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!

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  • 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!!!

    Nick Kitto on
  • Thanks for the article. That was entertaining as well as educational! Nice work.

    Ramona Ray on
  • 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

    frank stone on
  • 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.

    Steve De Long on
  • 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!

    James Parsons on
  • 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.

    Erwin Dink on
  • 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. (

    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.

    Kelly McGrew on
  • 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!

    AEvans on
  • 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.
    Sandy MacDonald on
  • 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!

    Oster on

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