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Thursday, 27 March 2014

The French Wine Industry - Just Like Dallas?

The seemingly idyllic vineyards surrounding Saint-Émilion are depicted as the setting for a sordid soap opera.

"Behind the prestigious labels of the greatest wines, a merciless French version of 'Dallas' is taking place, with rivalries, visceral hatreds, intrigues and below the belt blows." This is the publisher's summary of "Vino Business", a new book that has caused a stir in French wine circles and prompted a legal suit.

The author, investigative journalist Isabelle Saporta, doesn't hold back in questioning the French institutions and traditions that the country's wine industry prides itself on. She's also forthright in her writing on certain individuals, and she's now facing legal action for it.

The book begins with a swanky dinner at La Fête de la Fleur, an annual get-together for some of the Bordeaux's most illustrious châteaux and their guests. Elsewhere, wine consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt (pictured below), depicted as the “bad boy” who refuses to attend these events, is instead holding an anti-Fête de la Fleur event on the same evening. Saporta also introduces the Right Bank equivalent of the fête, organized by Hubert de Boüard of Château Angélus. But two important figures are missing, she writes: Pierre Lurton of Cheval Blanc and Alain Vauthier of Ausone. “For this pair, it would be demeaning to attend this bling ceremony, organized by the man they’ve nicknamed Hubertus Magnus, or Don Hubert of Saint-Émilion.”

De Boüard features heavily in the book, which reads like a lengthy character assassination, set in the context of the 2012 Saint-Émilion classification. Saporta devotes a chapter questioning the classification process, concluding that it’s all about money and influence. In the 2012 classification, de Boüard's Château Angélus was promoted to the highest rank: premier grand cru classé A, a position just three other properties hold. Saporta claims, as other media outlets suggested at the time, that the 2012 classification was a "scandal." In her opinion, wine quality was not the only reason for its promotion – but you'll have to read the book if you want the dirt.
Derenoncourt is one of the most vocal critics of the classification. “There is no longer a terroir classification [in Saint-Émilion]. It’s pure marketing. If you have visitor parking, that’s two extra points for you, if the hostess is really hot that’s another two marks. And, if you have James Bond [Château Angélus featured briefly in "Casino Royale"], that’s even better. Anything that’s shiny brings you more points. It’s completely ridiculous.” It’s clear that Saporta sides with Derenoncourt.

The rich and wealthy investors in the Bordeaux region are an easy target for Saporta and she doesn’t hold back. Lamenting the influx of foreign investment and rapidly rising prices in the most prestigious appellations, she quotes organic producer Dominique Techer of Château Gombaude-Guillot: “On the Pomerol plateau, there are just two or three family-owned properties left. We are the Last of the Mohicans. Soon, people will come and stare at us, like we are curiosities. We are surrounded by pension funds, banks, insurance companies and now the Chinese." It's clear that she does not approve of this influx of capital, which has "invaded the vines and businessmen have replaced grape growers." However, she doesn't acknowledge that wine quality might have improved with such investment in the region.

Similarly, the appellation authority, the Institut National de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO) also gets it in the neck. While well intentioned, “the wine profession has monopolized the management of a body meant to be regulating it and supervising it.” There is no separation of powers here, she argues. Those who defend the organization are scorned by Saporta. And then she returns to de Boüard and the 2012 Saint-Émilion classification "scandal". De Boüard is a former member of the regional and national committee of the INAO and she creates a case questioning the 2012 classification results centered upon the château owner. No wonder de Boüard wants to defend his name.

And so the book continues. The little man against the large corporations. The influx of Chinese buyers. The health problems blamed on pesticide use. And Hubert de Boüard.

The book is a juicy read and is likely to sell a lot of copies. However, such polemic was bound to cause ructions. I suspect Saporta will be chased out of Saint-Émilion if she dares set foot in the village again. It looks like she is set to see de Boüard again soon – in court. He has filed a defamation suit against her and her publisher. A statement issued on behalf of de Boüard read: “Isabelle Saporta’s accusations in her book against the proprietor of Château Angélus are totally unfounded.”

*Vino Business is published by Albin Michel, priced 19 euros ($26.30). It is currently available in French only.