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French Winemakers Whining

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Wine is less a beverage than an elixir of life in France, but the country's vintners say they're vexed by a problem that threatens their livelihood -- too much of a good thing and not enough people drinking it.

Pinched by overproduction, shrinking exports, advertising restrictions, an aggressive campaign against alcohol abuse and changing drinking habits, at least 6,000 growers and winemakers staged spirited demonstrations nationwide Wednesday to press the government for help.

"We are a sector in crisis," said Jean-Michel Lemetayer, the head of France's main farmer union, urging the state to bail out an industry awash in a sea of Chablis and Bordeaux.

Vintners wearing black armbands marched through Bordeaux, Avignon, Angers, Macon, Nantes, Tours and other cities in key winemaking regions to urge the Agriculture Ministry to help offset their financial losses.

Protesters from vineyards that make the celebrated Cote du Rhone reds carried a mock coffin with the inscription: "Here lies the last winemaker."

France's wine industry, which employs about 500,000 people, says exports through Aug. 31 dropped by more than 5.5 percent in volume and 9.6 percent in value. Experts say Bordeaux was particularly hard hit, with foreign sales of its signature reds down 25 percent.

Vintners say overproduction worldwide, and especially in France - which harvested a bumper crop of grapes this year - has glutted a market where French wines already face fierce competition from vintages from California, Chile and Australia.

In the past, producers of cheap table wine suffered the most when there was a surplus. Now, makers of more prestigious "appellation" wines face bankruptcy if prices keep sinking, the Confederation of French Wine Cooperatives warned.

Agriculture Minister Dominique Bussereau promised to meet with industry leaders next week. "The government understands these difficulties," he said.

Aggressive campaigns against alcohol abuse and drunken driving also appear to have curbed consumption.

President Jacques Chirac, determined to reduce the 45,000 deaths a year blamed on alcohol, launched a crackdown in 2002 that officials say has led to a dramatic decline in road deaths - but also has been blamed for a drop in wine sales.

"Thanks to the sword thrusts by the French state, wine is becoming synonymous with alcoholism," the Wine Academy of France, a group representing top wine makers and growers, said in a statement last week.

The industry is lobbying the government to ease tough restrictions on alcohol advertising in an effort to stimulate sales and counter the growing popularity of beer and other beverages among younger drinkers.

The average Frenchman now drinks half as much wine as in 1961. Nonetheless, France continues to rank No. 1 in the world in per capita wine consumption, with the average person putting away some 13 gallons a year.

"We just want to promote products that consumers already understand carry no risk if they drink with moderation," Lemetayer said.

He and others contend that wine - which traditionally has enjoyed special protections as a part of French culture - shouldn't be lumped with hard liquor like whiskey.

"Wine is a part of France's cultural heritage. We shouldn't demonize it," said Karine Pech, 28, who works in publishing in Paris. "It's not a strong drink, and consumed with moderation, it's a part of a good meal."

Since 1991, advertisements for alcoholic drinks in France have been allowed to contain only factual information about a product, including its name, manufacturer, alcohol content and origin.

Last month, the state-funded National Association for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Addiction urged Chirac to oppose a move in parliament to let print or television ads also mention the color, smell and taste of wines.

But under pressure from vintners, Chirac's ruling conservatives in the lower chamber backed the push to loosen the advertising restrictions. The Senate is expected to take up the measure in January.

Gregory Lozinski, a 22-year-old businessman, said he empathizes with winemakers - even though he only drinks about a bottle a week.

"I can understand that the wine industry is anxious," he said. "I'm a partisan of freedom: If you want to get drunk and die of alcohol abuse, that's your problem."

By William J. Kole