THE 1,500 guests expected at the French Embassy today will be largely oblivious to it. They will sip imported champagne, munch on hors d'oeuvres and sample French cheeses--just as past Bastille Day celebrants have done here for many years.
Ambassador and Madame Bernard Vernier-Palliez, spending their first diplomatic summer in Washington, will likely converse with their guests on many other matters--the weather, last Sunday's soccer finals in Madrid and, perhaps, the declining French franc.
Yet, beyond the casual conversation and the pageantry of Bastille Day, a new French Revolution is gaining momentum. But this time around, the target is not the French aristocracy. Rather, the lines of battle have been drawn around the U.S., and French sights are trained squarely at the American wine consumer.
Slowly but determinedly, the ministers of the new Socialist government are revolutionizing the promotion of French wine imports in America. Recent shifts in marketing strategies and the solid backing of the Mitterrand administration signal the beginning of nothing less than an all-out campaign to conquer the U.S. import market.
"There is no reason why we should not do it," remarks Pierre Colmant, commercial minister at the French Embassy in Washington, while acknowledging the wide lead currently held by the Italians. But, he emphasizes, the French want to keep "control" over their wine imports, "unlike many Italian brands which belong to American companies."
Like the other revolution nearly 200 years ago, the focus of the current French campaign is clearly more proletarian than bourgeois. Sales of chateau- and estate-bottled "premium" wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy remain important to the French. Their reputation has been built on such wines. But to surpass the Italians and to make a million grape-growing French farmers happy, the modern-day revolutionaries must promote the sales of everyday table wines.
Nowhere is this new promotional policy more evident than in the embassy's wine cellar itself. Conducting a tour recently of her temperature-controlled "cave," Denise Vernier-Palliez did not apologize for the relative scarcity of prestigious or special older wines. "We can't have 30-year-old wines here," she says. "The embassy cannot afford it."
Despite some half-dozen well-aged curiosities (1934 Chateau d'Yquem, 1964 Chateau Haut Brion, 1967 Chateau Gruaud Larose, 1971 Corton-Louis Latour and a magnum of 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc) and approximately a dozen cases of claret from "classified" chateaux (1971 Chateau Beychevelle, 1971 Chateau La Lagune, 1974 Chateau Latour, 1976 Chateau Margaux, 1976 Chateau Smith Haut-Lafitte and 1977 Chateau Pichon Lalande), the modest cellar contains a large inventory of good but inexpensive wines (16 cases of 1980 Macon Blanc, 12 cases of 1979 Givry-Nicolas and 14 cases of 1978 Chateau Mauvesin, a Haut Medoc cru superior). While several bottles of 1976 Chassagne Montrachet, 1979 Meursault and 1979 Premier Cru Chablis can be spotted, there are also plenty of 1977 Lichine Pinot Chardonnay, 1977 Bourgogne Blanc, 1979 Alsace Gewurztraminer and two cases of red wine from Bandol, in Provence.
Indeed, the French recognize that the Italians have established their import dominance in America by marketing large quantities of inexpensive table wines. The French, by contrast, have restricted their promotional and marketing activities in the past to "AOC" (appellation of origin) wines, which account for only 16 percent of total French production. Colmant and his agricultural attache, Jean-Claude Turnal, are recruiting French producers of table wines who can compete with the Italians and their cheaper imports in the American market.
"We went to firms that were successful in Europe--that could guarantee the quality, the quantity and a price at about $3--to sell in the U.S. market," Colmant says, pointing to firms such as Nicolas, Bouchard and B & G. He predicts that within the next three years there will be half a dozen more.
This revolutionary shift in philosophy is premised largely on French perceptions that American tastes are changing. "When I came here," Colmant notes, "I discovered that the Americans were getting close to the French in their drinking habits. Thanks to the Californians, wine has become a normal drink, especially white wine."
Colmant sees current American tastes moving from dry white to light red wines. "It has been a white wine market which is gradually shifting to red," he says. "I think, in the next 10 years, red wine consumption in America will be greater than whites."
To be sure, this revolution's vanguard includes Colmant and other ministers. But French public relations officials are also entering the fray. SOPEXA, an organization jointly financed by the government and industry to promote French exports, has been waging an intensive advertising campaign in the New York City market for the past year. The "Incomparable Wines of France" promotion will shift to Los Angeles next year, and after that to other metropolitan areas.
Colmant believes that the U.S. is comprised of many submarkets, and that promoters must be sensitive to the preferences and tastes peculiar to each.. "The population of Texas is about the same as the population of Belgium," he says. "So I tell French producers that they should plan a promotional campaign in Texas the way you plan a campaign in Belgium." He believes that many good but smaller French wine firms should concentrate on select U.S. submarkets.
While Colmant expects that a massive campaign will be aimed at the Washington area "in all due time," he notes that the embassy here has cosponsored two tastings recently for restaurateurs and members of the wine trade. "With limited resources," he says, "we prefer to concentrate directly on the professionals."
Colmant concedes that the new policy, which he terms as "very aggressive," is a dramatic break from the almost arrogant marketing approach used in the past (which the French are often accused of having perfected to nearly an art form). Eyebrows have been raised even along the Rhone, the Marne and the Gironde by this call to arms. To those Frenchmen who remain critical of the new campaign, Colmant counters that they are missing a huge opportunity in America. "They are simply not living with the times," he says. Today, he adds, most French exporters are very careful and very sophisticated in their approach. "The 'fancy exporter' is finished."
Within their reach, the French believe, are even the Californians. Colmant says he "enjoys" California wines, and Denise Vernier-Palliez thinks they are "extremely good."
But the French maintain that in the long run, price is a factor that will be in their favor. "The cost of production in the United States is very high," Colmant notes. "In France, you can buy one acre and make great wine." He is critical of the quality of jug wines produced by the very large California producers. "It might be chauvinistic to say," he adds with a smile, "but I think that the more people in the United States are used to drinking wines in a decent way, the more open-minded they become. They will find our wines to be the best."
There are no California wines in the French ambassador's cellar.
When asked about the eight cases of Winemasters California Mountain Burgundy being stored in a basement corridor of the ambassador's residence, Denise Vernier-Palliez quickly explains that they belong to the staff. "They buy their own wines, and, you know, they need something inexpensive." She asserts that California wines will never appear at the French embassy dinners. "For prestige," she says, "I don't think we could serve an American wine."