COMMENT: INAO change raises French reform hopes
The news that Yves Bénard is the front-runner for the top job at the INAO is good news for reformers in the French wine industry.
The general director of the wine and Champagne division of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton is both a man of vision and a consummate diplomat, a strength that cannot be over-estimated in the politically charged atmosphere of the French wine industry, dominated as it is by vested interests.
Speaking to just-drinks on Monday (30 January), Bénard was understandably keen to keep any plans he had for the post under wraps before a formal announcement is made about his appointment in coming weeks. However, he gave a hint at his reformist tendencies by telling us: "For France, it is very important that our wines are easier to understand for the consumer."
Those who truly care for the future of French wine will hope that Bénard accelerates the legacy left by former INAO boss Rene Renou, who died last June, himself a keen proponent of reform of France's AOC system, which he viewed as having become confusing for consumers.
Certainly Bénard has a track record that suggests he can do just that.
Bénard is currently president of the Union des Maisons de Champagne - basically the most powerful position in Champagne - but is due to stand down this summer after ten years or more in the job. So he'd be free to take on the new role.
He is credited both with doing a fantastic job in maintaining Champagne's levels of prosperity and, more importantly, finding a tricky balance between supply and demand.
It was Bénard who was instrumental in negotiating the deal between Champagne growers and producers a decade ago that many claim finally brought to an end the damaging boom and bust cycle that had held Champagne back for so many years.
It would be a lot to expect that Bénard could broker a series of similar deals across the French wine industry, but that has not stopped some wine industry insiders speculating on that sort of outcome.
At Wine Evolution this week, one influential French wine figure told just-drinks: "If he could broker a similar deal in Bordeaux, it would be fantastic for the industry."
There is still a long way between that fantasy and the reality, however, and Bénard will need all his powers of diplomacy if he is to succeed.
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