If you're waiting for a big drop in the prices of French wine you may be getting thirsty. A Washington importer-wholesaler said that we've been misled if we think there are going to be any real savings, adding that "anybody who says that prices are going to come down just doesn't know anything about the business side of wine."
It appears that many of us do expect lower prices. A retailer remarked that customers frequently ask why the French wines on his shelves have not been lowered. Whence this optimism?
It's all to do with the strong dollar. Eighteen months ago the dollar was worth five French francs. This summer it hovered just below seven francs. Simply, that should mean that American importers were buying more French wine for their dollars, or, put another way, the same wine should cost less.
When was international trade ever simple? The truth, sad to relate, is that much of the gains make by the favorable dollar have been offset by inflation in France, in transatlantic shipping and here at home. The current inflation rate in France is 12 percent, down from 14 percent last year, but the wine industry has additional, internal inflationary factors. The 1981 crop in general was smaller than average, yet of sufficiently good quality that growers expected higher prices. And landowners have had a bundle of taxes and labor regulations to contend with since the socialist government came into office and are reacting with nervousness.
Above all, the single most inflationary item both in France and here at home is the cost of money. "If you don't borrow, you're not in business," said another importer-retailer. And with interest rates being high, the cost of borrowing money is affecting the price of the goods right down the line.
My wholesaler contact offered a caustioulsy optimistic view: "If interest rates continue to fall, if the '82 vintage is a success, as suming everything else to be equal, we might see a slight, slight decrease by June '83." But for now, the dollars are not falling off the pick stickers. With the exception of the futures (a small pro-portion of the bordeaux and burgundy market and one that routinely plays the currency exchange game), the most we can expect off a bottle is a quarter here and a half-dollar there.
Nevertheless, there is a sound reason for the trade's revitalized interest in French wines. It is stability. This fall we have the best chance for stable prices since the present spiral started in 1976. In other words, the wine you buy ofr $6 today should still be $6 next January or next June.
As I see it, American lovers of French wines are like the gambler who expects to lose $100 at the races. He loses $80 and goes home to tell his wife that he made $20 that day. We've become so resigned to frequent price increases of French wines that a stable market is psychologically equivalent to a decrease. Vive le dollar!