With the end of the restrictions and the rise in living standards that followed the Second World War, wine lost its food function. Since 1995, in France, it has also lost its first place as a liquid accompaniment to a meal to the benefit of mineral water and soon industrial sweetened drinks. Only the supposedly quality wines are resisting the continuous decline in wine consumption, especially those linked to the notion of origin.
Founded by the decree-law of 30 July 1935 on the initiative of the Gironde senator Joseph CAPUS, the Comité National des Appellations d'Origine - renamed the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine in 1947 - the INAO has played an important role since that date.
In 1935, it was a slump for all French wines with a historical reputation. This did not prevent the presidents of the various wine associations from meeting for their annual congress. These notables, often wealthy landowners, took advantage of this to go on excursions. This is how, at La Tremblade, the green label of the Sanitary Control of Marennes Oysters attracted their attention and suggested a similar approach for wines with an origin.
The Anjou leaders of the time, Messrs ROSIN, FOURMOND and Pierre ROZE, persuaded their troops that this was the right option and brought the white and rosé wines of Anjou into the category of AOC wines.
This saved them from requisitioning during the war, when they benefited from a relative freedom of marketing.
When peace returned, the INAO moved to 137, Avenue des Champs Elysées. Mainly a legal department, it prepared the drafting of decrees as and when regional unions applied for AOC status.
The trilogy of local, loyal and constant uses was the obligatory criterion to be respected.
In the provinces, a Technical Advisor Engineer took over from the central authorities. In Anjou, it was the good Mr DUC who remained until his retirement in 1978.
The advent of mechanical traction, the arrival of new materials such as plastics and stainless steel, and the development of new technologies due to the progress of science applied to the vine and wine, produced a greater upheaval in practices in three decades than in the previous three centuries.
The INAO, which relied on customs, was hit hard by these innovations and, in order not to lose its footing, felt itself growing a reactionary soul. I once heard one of its members say that the INAO was "like an old maid who would accept nothing except to be raped". Which, by the way, it often was.
How does this organisation work, from a simple meeting of wine industry notables with few resources, to the main power of the French wine industry today?
French quality viticulture is divided into three classes, as at the time of the Estates General in 1789.
First, the Nobility.
It meets in its province or in Paris. It is made up of the professional or trader members, who sit on the regional committees or the national committee. These members are appointed by the political authorities on the proposal of the unions. Their mandate is therefore not elective. The political power arbitrates according to its own pleasure.
An appointment to the INAO is felt as an honour, a professional recognition: it ennobles one's man.
At the local level, the nobility remains small. A few meetings a year allow for inter-professional relations. The whole thing remained a rattle for the province: nothing was decided definitively. Only the right of veto was a possible means of action.
In the capital, it's a different story.
The National Committee introduces you to the cenacle of personalities in the French wine world. The selection is made by the authorities, who draw on the pool of regional councillors. The criteria, after the political recommendations, make it possible to recruit essentially the outgoing members. The age limit now pushes them, fortunately, towards the exit. The new, younger ones must have shown themselves to be in line with the orthodoxy in place to be appointed.
At present (decree of 3 August 1998), the national committee has 80 members. There are the professional representatives: 33 producers and 20 traders, then 18 so-called "qualified" persons chosen for their national and export activities. Finally, 9 representatives of the Administration.
The introduction of qualified personalities makes it possible to rectify the situation with lobbies that would not have had a place in the regional sector or would have been excluded by the age limit.
The whole thing is a subtle mix of political, trade union and economic influences under the barely majority cover of professional value. Sometimes there are complaints that are publicised in the press or arbitrated by the courts. On the whole, there are few stirrings.
The winegrowers have the role of the Third State, which, as we know, was subject to taillage and forced labour.
They intervene through the intermediary of the winegrowers' unions.
These, according to the official doctrine, are the basis of the INAO's policy, as it is their responsibility to make proposals. The Regional Committee studies the dossiers. If the latter gives a favourable opinion, the National Committee is informed.
At this point, the focus changes. The unions propose. The INAO disposes.
It is said that the professionals are the bosses. This is not true.
The French wine industry is neither one nor indivisible. One region only supports the initiative of another if it does not compete with it. Champagne keeps an eye on all other sparkling wines. Alsace reserves for itself the exclusive use of grape varieties, none of which are Alsatian in origin. It is easy for the Administration to divide and rule. All the more so since everyone is so keen on their place as a member of the INAO that they fit into the mould to stay there.
When a proposal catches its attention, the National Committee appoints a commission of enquiry, composed of members from outside the region. If there is a potential opponent among them, the dossier will not progress quickly. If the administrative rapporteur is reluctant, the drafting will suffer. A small one that does not interfere will be more easily granted than a competitor with young teeth. The proverb "depending on whether you are powerful or miserable" also applies to the INAO, because its structure facilitates its application.
It is the whole of the INAO administration that is comparable to the third constituent of the Estates General of 1789: a sort of Clergy, guardian of the Dogma, which defends its condition as much as the ritual, ready to excommunicate the infidel and whose sanctity becomes all the more evident as it is now "separated" from the faithful. The controller has long since replaced the technical adviser and trust is no longer the order of the day, no doubt on both sides.
This evolution has taken place little by little. The young recruits are not responsible for it. The mould has been set gradually and the function has created the body.
These new-style INAO agents are responsible to their employer. They are at their employer's service, not that of the winegrower, who often still ingenuously believes it.
Curiously, while the technical level of winegrowers has increased considerably in the excellent French wine schools, and while the managers of the vineyards are often more highly qualified than the staff of the INAO, it is the latter who is the final judge of the correct application of the stereotyped conditions of the decrees.
