The French Just Don't Get It

The French Warning: Irony alert! Items in red italics are used ironically. Please don't send any more hate mail. I love the French, French wine and French food. Period. Much of the press for the French wine industry has been pretty negative lately. They lost the reenactment of the famous 1976 France vs. USA tasting. They can't sell all the wine they produce. Australia is killing them on marketing. Etc. etc. Let's face it: those cheese eating surrender monkeys just don't get it. Thank God. Not that I know exactly what “it” is but I think it's along the lines of being able to savvily market cheap plonk. I'm very happy that these difficult people in the land of au contraire think differently. We in the land of short memories forget just how indebted the New World is to the French wine industry. DumasJust as the English Language is mainly derived from French, new world wine making is perhaps more so. When the great 19th Century French author and bon vivant Alexander Dumas (erroneously known as “dumb ass” to those who saw the Shawshank Redeption) was learning English, he picked up an English book, noticed all the similarities and remarked “English is all French”. Actually 60% of the English Vocabulary comes from French. The situation is perhaps more so in wine. Let's face it: 50 years ago France (and to a much smaller extent, Germany) was where the world looked for anything beyond vin de table or fortified wines. To better their own industries, new world winemakers adopted the grape varieties and techniques of really just one country: France. Almost all fine winemakers want French oak barriques. The world's best known grape varieties – Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah – are all French. So even if they are too arrogant to market themselves properly, the French are still on the forefront of fine wine making in many ways: Dirt Not soil but dirt. The French are at one with dirt. Only one in 10 of them regularly uses soap. Hygienic Americans like myself are terrified of germs and shudder at such satistics but I still like stinky cheese and more than a dollop of earthiness in my wine. To make squeaky clean wines is to forgo a big stinky chunk of any winemaker's bag of tricks. Untech There is a great deal of technology out there to help make better wine easier but (mostly) the French just don't buy it. No, monsieur! And not just the organic or biodynamic growers but among a broader group of winemakers that believe that less intervention is better; as in no packaged yeasts, no filtering and very little new oak, etc. to produce a more natural wine. This is a trend that many high quality New World winemakers have already embraced which seems only natural when you consider wine as a food instead of a lethal weapon. Eiffel WineMultiplicity People often pooh-pooh the French for not drinking the wines of other countries. To say that there are over twice as many Appellations in France as in California is to grossly underestimate the vast variety of French wines and winestyles. There are over 153,000 growers in France and over 110,000 of these make there own wine. Add to that the regional traditions in which they operate as opposed to global market forces and you have the enormous great wine selection that is France. Sorry California but If I could drink wine from only one country for the rest of my life, France would be number one on my list (with Italy second). Bargains Why a good grower produced Languedoc or South West France wine costs less than a mediocre industrial Californian or Australian baffles me. Maybe it's because they spend less money on marketing. Stupid frogs! Acid Food friendly wines - which usually means higher acidity and lower alcohol – are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to wine scores, where the big fellas out flavor everyone and bring home the medals. The French are pretty much immune to wine scores (unless you're a Bordeaux Négociant!) and would rather find a great match to the food they're serving. A wine paradox exists in the US: everyone seems to fall for high scoring wines while simultaneously concerned about food pairings. In fact, most of the questions average wine drinkers have about wine concerns food pairing more than anything else. Hopefully, perhaps naively food friendly wines will trump high scoring wines Soil Since there is no easy English translation for the French word terroir that means the “placeness” or environmental factors such as soil type, drainage, amount of sunlight, etc. many people find this term annoying. Actually “microclimate + soil” comes pretty close. Anyway you say it, a regional emphasis on wines is now sweeping the globe. No one wants to be commodified as Chiliean Merlot or Australian Shiraz anymore as in I'll have a glass of the McClaren Vale and a Maiopo Valley for the little lady thank you very much. Like it or not the future of wine marketing is by regions not unlike the way the French do it. Subtlety When a delicate wine falls in the forest of thermonuclear fruit bombs does anyone hear it? No. Sorry but no. Delicate wines literally aren't going to win anyone points, but hopefully the tide will change. The only sommeliers that seem to suggest delicate wines over big wines seem to all be French. Quite possibly it's a sophisticated insult that I'm a girly man but I choose to think otherwise. Joel Robuchon ParisOf course there are plenty of tres horrible French wine out there -- like Rene Junot (which would easily take the chrome off just about anyone's fender) – but overall it seems that they're are headed in the right direction with the rest of the world begrudgingly following. Vive la France! Vive la Difference!

