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

    Hank Hanau on
  • 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.

    Nick Kitto on
  • The French make wine?

    Eric S. Crane on
  • 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.

    Charles Berube on
  • 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.

    B Leroy on
  • 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.

    C Havers on
  • 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.

    Fred Frank on
  • 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 (also Ohio) on
  • 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 on
  • 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

    Michael R. Sell on

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