After these clarifications on the current composition of the INAO, let us return to our initial timetable, i.e. 1966.
The French legislator defines the appellation of origin as follows:
"An appellation of origin is the name of a country, region or locality used to designate a product originating therein, the quality or characteristics of which are due to the geographical environment, including natural and human factors.
Two years later, Europe requires all VQPRDs to undergo a production test, consisting of tasting and analysis.
French winegrowers have never asked for this formality, which is different from the one that awards a label. Whereas the label is a voluntary process, obtaining the certificate of approval is compulsory.
There should have been an explosion of opposition from the wine unions.
It did not take place because it was proposed to the unions to organise this examination themselves in partnership with the INAO.
The partner union took advantage of the approval to obtain ipso facto the winegrower's membership in the union...and the amount of his contribution.
When the compulsory tasting system was introduced in 1974, it was presented incidentally as a means of financing the partner unions. This was the main reason why the unions accepted it.
And the worm has got into the fruit.
Little by little, the silhouette of each appellation has been trivialised. It has been encased in an administrative straitjacket of production norms all stemming from the past.
At the same time, the important French vineyard of ordinary wines was losing its customers.
A 'conversion' was undertaken.
It is predicted that AOC wines, which represented about 10 million hectolitres out of a total of 60 million hectolitres of French wines during the 1960s and 1970s, will reach 26 million hectolitres out of a total of 57 million hectolitres in the 2002 harvest.
Their production has therefore been multiplied by 2.5, especially through the creation of new appellations contrôlées (450 to date).
In order to enter the holy of holies of the French wine elite, the candidates were given a flexible spine and administrative constraints were generously distributed to them.
As a result, now that they are in their turn, they are more royalist than the King on this ever-growing chapter. Through a very Latin self-secretion of more and more texts, the INAO has regulated and frozen the whole visible side of production. The grape varieties, the planting density, the distance along the row, the spacing between the vines, the height of the trellis, the number of eyes per vine, the date of the harvest, and so on are defined. The winegrower no longer has access to the initiative or the trial.
However, if the AOC is a mention that the promoted consider as "noble" since it extracts them from the unranked, it does not bring with it economic opulence. Rosé d'Anjou has been an example of this for 60 years. The AOC can be a lark.
It is an outdated concept because it is a concept doomed to the past. Its dogma emphasises a barbarism: typicity. In the approval tests - which are often insufficiently reliable - the wine must correspond to a type.
But what has made the reputation of a wine throughout history is not the consistency of the type of wine. It is the consistency of the pleasure that this wine has given to consumers over time.
At the time, if the INAO had existed, Champagne as we know it would never have seen the light of day. Muscadet would not have been born, which borrowed the Burgundy melon as a support for its grapes. Chateauneuf du Pape would never have known its master grape variety: Grenache, imported only in the 17th century, well after the departure of the Popes from Avignon.
It is because producers have had the genius to step out of the past that they have increased their success and maintained their reputation. Many curators have disappeared because they could not adapt or innovate.
Today, as a well-known writer in the wine world, Michel DOVAZ, succinctly put it: "the INAO wants to stop time. But stopping time means death".
If the INAO had had as many agents in 1950 as it has today, and if the president of the time had supported the current idea of reinforcing the control of production conditions, which is unfortunately going to happen, we would still be in the situation today with sulphur and copper-based treatment products, animal traction and all the wine-making equipment on display in museums today. Since nothing could have changed.
The vineyards of Angers are now 50 years behind. This is not the time required to pass to the stage of valuable antiquities. Personally, I put forward the idea that our vineyard would have disappeared, in spite of the efforts of the INAO to maintain its uses, because the users would have disappeared.
Production conditions are not intangible. Depending on the knowledge of the moment, the standards of the equipment made available, social behaviour and legal obligations with regard to work, even depending on the new practices of foreign winegrowers, everything that is done today can be called into question tomorrow.
Because the globalisation of wine production is a challenge for us. The French have contributed to it. Our oenologists operate all over the world. We have exported our know-how and many subsidiaries have been created by French wine companies in Chile, the USA, Australia and South Africa.
Only the small French winegrower has remained on his land.
So he clings to it and expects the INAO to allow him to stay there.
The legal defence of the AOC throughout the world must be its main mission in the face of globalisation: the protection of the name is the number one objective.
Secondly, the INAO must abandon as soon as possible the monopoly it has been granted, thanks to Brussels, of defining and fixing the quality of the wine of the appellation. The quality of a wine is too complex to be entrusted to a body that has an infused science on its agenda. Technocratic and administrative standardisation can only lead to collective wines produced by professionals reduced to the status of primary executors.
I know that I am being heretical in saying this, because I am proclaiming the opposite of "Inaoesque" thinking. And there are very few of us who do so.
A reaction is certainly beginning to take shape. The Internet is one of the vehicles for this opposition, which is still being expressed under the cloak. The risks are great for a professional to oppose a power that can enslave you through routine controls, which are quite regular even if their frequency seems great to the person concerned.
This opposition is in fact that of the spirit against the letter, of the modern against the old, of the advocates of progress against those of tradition. It is still unorganised, a minority, sometimes philistine, sometimes ready to replace one ayatollah's regime with another.
I doubt that it will be effective in the near future when faced with a colossus so sure of itself, so totalitarian, that the alternative of democracy does not seem applicable to it.
However, it must be said that the INAO cannot continue in this suicidal way. It must accompany and protect, not direct.
The future of the French vineyard, its "sustainable development", depends on it.