31 Comments

Nick Kitto
Nick Kitto

June 16, 2014

It’s too bad you taint your knowledgable report on French wine with, the only word that really works and was probably of French origin, (stupid) “stupid” comments about the American stereotypical view of French. It’s almost enough for me to not read anything else you write. Stick to your excellent wine reporting and leave the unnecessary attempts at bad humour alone. Of course the New World is following the French way of dealing with wine. The French know how to do it correctly! Once neophytes learn that there is more than “Shiraz” or “Zinfandel” (good grief) they will be very happy to learn that French wines, genrally speaking, are carefully crafted with more than one variety of grape. I lived in the Rhone region for a year and studied their wines. They are wonderful, and when I make presentations about them, the ignorant become informed and lose their fear of buying French. “Cheese-eating surrender monkeys” – puhlease!!!

Ramona Ray
Ramona Ray

June 16, 2014

Thanks for the article. That was entertaining as well as educational! Nice work.

frank stone
frank stone

June 16, 2014

saw an ad on e-bay recently that caught my eye:
For sale
french army rifle, brand new, nevr fired before, really good condition,
only dropped twice!!!
must have been WW1 and WW2

Steve De Long
Steve De Long

June 16, 2014

Thanks for all the comments and especially to Erwin for the irony definition. Unfortunately irony can be a dangerous thing in the hands of a less-skilled writer like myself. Therefore, I would like to clarify a few things:

1. I love the French and French food and French wine. My family was in Paris last week and had a great time. Ask my 3 year old where he wants to live and he’ll tell you “Paris”.

2. I’m sad that France is actually changing too quickly. Many of the younger generation don’t drink wine. We had lunch at Atelier Joel Robuchon and the 20-something French couple next to us ordered Cokes to wash down the amazing food. France is also the only Western country where McDonald’s is growing. I salute the traditionalists that don’t bend to fad or fashion.

3. The French wine industry has been bashed all summer in the press high and low to my dismay. This article was intended to be a love letter to them.

4." Stupid frogs" and “cheese eating surrender monkeys” are used ironically here and are not insults.

James Parsons
James Parsons

June 16, 2014

Wow…and you say the French are too arrogant, HA! Only an American can think they can change the whole French wine industry by slinging a few insults. You have lost all my respect!

Erwin Dink
Erwin Dink

June 16, 2014

irony 1 |ˈīrənē; ˈiərnē|
noun ( pl. -nies)
the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect : “Don’t go overboard with the gratitude,” he rejoined with heavy irony. See note at wit.

Kelly McGrew
Kelly McGrew

June 16, 2014

I’m split here, I agree with some of Steve De Long’s comments—and with a name like “De Long” he’s welcome to bash Frenchiness by me and I agree with some of hte sentiments expressed by Mr. Kitto (any relation, I wonder, to the famous H.D.F. Kitto?).

The French were the high priests of the wine world for too long—they began to believe in their own mystique. Then technology, marketing, and globalization happened over a 30 year period and—presto—they find they need to work to keep up their sales. Indeed, the French have pulled out thousands of hectares of vineyards in the last few years. This year alone the EU will pay to turn about 300 million liters of wine, Frnech and Italian, into ethanol. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/5105176.stm).

Some of my favorite reds are French, and I regularly drink Vouvray. It is difficult, but not impossible, to top a great French wine. Some of the great wineries of the USA buy only French oak barrels (ala Leonetti).

As for the military and diplomatic efforts of the French—there’s a horse of a different color. I’m not even sure the French know when they won their last war…but it wasn’t in the last couple of centuries.

As for cleanliness, I read somewhere once that only Americans and Japanese take a daily bath; the rest of the world baths—or showers—occasionally. I know this is true for some Asian cultures from my personal experience in their countries.

AEvans
AEvans

June 16, 2014

You have lost all of my respect…I’ll be taking my email address off your mailing list…American wines are just like Americans…Big, Brash, Obnoxious, one dimensional and lacking any elegance or finesse!

Sandy MacDonald
Sandy MacDonald

June 16, 2014

Dear Steve,
Re: terroir, delicate wines, and food-friendly wines.

The French seem to be stuck with terroirs that don’t allow them to make the richer, fuller wines that California can make. Are delicate wines the gold standard for which French wine makers strived before they found out what their terroir would allow or are delicate wines merely the most that wine makers could get out of the ripeness of the grapes they could achieve. An interesting question is “What would French wine be like if France had been situated in California over the centuries and French wine makers had had access to those grapes?” I like wines to drink alone or with bread and cheese (Big Californians) and I do find that some “delicate” wines go well with food, but it seems to me that French terroir and French styles of wine have no inherent superiority over any others. It’s a matter of personal taste coupled with what’s in the bottle and what’s on the price tag.
Oster
Oster

June 16, 2014

De Long:
Not being a “vin-maniac”, but rather the son of a librarian, I loved the commentary, both for it’s context and content. I give it an A [+ missed only for spelling errors], but the IRONY was obvious right from the start!
Bon jour!

