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Wine war in southern France has streets running red

Winegrowers wearing black balaclavas forced their way into one of France's largest wine brokerages

Liz Alderman | NYT  |  Béziers (France) 


On a late evening in March, a group of winegrowers wearing black balaclavas forced their way into one of France’s largest wine brokerages and ignited three Within minutes, the business, Passerieux Vergnes Diffusion, was in flames.

Vigilante vignerons had previously raided two big wine distributors nearby, in the Languedoc wine-producing region, smashing offices and dumping a river of red wine into the streets.
The businesses had one thing in common: they had struck deals to import inexpensive wine from Spain, prompting a backlash among local winemakers who feared their livelihoods were under attack. “I was stupefied,” said René Vergnes, a native of Languedoc who has run the Passerieux Vergnes wine brokerage business for 35 years. “Everything was destroyed.”

Vergnes was the latest target in a across France’s largest wine growing area, pitting independent wine producers against imports from other European Union countries, and the businesses that deal in them.
The movement has sparked outrage in Spain, where the government demanded a crackdown on what it called a violation of the European Union’s free trade rules. Spanish producers also say the actions distract from graver threats to Europe’s wine industry, including Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, which could slow exports to the bloc’s biggest buyer of European wines.

And as the United States under President pivots toward protectionism, European winemakers are expected to face stiff competition from Australia and other countries as the European Union seeks new trade deals to compensate.
While often conjures the image of well-to-do winemakers in regal chateaus, many are small struggling vignerons, especially in this region, otherwise known as the Pays d’Oc, which built its industry for over a century on low-cost table wines.

These vignerons say they are facing unfair competition, especially from Spain, where a now-fading economic crisis had slashed wine prices. European rules, they insist, deepen their woes by requiring free movement of goods that sometimes don’t meet production or quality standards in the importing country. European Union labelling standards also make it easy for retailers to pass foreign products off as French — a problem that plagues other European countries with their products.
Wine rebels have executed dozens of attacks in protest since last summer, including ambushing Spanish wine trucks at the border and dumping the payload on highways.
The most aggressive rebels are part of a secret commando organisation that targeted businesses like Vergnes’s, which had brokered a handful of Spanish wine contracts for French clients.
“Many people are just scraping by, but no one is listening,” said Lionel Puech, a co-president of the Young Farmers Association, a union that has admitted to joining some of the militant actions, none of which has yet resulted in prosecutions.
has sought to calm nerves. Last month, the government held a meeting of French and Spanish wine representatives and ministers. They condemned the violence and agreed to strengthen relations.
In Languedoc territory, where vineyards stretch from the Rhône Valley to the Spanish border, such statements make little difference.

While some local wineries have invested in higher-quality products, many vignerons still produce inexpensive table wine for the budget-conscious market.

But with labour costs and taxes nearly twice as high as those in Spain, French producers struggle to compete on price. also imposes strict grape growing regulations that are more costly to follow than rules in Spain and other European countries.

©2017 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Sat, August 26 2017. 23:55 IST