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Fine wine may end up as industrial-use alcohol

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French winemakers, struggling to survive in a tough market, carry a fake coffin in Avignon reading "Here lies the last winemaker."

French winemakers, struggling to survive in a tough market, carry a fake coffin in Avignon reading “Here lies the last winemaker.”

Claude Paris, Associated Press

PARIS — It wouldn't quite be pouring good wine down the drain but close.

Stuck with hundreds of millions of bottles they can't sell in a toughening global market, vintners want to distill some of France's winelake into industrial-use alcohol.

It wouldn't just be swill heading for destruction: Most of the 66 million gallons vintners hope to recycle is considered high-quality.

Such destruction would be unprecedented for "appellation" wines that carry France's AOC seal of origin and quality. Although nearly 71.3 million gallons were distilled into alcohol in 2002, that was second-rate table wine. This time, 267 million bottles of AOC wines would be boiled down in stills if vintners get their way.

"Generally, distillation is for the worst products," said Robert Beynat, chief executive of the Vinexpo international wine fair.

That vintners are clamoring to destroy stocks of wine that would nicely accompany a meal underscores their difficulties. Vintners, some bearing a mock coffin marked "Here lies the last winemaker," held protests in several cities last month to appeal for government aid.

The average Frenchman still downs 13.2 gallons of wine a year — but that is half as much as in 1961. A study for Vinexpo published Thursday predicted that the United States will overtake France as the leading overall wine consumer by 2008 — although the French would still lead on a per capita basis.

Pressured by Californian Chardonnays and other vintages from the new world, French wine exports fell by 6.6 percent in volume and 6.1 percent in value in the first 11 months of 2004.

Vintners say distilling wine into alcohol would cut surplus stocks — which were swelled by a bumper harvest last year — and help restore the balance between supply and demand.

But because of European Union regulations, the process requires getting not only French but also European official approval.

The proposal from the Confederation of French Wine Cooperatives — which represents 110,000 winemakers who account for half of France's wine production — would require the French government to ask the EU's executive commission for a "crisis distillation."

The measure is designed to partly finance winemakers struggling with surpluses. Vintners would get an EU-fixed price for wine sold to distillers, who in turn would get an EU pledge to buy up the alcohol they produce.

The government's wine office, Onivins, says AOC producers in France, whose wines are generally more marketable because they age and taste better, have never before resorted to an EU crisis distillation — which would be a last resort.

AOC vintners would get only one-fifth of the usual market price if they sell to distillers — better than nothing but still "an extremely low compensation of the winemakers' work," said Roland Feredj of the Interprofessional Council of Bordeaux wines, which groups winemakers and wholesalers from that famous viticultural region.

The government has not said if it will approach the EU commission for help. Agriculture Minister Dominique Bussereau said this week that the proposal needs to be discussed first with the wine industry. He plans to hold talks next week with wine representatives about how to help the struggling sector.