Hank Hanau
Hank Hanau

June 16, 2014

Just back from Italy. They still know how to enjoy wine at lunch, in the evening at dinner.
Bravo.

Nick Kitto
Nick Kitto

June 16, 2014

This was fun. Good writing is supposed to provoke debate. Unfortunately the debate wasn’t so much about wine as about poor use of “irony”. I will continue to enjoy your articles, Steve, and I respect you for acknowledging that you were out of line with some of your comments. For Kelly, I discovered that HDF Kitto was from Cornwall, England, where I believe all Kitto’s originated, so he probably was related in some way. French wine, to me, will continue to be the hallmark to which all wines should be compared. I am currently living in China – you should try the Great Wall Cabernet Sauvignon. Actually, no you shouldn’t.

Eric S. Crane
Eric S. Crane

June 16, 2014

The French make wine?

Charles Berube
Charles Berube

June 16, 2014

Steve,

I am not French either, so not insulted by your “irony”. But since you seem to agree with Erwin (the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite), can you tell me what is the opposite of stupid frogs in your context?

And if we stick to the wine, Sandy MacDonald comments “The French seem to be stuck with terroirs that don’t allow them to make the richer, fuller wines that California can make”. Well my anwser to that is you obviously didn’t drink enough french wine lately. That was probably true 10 years ago but let me tell you some french wines are now made with the new world taste. I won’t give my opinion if it is good or bad but ever heard of Michel Rolland? The Frenchman who (some say, including Robert Parker) influences the making of the best wines (Fuller and Richer) in the new world.

Charles B.

B Leroy
B Leroy

June 16, 2014

I’m not French, and like many others, I find the comments offensive. It’s very easy to explain it all away using ‘irony’ as an excuse. For me, irony involves some form of subtlety or intelligent humour. The words used in the article were ill-chosen and in poor taste. It’s very easy to resort to ‘surrender monkey’ for instance, whilst forgetting that thousands upon thousands of French people lost their lives in the world wars. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you of the thousands of American lives lost in a recent terrorist atrocity; if an ironic ‘joke’ was made about this a mere 60 years from now, I’m sure the reaction wouldn’t be quite so warm. Keep up the excellent standards of your wine writing, but please, be more subtle next time, and no doubt you will provoke less of a response.

C Havers
C Havers

June 16, 2014

An interseting debate, and one which will no doubt go on for a while. A couple of points to contribute; there’s no doubting the quality of the wine writing, and indeed, that is what we should be discussing. However, some of the opinions I feel need a little toning down. Some people are clearly unsettled by the above-mentioned irony and perhaps they have ‘thrown the rattle out of the pram’ to use a common phrase. But after living in France for a considerable time, I think some of the opinions are valid. Some French friends of mine were not too pleased when I showed them the article (I’m afraid that the surrender monkeys line has been around in Europe longer than Mr Frank thinks it has), and you can forgive them for being a little upset. I can also understand how some people may have taken the comments in the light in which they were meant. John (also Ohio) has a fair point. I’ve fallen in to the trap of not talking about the wine now, suffice to say, I have and always will enjoy French wine, even after years of enjoying it, I still come across new grapes/blends and winemaking styles that still amaze me.

Fred Frank
Fred Frank

June 16, 2014

My God, what is the matter with some of you?

First, congratulations to Steve on a thoughtful, funny piece. I’m stunned that some of you failed to appreciate that this was an unabashed paean to the French. The surrender monkey line, for those of you removed enough from the realm of common discourse not to have recognized, was an insane rant from the far right in response to the France’s (rational and wise) refusal to join the “Coalition of the Willing” in our foolhardy conquest of Iraq.

That any of you could fail to see that comments like these were meant to be sarcastic (for those of you quibbling with the definition of “irony” and it’s application above), makes me concerned that you have a driver’s license.

John (also Ohio)
John (also Ohio)

June 16, 2014

WOW!!! I second the first John. I enjoyed the article and am constantly amazed at how literally people take things. Who does not know that the French lost over 1.5 million people in WWI and “Lafayette, We Are Here” was said for good reason? This was a paean to France. Many say Irony died with 9-11, I guess it is true for some. I like your article and the French!

