Can The King Of Beaujolais Bring Back The Buzz?

The sour smell of new wine hangs over Romanche-Thorins, a drab village in central France, where Georges Duboeuf is holed up in a laboratory working marathon days. Known in France as "the king of Beaujolais," Duboeuf is tasting thousands of wines from small growers--some 300 per day. He blends those he likes, bottling them under his own name. "I'm like a cook doing his shopping," he says. On Nov. 19, Duboeuf will hop on the Concorde for New York. Then, the annual hoopla will begin over Beaujolais nouveau, the light, tangy red wine that's the first blush of the grape harvest.

Riding in a 1934 Packard convertible with a case of nouveau in the rumble seat, Duboeuf will hand the wine to waiters on the steps of Manhattan's Grand Hyatt Hotel--while, with any luck, TV cameras whir. Then, he'll head for the World Trade Center to dispatch 15 cases up the window-washing lift to the 107th-floor restaurant. Duboeuf will sponsor similar stunts in the U.S., such as a race in Raleigh, N.C., for Beaujolais-toting waiters on roller skates.

Heavy kitsch--but it works. Earnest, soft-spoken Duboeuf, 59, who began his career delivering wine to restaurants by bicycle, has used such ploys to make the Georges Duboeuf label the top French wine brand in the U.S. His deft marketing has also boosted recognition and sales for all Beaujolais growers, who till vineyards south of Burgundy. Although it's only 15% of Duboeuf's sales of $90 million or so, nouveau remains the headline-grabber. Nouveau has made news since the 1960s, when British enthusiasts raced to be first across the Channel with a case.

STICKER SHOCK. But everywhere except the U.S., Beaujolais is in trouble. That includes its non-nouveau, later-bottled varieties--two-thirds of the region's production. The reason: Rising demand went to growers' heads. And they boosted prices dramatically (chart). Then, recession and sticker shock dried up sales. Total world exports fell from 692,000 hectoliters in 1988 to 535,000 last year. Beaujolais drinking in Japan, once a booming new market, plunged 50% in 1991.

To move heavy stocks, sellers have been cutting prices. Recently, two shippers dumped 350,000 bottles through a Dutch supermarket chain at $5 a bottle retail--slashed from $8. Duboeuf, who bottles 15% of all Beaujolais, teamed up with other bottlers this year and, after a bitter fight, got growers to agree to production limits. But prices will fall further, says Duboeuf, especially since the 1992 vintage won't match last year's quality.

In this environment, Duboeuf is thankful for America's new thirst. Ever since 60 Minutes extolled red wine's health virtues on cbs a year ago, sales of low-priced reds have soared. Beaujolais exports to the U.S. are expected to rise 20% this year. Strong demand and a weak dollar mean U.S. prices of Beaujolais nouveau won't drop. Instead, they'll stay around $8 for an air-delivered bottle, $6 when ships arrive next month. Yet exporters fear Washington may kill U.S. Beaujolais sales by slapping a threatened 100% tax on French wines if General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade talks fail.

`NOT REAL WINE.' Credit for much of Beaujolais' U.S. success goes to Duboeuf. "He has created an incredible name," says Michael Aaron, head of New York wine store Sherry-Lehman Inc., which sold 15,000 cases of 1991 Duboeuf wine and expects to top that for the 1992 vintage. Yet for all his flashy U.S. marketing, Duboeuf is low-key at home. He refuses to sell in stores--except his own small Paris shop--fearing that supermarket displays would cheapen his image. His customers are restaurants, plus 35,000 consumers who order by catalog. Duboeuf does do a big private-label business with such European chains as Marks & Spencer and Carrefour.

Some purists hate Duboeuf's promotions of Beaujolais nouveau. This young, simple beverage "is not real wine," sniffs Georges Le Pre, sommelier at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. "It makes people forget that Beaujolais includes remarkable crus," such as Brouilly, Chiroubles, and Moulin-a-Vent--aged wines that can resemble classy Burgundies.

Hey, le roi du Beaujolais sells those, too. Duboeuf's favorite among his 1991 wines is Fleurie. This year, it may be Chiroubles. As for 1992 Beaujolais nouveau, Duboeuf warns that it won't keep long--maybe three months, compared with a year for some past vintages. In short, do your bit for the struggling vintners of Beaujolais: Drink it fast.

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