Treatment Plant Uncorks French Vintners' Rage

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 7, 2009; 11:02 PM

GIVRY, France -- For more than 1,000 years, monks and peasants have coaxed a light-hearted Burgundy from the gently sloping vineyards that rise from this little village in eastern France. Henri IV declared it his favorite 400 years ago, the legend goes, and it is safe to say that without the wine, Givry probably would not exist.

So when an outside company set out to build a high-tech factory here to sort and treat industrial waste, Givry winemakers took it as an insult to their heritage and a threat to their livelihood. The factory, they said, would bring pollution from solvents and perhaps even an accidental discharge, besmirching their product's carefully constructed image of timeless tradition dependent on the delicate alchemy of soil and sun.

"We're in an elite little corner of France, and what we do here you can't do anywhere else in the world," said Eric Desvignes, a vintner and the son of a vintner, who heads the Givry Wine Producers Union and makes a line of Givry Burgundy with his family name prominent and proud on the label. "The idea of such a factory makes no sense."

The source of the Givry winemakers' outrage, which has driven them into the courts, is a small problem in terms of the number of people it affects. The population in the village, where the church steeple is still the tallest structure around, is 3,600. But it is part of a broader struggle throughout France, the struggle to balance tradition and modernization, that goes deep into the country's soul and is proving more challenging as the years go by.

Facing strenuous competition in Europe and beyond, France has found it hard to preserve the good life that made it famous, symbolized by three-hour lunches and fine wines, and still meet the imperatives of a modern economy. As French leaders point out, those include clear heads all afternoon in the office -- and places to handle poisonous wastes produced by hospitals and factories across an industrialized country of 64 million people.

French wine producers have found themselves at the center of the battle in recent years, and often on the losing side. In many ways, their dilemma is incarnated by President Nicolas Sarkozy, an iconoclastic leader who makes a point of not drinking wine and was elected in 2007 on a pledge to make France "work more and earn more."

Sarkozy has presided over a crackdown on drunken driving that has effectively ruled out any more than a taste of wine for motorists. Even before he took office, the government had banned alcohol advertisements on TV and at the movies. A new law that passed Thursday prohibits open bars. It was drawn up to discourage student binges but had to be amended after winemakers pointed out that, as written, it would also have ended the traditional -- and lucrative -- tastings across Bordeaux, Burgundy and other famous wine-producing regions.

French winemakers have also come under challenge from fellow Europeans and New World producers such as Australia, Chile and the United States. Last year, France lost its status as the world's largest wine producer, ceding to Italy. Since 2005, it has been outranked by Spain as the world's largest wine exporter as measured by volume.

"French producers are not the best in strategy and marketing, and they continue to sell wine as they did in the past," Xavier de Eizaguirre, president of the Vinexpo wine trade exhibition and director of the Baron Philippe de Rothschild Bordeaux maker, told Le Figaro newspaper recently.

Givry winemakers said the idea of a waste treatment facility within sight of their vineyards makes them cringe because their wine's image is so sensitive. Givry long suffered from a reputation as a second-tier Burgundy, they said, outshone by big names to the north, such as Beaune and Gevrey Chambertin. Since they expanded the acreage of hillsides devoted to pinot noir grapes and improved their harvests and skills over the past three decades, their market status has at last risen, Givry vintners said.

"We are the first generation to benefit from all that work," said Ludovic du Gardin, whose domaine, Clos Salomon, has a family line running back more than three centuries. "And now this."

In addition, the growers said, they felt deceived by Praxyval, the Tours-based company that bought a closed paint factory on the edge of Givry in 2007 and announced it would build a facility on the site to handle discarded containers. Only later, said Givry Mayor Daniel Villeret, did people discover the plant would also treat potentially dangerous industrial wastes.

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