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French Vintners Are Making The Streets Run Red — With Spanish Vino

They’re basically the wine mob.

Spanish wine is left to run in the streets on a French road near their shared border.

Trouble is brewing on the border between Spain and France, and it’s all over some spilled wine.

Last week, five tankers carrying Spanish wine through southern France were stopped by 150 French winemakers who, in a truly savage wine pirate move, dumped the equivalent of about 90,000 bottles of wine into the street. Two tankers were emptied completely, while three others were “allowed” to leave with their tanks half full and the words “vin non conforme” (French for “non-compliant wine”) graffitied on the side.

In case you’re wondering how 150 vintners could stop five tankers — and presumably the rest of traffic — without the police noticing, don’t worry. The police were there watching from the sidelines.

But why? Why would winemakers dump wine all over the street? The answer lies in this quote to The Telegraph from Denis Pigouche, president of the winemakers association in the Pyrenees-Orientales region:

“These wines have no place in France. What’s more they’re not even necessarily European. I suspect they are from South America and then ‘Hispanicised' in Barcelona and then Europeanised, or even Frenchified in France.”

Wow. Insofar as those are words, they are fighting words.

Concern over imposter French wine might sound like the most French thing ever, but the grievance actually has some rationale behind it. France has become the largest purchaser of Spanish wine, having bought about 580 million liters of Spanish varietals in 2014. And Frédéric Rouanet, president of the Aude winemakers’ union, voiced concerns about Spanish wine being sold at less than half the cost of its French counterparts (€32 versus €78 per hectoliter), therefore undercutting French winemakers at the market. To rub salt in the wound, Italy officially overtook France as the world’s top vino producer. A-ha, ya burnt!

After months of negotiations between winemaker unions and the authorities to protect local producers from imported competition, Rouanet felt French vintners still weren’t being taken seriously. The French wanted to send a strong message to the wine world, so they made the super serious-person decision to make the streets run red – and white – with gallons of foreign wine. And thankfully for anyone who happens to be following this story around the world, Rouanet says this is only the start of protests by winemakers. There are apparently plans to disrupt Italian wine imports next at a nearby port, and there’s even talk of action during the Tour de France. Keep your eyes akimbo in the Peloton, cyclists. This one could get messy.

Just in case you aren’t shaking in your shoes at the idea of a bunch of French vintners stirring up trouble, consider the fact that this anti-imported wine stuff isn’t the first guerilla tactic these guys have employed. Le Crav, short for the Comité Régional d’Action Viticole, has been participating in this kind of shady business for years. Over a decade ago they attacked a Spanish tanker by shooting a hole in the fuel tank and lighting it on fire, and they’ve even used explosives to bully distributors into supporting local producers. They’re basically the wine mob.

But in spite of this light terror campaign, Spain isn’t willing to go quietly from the French market. The Spanish government summoned the French ambassador to officially protest the latest attack on tankers and demand guarantees for safe passage. This is all very reasonable. Dumping wine in the streets is not diplomatically sound. But French concerns that their market is being overtaken by imported wine, and that livelihoods of French producers are being damaged, is also valid.

Between that rock and hard place is where the European Union has tried to negotiate for a long time. Although set up to facilitate trade between member countries, the EU has also gotten into the regulation game by offering protected status to some nationally and regionally specific foods. Champagne, which cannot be made anywhere in the world but in France’s Champagne region, is an example.

Protecting authenticity is important, and it does help ensure not everyone can throw a fancy label on a bottle and sell swill as champagne. But how far should that protection go, and at what point does it infringe on trade? That’s surely the question France and the EU are asking themselves after this latest attack and amidst calls from winemakers to do something to keep their trade alive.

And while it’s a pretty great spectator sport, we can all agree that dumping wine into the streets — no matter what country its from — is not a sustainable solution.

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