PARIS — Sophie Chanceaux was committed to “Dry January,” but sipping tap water during dinners with friends was too depressing. So she crossed the French capital to join customers exploring the racks of nonalcoholic wines and other drinks at a shop called Le Paon qui Boit, or “the Drinking Peacock.”
“Sweet, but a bit too much so,” she assessed after tasting a sauvignon viognier blend.
The opening of the Drinking Peacock this past year, along with the emergence of a smattering of other nonalcoholic businesses, has given rise to news stories about how France has finally embraced the nonalcoholic drinks boom. But that notion prompts amusement even among the Parisians shopping for concentrated ginger shots and zero percent gin.
Chanceaux, 54, said that she struggled to convince anyone to join her in forgoing alcohol for January — and that she understands the resistance.
“There are so many bans right now. ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’” she said. “Times are tough, so it’s not easy to tell people to stop drinking.”
In France, people tend to view the Dry January health challenge at best as a puzzling foreign concept and at worst as a Trojan horse that could threaten the country’s jobs and cultural identity.
In recent op-eds, wine lobbyists have mocked the concept as a “British import” — a knockout argument in France. They have argued that the French don’t need more sobriety because they aren’t into binge drinking anyway and they have already sufficiently lowered their per capita wine consumption to just four times the U.S. average. And while Americans have for weeks encountered motivating Dry January guides in their social media feeds, the French may have had to scroll past posts and articles describing the challenge as a “joke,” or as an “American thing that can be pushed aside like Halloween.”
The Drinking Peacock has seen a rise in customers since December, but overall, the French market for alcohol-free drinks remains relatively small. Only a few thousand people have officially signed up for the challenge. And there is no reason to believe this year will be any different from January 2022, when campaigners estimated that tens of millions of French would commit to a month of no alcohol, but consumption actually increased among people over 50 and only marginally dropped among younger people, compared with January 2020.
French brasseries and bars have been bustling — and not with the kinds of customers ordering lemonades or sodas, it seems.
The French government briefly flirted with launching a Dry January campaign in 2020. It would have been in line with the government’s sponsorship of Smoke-Free November. But officials abandoned the plan under pressure from winemakers.
Producers say they are already under threat as a result of a decrease in wine consumption, from a peak of 136 liters per person a year in 1926 — when even children were drinking wine in French schools — to about 40 liters today. The share of regular wine drinkers has dropped from more than 50 percent in the 1980s to less than 20 percent.
Out of a half-million jobs in France directly linked to the alcohol sector, as many as 150,000 may disappear within the next decade, the wine industry warns.
President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to prevent that from happening. The French leader has touted that he has wine with lunch and dinner, and he said that a meal without wine “is a bit sad.” Macron’s presidency, Le Monde wrote, has turned into a “dream term for the alcohol sector.” Last year, the French Wine Review awarded him the coveted title of “personality of the year.”
Over much of the past two centuries, there has been a widely held but false belief within French culture — often encouraged by government authorities and even health experts — “that there is good alcohol and bad alcohol — and good alcohol would be in wine,” historian Kolleen Marie Guy said.
When campaigners in the northwestern French region of Brittany launched a three-day Dry January in the 1970s and 1980s, the effort was widely mocked. Wine enthusiasts went as far as to claim that one cannot get drunk from wine. And, as recently as 2019, France’s Agriculture Minister argued that wine “isn’t like other alcohols.”
“Trying to undo 200 years of promotion of wine,” Guy said, “it’s going to be a bit of a hard sell.”
Martine Cipière said she and her partner, Marc Alberola, faced online mockery when they opened France’s first zero percent wine shop, in the southwestern town of Bazas, two years ago. Restaurants have been reluctant to work with them.
“But little by little, it’s changing,” she said.
As in other countries, to the extent that there is sober curiosity in France, it is largely driven by young customers, with some analysts estimating that the global market for nonalcoholic wine could almost triple over the next decade.
Drinking Peacock owner Augustin Laborde said many of his customers alternate between alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks. But his products “are still perceived as a threat” to the traditional wine sector, he said.
Adding nonalcoholic versions to their portfolios wouldn’t take winemakers too much effort, advocates say. Many producers simply remove the alcohol from normal wines by forcing the liquid through semipermeable membranes, spinning it, or boiling off most of the alcoholic components. The wines usually have up to 0.5 percent alcohol by volume left once they reach the shelves — it’s like eating an overripe banana.
But while producing nonalcoholic versions isn’t technologically challenging, some French winemakers may fear reputational damage.
Cipière said she had to go with a German merchant to supply her with de-alcoholized Bordeaux wine — even though her shop is near France’s Bordeaux wine region.
Guy, the historian, sees sparkling nonalcoholic wines as the perhaps biggest opportunity for French producers. Given that the French are almost as invested in choosing their sparkling water as they are in choosing their wines, “people might see it as an acceptable substitute for sparkling water,” Guy said, “as opposed to somebody taking offense because it’s not real Champagne.”
The same could apply to nonalcoholic cocktails, which are the focus of a growing number of French entrepreneurs like 29-year-old Henri Volpiliere. He was offering samples at the Drinking Peacock one day this month, emphasizing the drinks’ “long finish,” “aromatic complexity” and organic ingredients.
“Often, people are positively surprised,” he said. “With nonalcoholic wine, it’s easy to be disappointed, because they’re looking for exactly the same taste.”
But Chanceaux, the customer who had just tasted the nonalcoholic sauvignon, was feeling brave.
“I have a dinner tomorrow night,” she said. “And I’ll bring it along.”