman can work his way through remembering what's what. With 407 wines, however, it gets a bit out of control, even for those who are do their best to keep consumption numbers high.
Champagne, a shining AOC success, rode the wave to the hilt but does it really do much good to classify lesser-known wines? AOC La Clape, anyone? In France, no one knows what these wines might taste like; abroad, no one has ever heard of them.
In Paris, a representative at the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO), the government body that governs how AOCs are run, is surprisingly frank.
"The AOC is for a certain number of producers but, maybe, there are limits to that," says chief spokeswoman Sylvie Serra. "Eventually, you hit a ceiling. Twenty years ago, this wasn't the case." Now, the system seems to be reaching its saturation point, and a handful of AOCs without a market at home or abroad are in danger of dying out.
"When it's done well, it works," says Serra, who can cite a large number of AOCs that enjoy up to an estimated 30 percent price increase thanks to the three letters on their labels. "There's a diversity of flavor where everyone can find their own favorite taste. Even someone who is not rich can find something pleasant," she says.
Is the diversity, which some feel to be bordering on the extreme, compatible with the international market? "Certainly not," says Serra, "At the very beginning, the AOC system wasn't necessarily made with the international markets in mind. Now, we're asking ourselves how it fits in."
Outside of the country, when French products come up against the rest of the products in the wine aisle, it gets worse. Major "New World" wine producers classify the brunt of their wines the same way: by grape varietal. Consumers enjoy comparing a varietal they enjoy from Australia to one in the US, Chile or South Africa. AOCs, on the other hand, tend to be blends of wine, leaving consumers to wonder why they should bother taking a risk on something relatively unknown like an AOC Cabardes.
"[Smaller AOCs] are going to find that they there's a lot more competition out there," says Elizabeth Barham, an assistant professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri-Columbia and one of the US's leading AOC experts. "Americans don't know where these [small-producing] places are."
Barham sees a positive trend in the United States that could be beneficial, as increasingly consumers are interested in where their food comes from. "Some say consumers can't deal with complicated things, but I don't agree," she says. "I see the American palate becoming more and more complex all the time."
For part of the solution, Barham echoes the French minister's mantra. "Once you reach a certain level of quality, that's what the consumer will reward. I'd hate to see [the French] weaken their system."
Scientist Marchenay seems to agree. "My kids adore McDo," he says, somehow conveying a wince over the telephone line when he utters the colloquial French term for McDonalds, "but they don't go because the food is good."
The Golden Arches signals a certain known experience. If the AOC can win back control of its system, consumers will choose an unknown wine precisely because it has a seal to assure them of a certain quality of experience.
BIOJoe Ray is a Paris-based freelance journalist specializing in food, travel and analysis pieces. He writes for major dailies and magazines around the world. His work can be found on joe-ray.com