An aging industry’s response

By Emma Vandore

CHABLIS, France — Fine French wine with a screw top?

At La Cote Saint Jacques restaurant, a Michelin three-star temple of gastronomy in the Burgundy region, chief sommelier Arnaud Laplanche isn’t ashamed to give it a try.

He’s part of a quiet revolution sweeping the French wine business, the world’s largest and fighting to stay that way.

France’s goal: to hold off New World winemakers that have wooed wine lovers and gained market share with jazzy marketing campaigns, helpful information on what’s inside the bottle, and quality assurances that some French wines lacked.

Screw tops, boxed wines, colorful easy-to-understand labels and sophisticated marketing – innovations pioneered by countries like Australia and South Africa – are making inroads in tradition-bound France, even if many still sneer.

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“We didn’t see the danger coming from the New World – where competition came with a completely new approach to wine making,” said Renaud Gaillard, deputy head of the French Federation of Wine and Spirits Exporters.

“Finally we understood we had to change not only production but also the way the product is presented. We had to make the buying process easier.”

La Cote Saint Jacques serves Chablis Grand Cru Reserve de l’Obedience at $326 with a screw-top cap. It is the most expensive wine made in the Laroche vineyards in nearby Chablis and isn’t available with a cork.

Laplanche said he was initially reluctant to give up the showman part of his job – uncorking a bottle – but was won over by the taste and prospect of no more wines that are spoiled by premature oxidization – “corked,” in wine parlance.

“It takes away the charm of opening the bottle, smelling the cork,” he said. “But it’s very frustrating when a wine is corked. Screw tops are a more sure way of preserving the wine.”

The screw-top shake-up was inspired as much by practical considerations as by consumer preference. Increased demand on cork suppliers has forced manufacturers to harvest immature cork, which some suspect causes the oxidization.

While some argue that wines requiring more oxygen as they age require an old-fashioned cork, many winemakers are turning to more reliable seals for all but their heaviest reds.

Back in 2001, a bleak report on the state of the French wine industry written for the Agriculture Ministry urged winemakers to lose the snobbish attitude and be more attentive to consumers. The 80-page document included a five-point lesson in marketing for beginners: product, price, promotion, packaging and place.

“A logic of marketing didn’t exist before,” said Gaillard.

“We started talking about marketing of the offer and marketing of the demand – terms which are quite unbelievable for wine – but we now know what they mean.”

Since then French producers have taken steps to make their wine more accessible.

Bottles are starting to look different. Some old-fashioned labels with grainy pictures of wine chateaux are going out, replaced with bright colors, brand names and innovations once unheard of such as printing directly onto the bottle.

Associated Press reporters Nick D’Alessio and Daniel Petty contributed to this report