Rent-seeking and decline in the French wine industry.

Author:Wenzel, Nikolai G.
  1. Introduction

    Although France still enjoys a world-class reputation in the world of wine, its dominant position has been eroded over the years. First came the 1976 "Judgment of Paris," in which California wines first surpassed their French cousins in a blind tasting. Then, in 2003, French exports (by value) were outpaced for the first time by wines from the New World. What happened? To an extent, France's decline can be explained with traditional tools of economics, especially due to falling demand. However, the supply side is much more intriguing; in a deliberately broad simplification, New World wine production can largely be characterized by innovation, whereas French wine production (mostly) follows a pattern of tradition, from terroir and Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC), to a widespread reluctance among producers to innovate.

    Others have already explored the more traditional economic conditions and implications surrounding wine production (see, e.g., Auby, 2007; Jenster et al., 2008; Ginsburg, 2006; or McCluskey, 2004). This paper examines the problem from a regulatory perspective.

    Section II addresses the problem of lost French dominance, with a historical overview and explanations from traditional economics. Section III moves beyond neoclassical economics, using institutional analysis and Public Choice theory to study the French scene, with a particular emphasis on explaining and analyzing the AOC system and its foundations. The final section concludes.

  2. Scene-Setter: From Domination ... to Judgment ... to Decline Over the centuries, France established itself as a world leader in both quality and quantity of wine production. As recently as 1999, France produced 51% of world wine exports (by value) (Taber, 2006, p.235). But even such domination did not come without its share of anguish and state intervention. As early as 92 AD, Rome ordered the destruction of one half of the vineyard surface of Gaul (Marty, 2004, p. 18), in an attempt to protect Italian winemakers from their "French" competition (Deroudille, 2008, p.18). In 1395, Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy established the exclusivity of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Burgundy; Gamay, considered "too productive," was relegated to Beaujolais (Taber, 2006, p.26; Deroudille, 2008, p.19). The greatest crisis occurred in the early 20th century. In response to increasing fraud, and the ensuing riots, France established a broad regulatory system of wine appellations in 1935. Under this system (AOC), just about every aspect of French wine production is controlled by law.

    These crises were ultimately growing pains in France's ascent to domination of the world wine market. Until the third quarter of the 20th century, "France ruled the world" (Taber, 2006, p.17). However, two turning points changed the situation radically; these occurred in 1976 and 2003.

    The famous judgment of Paris took place in 1976. (1) For the first time, New World wines beat their more established French cousins in a blind tasting by French judges. A breach had been opened in France's uncontested spot as leader of the pack. To be sure, France still remains at the top. But the top is now less lonely, and many New World wines now offer serious competition.

    The second turning point came in with a whimper, unlike the bang of 1976. In 2003, for the first time, France lost its top spot, as New World wines outpaced French production (by value); France, long the dominant producer, fell to a mere 38% (Taber, 2005, p.235)--still nothing to sneeze at, for one lone country within the rest of the world, but a radical change for a country so long accustomed to being the uncontested leader. (2)

    This drop in leadership was met with a flurry of activity, a profound self-questioning, and a string of expert seminars, all addressing the crise viticole (viticultural crisis) in France. A few recent book titles illustrate the general mood: France Against the New World Wines: How to Defend French Prominence; They Are Going to Kill French Wine: NAO, the Evin Law, Unfair Competition: The Programmed End of the French Exception; or Wine Versus Globalisation (the cover of which features a picture of a globe qua bowling ball rolling toward a set of French wine bottles). Indeed, the 1976 and 2003 turning points are part of an ongoing crisis in French wine. Vintner demonstrations and road blockages, which had subsided by the end of the 1970s, returned in the summer of 2008. Whereas world wine production and acreage devoted to viticulture have been increasing steadily, the French vineyard surface has been declining (Deroudille, 2008, p.86). Since 1990, fully one-sixth of French vines have been grubbed up (Marty, 2004, p.41).

    What happened? There are a number of explanations from traditional economics.

    First, basic economics explains France's declining market share (see, generally, Marty, 2004, p.30; Deroudille, 2008, p.6). The rise in the euro's value has made French exports more expensive. French land, tax, and labor costs are typically higher than New World costs. Whereas France (along with Europe generally) has been diminishing its vine acreage, the New World has been increasing it. Over the past 15 years, New World vintners have been increasing their production, yields, and know-how; simultaneously, New World wineries have made massive investments in marketing, but French producers have not. Nature also plays a role, complemented by laws: New World climates tend to be more regular than the French, and New World regulations allow for technological compensation (such as irrigation), which is typically forbidden in France. Finally, industrial organization and marketing are important factors. The French market tends to be segmented among thousands of individual producers, whereas New World production tends to be concentrated in conglomerates. To name but one example, the "Chablis" appellation in France is shared by 400 producers (Rousset-Rouard and Desseauve, 2002, p.54). In the United States, four producers make 50% of American wine, and 25 producers make 95%; France boasts 114,000 total producers. One "Gallo" can concentrate marketing dollars much more effectively than hundreds of isolated French producers. Finally, the New World markets its wine by brand, whereas France does so by appellation, with the brand playing second fiddle, at best. Naturally, this makes investment in marketing (as well as marketing itself) difficult. In sum, New World wine producers strive to make their product accessible and comprehensible to consumers, whereas French producers typically do not (Rousset-Rouard and Desseauve, 2002, p.44). (3)

    Second, a comparison of regulatory environments helps explain the decline. New World wine producers are allowed much more flexibility in their wine production. They can irrigate, but they can also add flavors (oak shavings, which are much quicker than aging in oak barrels, being but one example) and mix varietals to suit consumer tastes. New World wine producers can ship grapes from one region to another to compensate for poor harvests; they can also grub and replant varietals to suit fluctuating consumer demand (in the so-called Sideways effect, whereby American consumer demand shifted dramatically from Merlot to Pinot Noir after the movie Sideways, and producers responded; see, e.g., Cuellar et al., 2009). New World vintners also enjoy much more leeway in labeling than their French counterparts. Whereas French regulations are strict, New World producers can get away with the "85-15" rule: that is, if 85% of the wine is a given varietal or a given vintage, it can be marketed as that varietal or vintage. In France, the wine must be 100% of that varietal and vintage (Marty, 2004, p.44). Finally, over the past decade, France has engaged in an anti-alcohol crusade. In addition to increased highway enforcement, this campaign has also entailed strict advertising restrictions (Marty, 2004, p.51, Ch. 5).

    Finally, regulation and attitude come together in the targets of government support: French vintners receive subsidies from the French government and the European Union amounting to 295 [euro] million/year; (4) of that, 96.5% goes to production and a mere 3.5% to marketing (Deroudille, 2008, p.103)--this in a market (nationally and internationally) that is already suffering from overproduction.

    Although these explanations shed light on the situation, they still beg many underlying questions. French vintners can do little to affect the labor market or climate within which they operate--but what about appellations? If innovation and marketing are the key to New World success, why does France not emulate these models? To answer this, we must turn to non-traditional economic tools, such as Public Choice theory and the New Institutional Economics. But first, a word on the French appellation system is...

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