The Losh Cause – Judgement Day for Europe’s winemakers

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The European wine industry has been in desperate need of radical reform for decades. Chris Losh hopes that proposals soon to be presented by Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer-Boel will at last offer a genuine and lasting solution to the industry's over-supply problems.

The 4th of July looks set to be a big day not just for Americans, and fans of Tom Cruise films (there ought to be a word for that), but also for European wine producers. Why? Because that's the day that the EU has pencilled in for the presentation of its new wine policy.

Given that E-day is ten weeks away, you might wonder why the matter has crossed my mind now. Well, blame a rather sorry few days in Spain. What should have been an early season golf break in the sun turned into an exercise in drinking coffee and eating croissants, watching the rain lash down outside.

Worse, there wasn't even anything decent to drink. Staying at a friend's apartment north of Barcelona, the only wine for the one night we were there was a rather pruney bottle of Ribera del Duero and a truly miserable vino de mesa (table wine) that I can only conclude had been bought for cooking.

It's the sort of bottle that you forget still exists if you buy most of your wine in UK supermarkets, who, for all their faults, tend not to sell stuff that's practically undrinkable. Boring, yes. Squeezed on price, yes. But not actively offensive. However, much as we wanted to drown our sorrows, one sip was enough for all of us.

It was a palate-manglingly graphic illustration of how much the EU has been able to distort the wine market on its home turf, because viewed in their own right, there is no way that wines like this deserve to survive.

In fact, cheap rubbish has been struggling to find a market for years. The generation who used to drink such bottles uncritically at lunchtime are dying off, and younger Spaniards (and French and Italians) are much more northern European in their wine consumption habits: they drink less often, but better. For them, wine is no longer a cheap essential but, if not exactly a luxury, certainly a non-essential treat.

Unable to find a market for their product, producers of plonk have simply produced it, then taken the 'crisis distillation' money from Brussels to turn it into grape spirit.

This, clearly, is a nonsense. If it's happening on a regular basis it isn't, by definition, a crisis - it's simply a total unwillingness on the part of the wine industry to face up to a changing world. The figures are there for all to see. At a time when consumption in wine's traditional European markets is falling, there has been no sign at all of a corresponding drop in production. Spain's vineyard area has grown, while the grub-up scheme introduced in (massively overplanted) Bordeaux two years ago has seen hardly any takers at all, despite generous financial incentives.

It's hugely to Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer-Boel's credit that she's recognised this head-in-the-sand inertia and been brave enough to do something about it. But the acid test is certain to be whether her eminently sensible proposals can ever make it onto the statute books.

The plan is to phase out the much abused crisis distillation payments and offer instead typically generous early retirement and replanting subsidies. This should allow agricultural communities to move away from the dead-end of simply adding to the wine lake and regenerate themselves by growing something that people actually want to buy. Radical, huh?

Indeed, the very fact that the Fischer-Boel tract is seen as so revolutionary, when all it's doing is gently reminding people that in the long term you can't buck the market, gives you some idea of the Neverland in which much of the European wine industry has historically operated.

There are plenty of workers in dead and dying industries (ship-building, mining etc) who have never had the luxury of being paid to go and do something else - they were simply made redundant. So in my book, the wine industry is being pretty well looked after.

Certainly, I'd love to hear someone explain to me why my EU tax-Euros should go into propping up producers like the winery that made the paint-stripper I was subjected to in rainy Barcelona last week.

The French, Italians and Spanish are, at best, likely to be only lukewarm about Fischer-Boel's proposals. But if it requires only a majority to see her proposals passed, they'll stand a good chance of getting through.

This is a crossroads for the continent. And for the long-term future of the European wine industry, I just hope they're not watered down so much as to be rendered meaningless.

Sectors: Wine

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