John
John

June 16, 2014

Keep up the good work Steve!
From the get-go I enjoyed your article. A couple of days later and I decide to look at it again and see all these comments. Amazing what all the fuss is about. I, along with a few others, am in synch with your wit, humor, opinion and tastes. Seems to me like some others are wound just a little too tight.
I always enjoy your writing and would like to see more of it, and even more frequently.
You’ve got my support!
John-Ohio

Michael R. Sell
Michael R. Sell

June 16, 2014

I’m very distressed about whatever has happened to Rene Junot red table wine. After drinking it for decades it has suddenly changed. It is now watery, flat, lifeless.Does anybody know what’s going on with this simple wine? Michael Sell

Steve De Long
Steve De Long

June 16, 2014

Gee Golly, do you mean big wine = tiny weenie?

GollyG
GollyG

June 16, 2014

Let’s hear it for ‘giry men’ and their delicate balanced wines. The need to only drink big, bold strong wines is surely a sign of overcompensating. Perhaps you could start a new row with that angle.

Eric Lecours
Eric Lecours

June 16, 2014

Your blog may be on the verge of becoming controversial! Maybe you need an editor. Where do I apply?

Steve De Long
Steve De Long

June 16, 2014

Thank you to everyone for the words of support and other useful comments. I’ve been travelling and away from a web connection for last couple of days so I was happy to see the hate mail end.

As an American living in the UK, I have to say that I’m often offended by Brits who put down Americans for being politically correct. I tend to prefer being politically correct than boorish and bigoted, so I apologize to everyone that I’ve offended. From my point of view, the terms “surrender monkeys” and “frogs” are so over-the-top moronic as to be meaningless but can give the wrong impression that I eat “freedom fries.”

Steve De Long
Steve De Long

June 16, 2014

Hi Marshall,

Thank you for the in-depth linguistic analysis. Calling all Latinate words French is definitely from a Franco-centric perspective.

In the context of wine, “terroir” has expanded in meaning beyond its etymological roots, which is why so many people find it annoying.

Marshall Lentini
Marshall Lentini

June 16, 2014

“Since there is no easy English translation for the French word terroir”

How shocking in a language which is “60% French”, cannot but refer to itself by a francish word (“language”), and has at least two nearly exact etymological equivalents of the French word “terroir” ( terrain and territory), one of which answers quite exactly to its (allegedly nebulous and elusive) semantic dimension.

Marshall Lentini
Marshall Lentini

June 16, 2014

“Just as the English Language is mainly derived from French, new world wine making is perhaps more so. When the great 19th Century French author and bon vivant Alexander Dumas (erroneously known as “dumb ass” to those who saw the Shawshank Redeption) was learning English, he picked up an English book, noticed all the similarities and remarked “English is all French”.”

Nonsense, but common nonsense. Just review the origins of the words in this paragraph to debunk yourself: of 62 words, 44 are of Germanic/West-Frisian derivation (which is the groundwork of the English tongue), including the word “French” itself as France was the demonym of a Germanic tribe, the rest Norman and Latin, 1 is misspelled and 1 Indian. Of course this ratio is modified by the kind of text or speech in question; academic texts are generally high on latinate and technical Greek words (technical > Gk. techne, see how that works?), whereas “common” speech and writing is high in Saxon content. It is a sign of linguistic degradation, and more deeply of increasing distance from ethnic & cultural roots, that old English words of at least half the length of many modern Grecian substitutes, alleged to be more accurate, continue to die out with the old mellifluous style in speech and writing of the Old World. In sum: English is not “French”, it isn’t “Latin” — it’s a Germanic form of speech interlarded with latinate descriptives got from the Norman aristocracy.

Steve De Long
Steve De Long

June 16, 2014

Hi Michael,
You would think that Rene Junot, being a mass-market brand, would try to keep up with mass-market tastes by being richer and more full-bodied. But no! I tasted the white 2 years ago and the acid levels were insane. It was really meant to be industrial solvent – I would imagine that the red is made in the same 50-centime plastic bottle style. I was similarly suprised as I don’t remember it being so bad. Stil, in retrospect, has it really changed or is it just dilute and acidic next to all the better made cheap wine?

Steve De Long
Steve De Long

June 16, 2014

Hi Ben – unfortunately, I don’t know. I live in London and Rene isn’t available here. Do you have any connection with Rene?

Ben Robertson
Ben Robertson

June 16, 2014

I would like to make this comment again – Do you find it better now? I note this comment is from 2007. Things change. Rene changes. Did Rene change for the better?

Ben Robertson
Ben Robertson

June 16, 2014

Do you find it better now? I note this comment is from 2007. Things change. Rene changes. Did Rene change for the better?

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