French legal tangle sours wine on web

9th June 2008, Comments 0 comments

Lingering uncertainty over whether wine ads on the Internet are legal in France is angering wine professionals in Bordeaux.

9 June 2008

BORDEAUX - Lingering uncertainty over whether or not wine ads on the Internet are legal in France is angering wine professionals in Bordeaux.
"It is ridiculous not to be able to use the Internet, the law must be adapted," said Alain Vironneau, president of the Bordeaux Wine Board (the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux, or CIVB).

"It's an extraordinary communications tool and it would be idiotic for the development of the wine business not to be able to use it."

Turmoil over wine ads on the web dates back to a court case in France last February against international beer giant Heineken, which forced it to close its French website.

The judge in the case ruled that because the Internet was not on a 1991 list of approved media for alcohol publicity, web-based wine ads were therefore illegal.

The fact the internet did not exist in its current form at the time was taken into account, but only to the extent that the court advised that the 1991 law - known as the "Loi Evin" which governs alcohol and tobacco publicity - be updated. Heineken is currently appealing the case.

"In France whatever is not legal is illegal, in America it is the other way around, that is why we are in this incomprehensible situation," said Patrick Bernard, director of one of Bordeaux's biggest online wine providers, Millesima.

The current attitude to alcohol in France was "neo-prohibitionist," he added.

But the Heineken ruling is further complicated by a case which in November 2004 concluded that any mention of an alcoholic drink product be considered to be publicity.

The result of the two cases combined are widely understood by the trade as having outlawed the Internet as a means of communication for all alcoholic drinks in France, with wine being the hardest hit.

"We are in an absurd situation," said Marie Christine Tarby, president of Vin et Societe, an association that has been battling to have the Internet included as one of the state approved mediums for alcohol publicity.

Tarby, who was in Bordeaux to address the CIVB last April, said her dual aim was to mobilise and inform the wine sector, because, she said, many do not realise how bad the situation actually is.

Asked if the current laws, taken to their logical conclusion meant the sites of the most iconic Bordeaux chateau, including Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour, Lafite and Yquem, as well as any others, are in fact illegal, Tarby said yes.
The impact the legal tangle is having on wine sales is not clear, but Axel Vallet, export director at Ginestet, another major Bordeaux wine merchant, estimated that if he had to work without a website he would lose five to ten new business prospects a month.
"Particularly new importers from Asia, or Canada, for example," he said. "It is our shop window, it just can't happen, to not use it would be absurd."

Thomas Duroux, director of a top Bordeaux chateau, Palmer, also said it was impossible to estimate potential loss of business, but said for a new wine brand, life without the web would be impossible.

Apart from the legal aspect, Tarby said self censorship would quickly kick in. She said a move by Microsoft to deactivate all key words and publicity links relating to wine sales as of June 1 on its French MSN site, has fulfilled her predictions.

"In effect [French] law underlines that the Internet is not one of the approved mediums for alcohol publicity," said the message from Microsoft adCenter, sent last month.

The unprecedented move, which wine professionals see as a major threat, has yet to be followed by Yahoo or Google, but if it were, said Julien Pichoff of the French online wine blog and search engine, it would be the end of wine sales on the web -- which are authorised.

So far Google France has stayed cool, however, saying it does not yet see a problem.

But the email from Microsoft came as Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot was considering measures to curb younger drinkers intent on binge drinking.

Possible measures, due in place by October this year, include a ban on happy hours and open bars, raising the legal age for buying beer and wine from 16 to 18, and a total ban on alcohol sales from service stations.

While fully supporting moderate drinking, the French wine sector fears it will be unnecessarily penalised by any new laws.

On a more constructive note, the fact that a government working group - the members of which were announced 5 June - is now in place to study ways of allowing the wine sector to communicate via the web, has been welcomed.

But Tarby says the only aim of this group must be to look at how the Internet can be legalised for wine communications, not whether it is necessary or not.

"And we have asked that this be done by 1 July," she said. The group says
it hopes to have results "very rapidly."

[AFP / Expatica]

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