French 'wine terrorists' take aim at foreign imports

1st May 2009, Comments 0 comments

The activist group are angered over French merchants who bring in cheap foreign wine from neighbouring Italy or Spain and has called for the state to guarantee prices for local producers.

Uzes -- In Languedoc-Roussillon in the sunny south of France, a shadowy group has taken to "wine terrorism" to try to force the state to do more for producers hit by falling prices and cheap imports.

In a night-time raid last month, its militants broke into a wine cooperative in Nimes and poured the equivalent of 1.2 million bottles of red, white and rose down the drain in their third attack in as many weeks.

"At 7 am, when the first person arrived ... he saw that all the vats were open and empty, with what was left of the wine all over the ground," said Jean Foch, the director of the Vignerons des Garrigues cooperative.

The wasted wine was worth around 630,000 euros (830,000 dollars), he said, adding that most of it was from Languedoc-Roussillon, which in terms of volume is the biggest wine-producing region in the world.

Scrawled on the empty vats were the letters "CRAV", which in French stands for the Regional Committee for Viticultural Action, a secretive group that recently resumed a campaign it began several years ago.

The CRAV hates merchants who bring in cheap foreign wine from neighbouring Italy or Spain and has called for the state to guarantee prices for local producers.

The group, which once warned President Nicolas Sarkozy that "blood will flow" if it was not heeded, has in recent years claimed responsibility for bomb attacks on supply trucks, supermarkets, and the ministry of agriculture.

"These people do not understand the global market," railed Jean-Fred Coste, vice-president of the Vignerons des Garrigues, who said 85 percent of the wine his cooperative deals in is French, with just 15 percent coming from abroad.

But executives at the cooperative -- which produces more than 38 million litres of wine a year -- agree that current market prices are disastrously low because of a glut of wine.

There is so much over-production here that the European Union offers subsidies to growers who agree to uproot their vines and start growing something else instead.

Other subsidies on offer encourage growers to make wine of much higher quality than the run-of-the-mill stuff that makes up most of the region's output, and sells for a per bottle price that starts around three euros (four dollars).

Combine over-production with the global economic crisis and the situation looks even bleaker in a region where wine, along with tourism, is the main money-spinner.

"Wine isn't just a key industry here, it's part of the local heritage," and goes back to Roman times and beyond, said Gregory Jorda of the Collines du Bourdic wine producers' cooperative.

The winery he works for, near the pretty medieval town of Uzes, lies in the heart of the wine-growing area and is surrounded by vineyards that stretch off to the horizon.

"Some (wine-growers) have considered stopping altogether," he said as he stood next to the giant vats in which last year's grape harvest -- from the 80 vineyards that form the cooperative -- is fermenting.

"But they'd rather take government subsidies first, either to simply go into retirement or to convert their land for other produce. But that kind of conversion is difficult," said Jorda.

Locals are fiercely proud of their wine heritage, and many financially troubled wine growers sympathise with the aims of the CRAV, even if they distance themselves from its violence.

The CRAV issue is so sensitive that few wine-growers will even discuss it with the media.

"No comment," replied Jorda when asked for his thoughts.

The CRAV has made reference in its statements to a local winemakers' revolt in 1907 in the town of Montpellier, when the army shot dead six of the many thousands of protestors who had taken to the streets to defend local growers.

In 2009 the situation is unlikely to get quite as violent. But with the price per litre dropping by around 50 percent in recent years, more CRAV attacks cannot be ruled out.

Rory Mulholland/AFP/Expatica

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