Slapping bigger health warnings on bottles of wine will damage ‘the soul of France" and turn it into a "criminal product" the country’s top chateaus have warned in a stinging rebuke to government efforts to reduce alcohol consumption among pregnant women and minors.
The producers were reacting to draft plans by France’s health minister, Agnès Buzyn, to slap two 2cm-wide logos in red on the front of each wine bottle – one warning women against drinking any wine during pregnancy and the other reminding customers that wine is illegal for under 18-year-olds.
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which makes the world’s most expensive wine, is among the signatories against the proposals, sent to industry officials three weeks ago.
French vintners are already obliged to include pictograms or a written message advising zero alcohol consumption during pregnancy but there is no legal minimum size or rules on colour. Nor is there currently any obligation to include a message warning against underage drinking.
The ministry wants the changes to come into force “by the end of the year”.
The new proposals came as a quarter of French mothers-to-be continue to drink alcohol, according to the National Institute for Health and Medical Research, and while France struggles with the relatively new phenomenon of teenage binge drinking.
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In a furious diatribe in Le Figaro, 64 of France’s most illustrious wine making domains, including Cheval Blanc, Petrus, Yquem as well as the Pol Roger and Roederer Champagne houses, accused the ministry of seeking to “spread fear”, and even asked whether its covert, long-term aim was to “ban all alcohol consumption in France” for good.
“We are the guardians of an exceptional heritage: French wine making,” they wrote. “Every day, by exporting our produce, we share with the world, novices and wine buffs alike, a part of the soul of France.” “Every day, our cellars, our domains and chateaus, our wine making landscapes, welcome thousands of tourists come to discover this France, bosom of the art de vivre that is the envy of the world and where wine plays a leading role.”
But the government, they warned, risked “sacrificing” all their endeavours by turning wine into a “criminal product”. “Are we going to have to, minister, send to France and the whole world our wines…with labels covered in lugubrious and deathly signs for the image or our produce?”
The angry tribune came weeks after French drinks producers, including vintners, issued an unprecedented pledge to pump €5 million over four years into raising awareness about the dangers of alcohol consumption among pregnant women and minors.
They suggested increasing the size of logos warning pregnant women not to drink to 0.8cm, up from an average size of around 0.3cm, and with more contrast so the logo was more easily recognisable. The government has not yet responded to their proposals.
Among the signatories against the health warning plan, Pierre-Henri Gaget of Maison Louis Jadot, called the draft proposals “beyond the pale”.
“We don’t carry the plague and don’t want to be tarred with the same brush as cigarette manufacturers,” he told the Telegraph.
“To stick two warnings on the front label with a red line through them is unbearable. Next they’ll be slapping photos with cancer victims and saying wine is to blame.”
He said the “spontaneous” protest by almost 70 top chateaus was just the start should the government persist with this line. “Next time, we’ll be 200, then 500. They have overstepped the mark.”
Mr Forgeau said he backed the messages the health ministry wanted to send, but said “the best way to get them through is via doctors or gynaecologists”.
“If a pregnant woman is looking at such a message on the bottle with a glass in her hand, it’s already too late,” he said. Attitudes have traditionally been relaxed in France over drinking the odd glass of wine when pregnant.
But warnings were first introduced in 2007 after several mothers of babies diagnosed with foetal alcohol syndrome sued the government for failing to alert them to the dangers.
More than 8,000 babies are born each year in France with mental or physical health problems caused by their mothers’ consumption of alcohol.
Dr Denis Lamblin, a paediatrician and head of an association that campaigns to make pregnant women more aware of the risks, has complained the current warning is not visible enough.
“Producers do everything to camouflage it. Why are there photos of malformed foetuses on cigarette packets when the consequences of smoking during pregnancy are less dramatic than those of alcohol,” he said when the government first mooted the idea of bigger labels.