Thursday, June 21, 2007

Beverage of the Gods, Fuel for a Nation

There is a video circulating the Internet that is serving as fodder for the animated political discussions that take place in the cafés and tabacs scattered throughout Paris. On at least one occasion bearing the subject header: ‘Bourré ou pas bourré ?’ (‘Drunk or not drunk?’), the controversial snippet stars none other than France’s newly elected president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

In the clip, the statesman is featured taking the podium at a press conference following a rendez-vous with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the G8 summit. Clearly, Sarko is not himself: he has more ticks than usual, and, for once, he has very little to say. When he does speak, what comes out of his mouth isn’t as buttery smooth as what his audiences are accustomed to hearing. Had he and Vlad (a non-drinker) made an exception and broken the ice à la Russe ?

If it weren’t for the Internet, French audiences would be hard-pressed to uncover this little gem. Sarko’s critics have analyzed his cozy relationship with the French media at length, and – surprise, surprise – his performance hasn’t received air time on the major networks.

Throughout his aggressive campaign, feisty Old Nick wasn’t shy about sharing his daily health regime with the public. For the first time, French voters were fed images of one of their politicians jogging through the Bois de Boulogne, similar to the footage of Bill Clinton trotting through Central Park. Unlike Clinton, however, Sarko hasn’t been witnessed recharging with a Big Mac. He possesses a very un-French distaste for cigarettes. And, he’ll be the first to tell you, he doesn’t drink.

If what everyone suspects is true, why, then, would he test his tolerance with a beverage that serves as liquid heat for citizens of one of the coldest countries in the world?

In France, drinking is as common as crooked politicians: no one bats an eye if one fancies a glass of Chablis at a business lunch, and a full-bodied red is a regular staple at dinner. For frenzied professionals thirsting for a way to unwind, l’heure de l’apéro (happy hour) is a celebrated daily event.

Wine isn’t just part of the lifestyle of this country: it is life. Each year, the hundreds of thousands of people that depend on it collectively cringe during bouts of nasty weather, and sigh with relief when a bumper crop adorns the rolling hills. The quirky (often cranky) viticulteurs that oversee the nation’s cherished chateaux combine unbridled passion with fanatical discipline, honoring a tradition that was born, on many of France’s properties, back when centuries were counted in single digits. In an age when modernism is favored over tradition, when streamlining, leveraging and converging is what it’s all about, France’s winemakers should be applauded for their stubborn focus on their roots. Streamlined processes often discard quality for efficiency. By remaining true to la règle de l’art, this colorful lot reminds us that the past is as important as the future.

This, however, poses some considerable challenges: international competition and a trend toward the new is testing France’s wine industry. The country’s vineyards need as much support as they can get, and political leaders should be generous in their encouragement for those producing one of the Fifth Republic’s major exports. If indeed Nicolas Sarkozy ordered it straight up at the G8 when he tee totaled his way through the presidential election, France’s winemakers should be insulted. There is no denying the importance of maintaining friendly relations with an increasingly temperamental energy power. But those slugging it out among the vines merit a toast, too.