French Whine
By Richard Tomlinson

(FORTUNE Magazine) – This summer a French politician named Alain Suguenot proposed a novel way to rescue the ailing French wine industry: Create an official body modeled on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to counter prejudice against French wine.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. French people have been so freaked out by health campaigns that they now drink half as much wine --a fourth of a bottle a day--as their predecessors in the 1960s. French wine is being hammered abroad too: Last year New World vintners overtook the French for the first time in foreign markets, exporting 1.93 billion bottles, vs. France's 1.78 billion.

A Department of Wine Security is hardly the only out-there remedy for this crise de vin. A group of wine growers near Toulouse wants to organize a "crusade of common sense," claiming the maximum safe amount for French drivers is three glasses--a point disputed by road-safety campaigners. A parliamentary commission is suggesting that wine be made a compulsory subject in French schools to reestablish national wine awareness. The same commission is lobbying the French government to designate wine as a "cultural product" to entitle French wine growers to bigger subsidies, and it also wants wine designated a "nutrient" to get around French restrictions on alcohol ads.

So far the government has agreed to boost the annual wine-marketing budget by 50%, to $18.5 million; to allow vintners to add wood chips to wine to create an oak flavor; and to let mid-market winemakers use New World--type labels that feature the grape variety (say, merlot) more prominently than the wine-growing area. In an industry bound by tradition, those are no small victories. California champagne, anyone? --Richard Tomlinson