The French Stop Laughing at White Zin

Ah, the humiliation of it all: Statistics recently released by the European Union (referenced in this USDA report on the European wine market) show that the United States has passed France in exports of wine to Great Britain. The British market is critical to the French wine industry. It was thirsty Brits on the hunt for something to drink who invented the modern international wine market, and since the 12th-century marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry II, England has been France’s biggest customer.

Tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, Canterbury Cathedral
Tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, Canterbury Cathedral

England still is France’s biggest customer, but France is no longer England’s biggest supplier. A few years ago, Australia outsold France, supplying what some French condescendingly dismissed as vulgar fruit bombs to a new generation of English wine drinkers. Vulgar or not, the Australian invasion of England caused enormous pain for French farmers. The market for vin de table (the French legal designation for inexpensive, mass produced wine—at least until the new, improved, EU-approved “Vin de France” kicks in) collapsed, inspiring tractor-driving French farmers to block traffic in protest. The French government propped up prices, buying surplus wine and either storing it or distilling it down to alcohol to power, among other things, the tractors of French farmers.

In 2006, the European Union demanded that France stop paying its farmers to produce bad wine no one likes, because that’s apparently Bulgaria’s job. At exactly the moment when France was being forced to cut subsidies, American wine came on strong. That same year, a consortium of wineries—including Gallo—underwrote a “wine on the rocks” advertising campaign that appalled purists but boosted the consumption of rosé wines by more than 50%. Rosé is a category that includes White Zinfandel.

The Brits are nuts about white Zin, especially the younger generation. Sales of pink wines are up more than 100% in the last three years, and more than half of the rosé sold in England is White Zin. Gallo now reportedly the top seller across Great Britain.

The French reaction to the looming crisis is fascinating. Being French, they’re not so much focused on solving the problem as they are dedicated to arguing, mostly with one other. The 21 regional bodies that govern French winemaking need to pool their money to fund some advertising and promotion, but aren’t able to agree on what needs to be done. The result is that France, unlike its competitors, has no coordinated marketing effort in England. While Americans leverage the soft-focus imagery of the sexy Napa Valley and Australia invites uptight Brits to relax and throw another shrimp on the barbie, the French haggle over whether Burgundy or Bordeaux is more French.

Which has led to an uprising among British wine sellers whose profits depend on high-margin, inexpensive French wines. This summer, a group of 25 leading UK retailers and importers drafted a letter to French agriculture & fisheries minister Michel Barnier, imploring: “We are united in the belief that France needs to change the way it promotes it wine in the UK if it is to ever regain—or even stabilize—its market share.”

France is, of course, a nation resistant to change. French winemaking, in particular, is slavishly devoted to maintaining tradition. A chunk of the French wine industry is likely to ride that dedication proudly into bankruptcy, in large measure because the nation that makes the world’s greatest wines isn’t able to compete with White Zinfandel.

Imagine that.

— Tom Johnson is a writer and consultant who lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he is working on a book about the marvelous and sometimes ridiculous ways wine has changed history. His blog is