CHICAGO (CNN/Money) - At the largest gathering of European winemakers outside of Europe, French vintners have a message for American consumers: come back, s'il vous plaît.
At the VinExpo Americas trade show here -- the second-ever U.S. version of the wine and spirits extravaganza that takes place biannually in Bordeaux -- French business people and politicians conducted a charm offensive intended to show that the French wine industry is serious about recapturing lost business.
"2003 was without any doubt a difficult year for our wines in the U.S., for accidental and structural reasons," said Francois Loos, France's foreign trade minister. "This has been a wakeup call."
In the years since World War II, France had been the No. 1 exporter of international wine to the United States. As recently as the 1990s, one in three imported bottles bought by Americans was French.
Recently, however, that lead has eroded, in the face of stiffer competition from rivals old (Italy) and new (Australia, Chile). Today, French market share is about 15 percent, according to industry sources. And France's once indomitable lead has shrunk so much that in any given year, wines from Italy or Australia may outsell those from France.
Last year, Franco-American diplomatic tensions over the Iraq war triggered loosely organized U.S. boycotts of French products. While the extent of that consumer backlash has been debated within wine circles, none dispute that French fortunes have faded.
According to Information Resources International, U.S. sales of French wine declined on a year-over-year basis during every month of 2003. In many of those months, the drop neared or exceeded 20 percent in both dollar and volume terms.
Besides politics, trade-show participants cited pricing pressures from the strong euro and changing consumer preferences in the taste of wine as challenges.
At an opening news conference at the trade show, a number of speakers noted that the United States is now the world's largest consumer of wine, in terms of dollar value, and the No. 4 producer. But besides the monetary importance of the relationship, officials tried to stress wine's symbolic importance.
"The significance of this exhibition goes beyond its mere economic aspect," said Alain Juppé, the former prime minister of France. "It underscores the solidity of Franco-American relationships, over and beyond any such differences in viewpoint as may occur from time to time."
Although French winemakers were the largest presence at the show, with 123 companies represented, a number of other countries sent large contingents. Spain was represented by 78 wineries, and Portugal sent 38. Organizers expect some 10,000 wine and spirits industry professionals to attend the show -- and some 30,000 bottles to be opened -- over the course of the three-day event.