PARIS (Reuters Life!) - The French wine trade fears new health rules could force vintners to keep the cork on bottles when visitors come to their cellars, dealing a serious blow to growing wine tourism by stigmatizing the beverage.
French parliament will debate early in March a proposed law that carries an article banning promotional sales of alcoholic beverages as a way of curtailing binge-drinking among youths.
The wine sector fears the cure may be worse than the disease and could lead to a ban on wine tastings at a time of limits on advertising and plans to attack Internet sales.
"It's unthinkable, it would be a disaster and many people in France could lose their job. Tastings are an integral part of promoting wine and educating people to consume with reason," said Marie-Christine Tarby, head of the Wine and Society body.
Tarby said that France was less impacted by binge-drinking than other countries and wine played no role in that phenomenon.
The wine trade and French health authorities have an uneasy relationship that led two journalists, Denis Saverot and Benoit Simmat, to title a 2008 book on the sector "In Vino Satanas!."
This means the devil is in the wine, a play on the Latin saying 'in vino veritas' that means the truth is in wine.
"While every Japanese, Chinese and American knows that France is the country of great wines, France today wants to abdicate its Bacchic pre-eminence," they wrote.
"All of France? No, the glum France, that has replaced the glorious 'Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood' with 'Prevention, precaution and public health'," they added.
For many people, wine is part and parcel of French culture and history.
The sector employs 340,000 people and wine is among the top 10 export revenue earners. Wine and vines are part of the attractions that make France a top world tourism destination.
Wine, cheese, baguette, beret and Eiffel Tower are among the key words that people associate with France.
Tourists visit vineyards and taste the wines, buying bottles to take home (www.winetourisminfrance.com).
But for the health lobby, the eternal image of a Frenchman with a black beret and blue shirt sitting at a table with an open bottle of cheap wine is an outrage and outdated.
Encouraged by recent successes such as a smoking ban for restaurants and bars and advertisement restrictions, the health authorities want the French to drink less and fight alcoholism.
Alcohol was related to 22 percent of traffic deaths in France in 2007 and is a contributing factor to heart disease.
At the same time, some doctors have found that modest consumption of wine can be beneficial to hearts and health.
The wine organizations, such as those of the Burgundy or Bordeaux wine makers, have not been sitting still and are doing their bit to fight drink-driving by handing out breathalyzers.
Any adverts promoting wine need to carry a warning urging people to consume modestly and on some wine Web sites it spelled out that 'moderation' means a maximum of three glasses a day for a man, two for a woman, and at least one day a week off drink.
The image of wine in France has taken a few hits recently.
President Nicolas Sarkozy does not drink wine and Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe auctioned off a good part of the town hall's famed wine collection.
The French wine journalists association, APV, is upset because some articles on wine are considered as pushing people to drink. In December 2007, the popular Paris daily Le Parisien was condemned by a court for a series of articles on Champagne.
The bugbear for the wine lobby is the ANPAA -- the national association for the prevention of alcoholism and addiction.
"We understand very well that we cannot forbid youngsters to get their kicks, that people get drunk," ANPAA president Alain Rigaud said at a news conference.
"We are an association for prevention (of alcohol abuse). What we want is to make excesses more difficult -- for example if one closes open bars and forbids sale at night it will become very difficult to find alcohol," he added. "Limiting the sale and the accessibility to the public is not a ban on consumption. Alcohol remains a licit product," he said.
The organization which fights alcoholism and other addictions with counseling and lobbying actions has a history going back to 1872 and the Temperance Movement.
From its inception, its aims were to inform the public about the dangers of alcohol, help victims and contribute to the reduction of alcohol production. It is financed by clinics, health insurance and the state and employs 1,250 people.
ANPAA is part of the Eurocare international grouping that aims for a European Union where the interests of collective health take precedence over individual economic interests.
"Alcohol is not just a marketable commodity. It is a toxic, psychotropic and dependence-inducing drug. Because of that, its use must be publicly controlled. The means of alcohol production, distribution, consumption and control must be tackled at a European level," Eurocare says on its website.
The wine growers, however, do not want their relatively low-alcohol drinks to be treated the same as hard booze, or alcopops targeting juvenile drinkers.
"They are rather dogmatic," said Tarby about ANPAA.
It is up to French parliament to decide.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau