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Government: keep your hands off my classification!


I think it’s completely insane to rank wineries the way they do in Bordeaux.

This is something a government has absolutely no business in. Look at the mess they’ve made for themselves over in Saint Emilion over the recent reclassification.

Lawsuits. Bitterness. Bad press. Sour feelings between neighbors.

Maybe classification made sense in 1855. Things were different then. I’m sure some wineries were pissed off that they weren’t ranked higher, but they took their lumps gracefully. People didn’t rush off to their lawyers every time they felt dissed.

Nowadays they do. But can you blame Pierre Carle, of Chateau Croque Michotte, for being furious the authorities refused promotion from Grand Cru to Grand Cru Classé? Read this account from blog for an accounting of M. Carle’s objections.

It’s particularly crazy that the authorities based their action, in part, on what they perceived as deficiencies in Croque Michotte’s soils. Who’s to say what soils can produce the best wines? Maybe in France, the authorities possess that wisdom. Here in California, it would be patently absurd.

For example, an “authority” might say that Cabernet Sauvignon from the the Napa Valley flatlands, between the Silverado Trail and Highway 29, is “inferior” to the soils of the mountains. But let’s consider some vineyards along the Oakville Cross Road, where you’ll find the likes of Rudd, PlumpJack and Venge, whose 2008 Estate Family Reserve Cabernet was one of my highest-scoring wines of the vintage. That just proves that the conventional wisdom can be wrong–and should not be used as a pretext to measure quality. As I’ve said so many times, quality can only be determined the old-fashioned way: by what’s in the bottle.

You’d think that, after the recent history of reclassification in Saint Emilion (there was another big flap in 2006), they’d learn their lesson and stop trying. But no. This year [again, thanks to for my information], they transferred the power to reclassify from the local St Emilion Syndicat Viticole to the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO), which is responsible for overseeing all of France, in order to make it more “legitimate.” It’s sort of like if the Napa Valley Vintners had been classifying Napa wineries all these years, but things got so ugly that NVV passed that hot potato onto the Wine Institute. The analogy is imperfect, since we don’t have legal bodies that can actually classify, but you get the idea.

France is a wonderful country, but in so many ways they remain hidebound prisoners of their traditions. These official classification systems are an anachronism. I doubt if France will have the courage to get rid of them anytime soon, because the powers and interests are so vested. But they really should. The last thing any modern wine-producing nation needs is a bunch of government bureaucrats defining winners and losers. Let the market do that.

  1. Steve, I certainly have to agree with you on the “crazy” conclusion, but this is the way of the world. I don’t see this as any crazier than the Government running healthcare, education, or what size soda you can order at a movie theater. . . but there it is. Some people just love the warm cuddly blanket of confidence they can have when something as big and important as “The Government” is calling all of the shots.

    As a side-note, just got an offer for M. Etain 2010 and thinking of giving a 2-pack a try. Any thoughts?

  2. Great point Steve. I love and drink French wines; California rarely. And I think that French wines are so great in spite of, not because of, the INAO. Over hundreds of years French growers and winemakers have figured out what grapes do best where, and they don’t need the INAO to tell them what they can grow and call an AOC and what they can’t. I don’t drink much Bordeaux, and when I do I don’t even pay attention to the various classification. But I do drink a lot of Loire Valley wines, and vintners there have been at the forefront of the movement to avoid absurd INAO restrictions, which will probably be accelerated with recent changes that will prevent some Touraine producers from growing certain grapes or at least giving their wines an AOC. So a lot of Loire producers now simply bottle their wines as Vin de Pays, or even Vin de France (with a code to help the drinker figure out what vintage it is, since VDF can’t include a vintage).

  3. Hey Steve,

    Great points, totally agree. Not a practical concept for us as interesting as the process may be to witness. However, let’s say you personally had the authority to select the 5 Premier Cru wines for a Napa classification…care to divulge who makes your list 😉

  4. Dear Westchester: Nope!

  5. Dear GrapesRGreat, I have not had M Etain but it’s certainly pricy. Let me know what you think.

  6. carlos toledo says:

    Interesting point. Again.

    But…”The last thing any modern wine-producing nation needs is a bunch of government bureaucrats defining winners and losers. Let the market do that.”

    Wait? The invisible and fair (wink) hand of the market is to take care of that?

    I propose the english people, who love the french, do the job.

  7. The French are tied to their system as are all the EU countries, that said they just changed the rules so expect to see a marketing push of the new Vin de France or Spain or Italy….. A Chardonnay from the south of France that was “White Wine” now can be Chardonnay 2012, Vin de France. To the New World its “so what” well I think the Rothschilds and others will soon be knocking on Gallo’s door with these vintage and variety labelled wine under large new brands, they have the good grapes (from the wine lake Gallo buys from) they have the money now they have the ability to market on a level playing field with the New World wines. So the INAO system that has tied their hands (and brings you the new Saint Emilion classifications) for so long has evolved to meet market demands and allow growth in the EU wine Industry.

  8. Dear Blogger-

    Hi, I recenlty was reading over one of your articles and enjoyed it very much. I am a student at Goldey-Beacom College in Wilmington, DE and am writing a research paper about the wine world mostly focusing on the international stand point of how it travels with exporting the product. Since you are an expert in the wine field, I was wondering what your take was on exporting with wine internationally with the different taxes and tarrifs. I would greatly appreciate it if you could take the time to write a brief response.

    Thank you,

    K. Murphy

  9. Steve I didn’t realize you had such a Libertarian streak in you. The French do understand their soils in a way that we do not here. They don’t have hundreds of years of experience, but thousands. There are sour grapes every time the classifications are revisited. The geologist who moved a few lines on the map of Burgundy received death threats over it for the next 50 years of his life. Nothing new here… move along.

    On the other hand, it is heartening to see so many winegrowers in France (and across Europe) declining to participate in the AOC system, and astonishing to see the French bureaucracy accommodating them (re: Mr. Newby’s comments above). There’s your market system, where a wine’s merits will be judged solely by critical review and winery marketing hype, rather than by any objective externality.

  10. Oh, the opportunities to tout the advantages of a free market, (to a dedicated devotee of less than a Grover Norquist form of govt.), without the govt. mandating your light bulbs, your toilet flush, your kids working on your own farm. But I won’t . . .

    I do seem to recall that most French appellations and vineyard boundaries in Burgundy and other places came from the vignerons over hundreds of years. And only recently was authority handed over to over-weening govt.

    I wonder even for second if you could get Napa’s appellations re-drawn by the vignerons if you started from zero boundaries today? And predicting how much of a fishkill you MIGHT cause on the Russian River by sprinkling your vineyard ahead of a frost?

    Glad to see you are on the side of the individual against the power of govt. to take your rights away.

  11. Mr. Kelly,

    The new rules aren’t just French, they are for the whole EU and include many products not just wine, chesses, poultry, unique agricultural crops (melons in Provence) and many fruit based spirits are included. It protects the consumer (and the producer) from shirt tail riders.
    The new wine system as I noted levels the world’s playing field for European wines, at the lowest level they can use vintage and grape variety on the label (this replaces red/white/rose table wine of France), the next level they can use broad Geographic Indication on the label, then it’s the AOP which replaced AOC in France which is pretty much the same as it was before. It’s the DOC (now AOP) system in Italy that forced producers to label the “Super Tuscans” Red Table Wine of Italy (at $120-300 a bottle) for many years, Italy accommodated these wines before the new system came into being.

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