Facing mounting challenges from winemakers in the Americas, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, European Union officials are revamping the Old World's winemaking industry in an attempt to make it more competitive.
Approved last month, the steps include yanking out 432,000 acres of lesser-quality vineyards to upgrading old wineries to overseeing changes in winemaking to producing simpler, more understandable wine labels. We won't see all the changes soon because the measures will take upward of a decade to implement.
When they do arrive, the results for consumers in the United States may just be better-quality wines with prices grounded in the pull and tug of market forces.
Traditionalists worried about their beloved Pomerols and super-Tuscans can breathe easy; the regulatory revamp isn't supposed to affect the high-end, quality operations. The focus instead will be on improving the quality of so-called table wines.
Fighting wine invaders
Wine consumption has been falling steadily for decades in Europe for a number of reasons, from rising health concerns to stricter drunken-driving laws. But wine production has kept on going; the continent is figuratively drowning in a lake of unwanted, low-quality wine.
Just as troubling for EU officials, European winemakers are losing traction to competitors. While Europe remains the world's biggest wine exporter, the rate of imports into Europe from New World producers is rising at a faster rate than the continent's wine exports.
"We are losing market share to the dynamic producers in the New Worlds, who are tapping into changing consumer tastes," declared Mariann Fischer Boel, EU commissioner for agriculture and rural development in a July 2007 report advocating widespread reform.
As can be expected on a continent where wine is as much cultural touchstone as beverage, Fischer Boel's proposals generated much controversy. The final package approved last month focuses on improving wine quality, eliminating surplus and restoring competitiveness.
So, the pols in Brussels are happy. But what does it all mean for you?
Dan Rotenberg, agricultural counselor to the European Union's delegation based in Washington, D.C., said the new rules will let wine producers compete in the marketplace and thus provide consumers with what they want to drink.
"American consumers will still have the opportunity to buy good European wines at a reasonable rate," he said, "but there also will be the possibility to upgrade our table wines to compete with New World wines."
Doug Jeffirs, director of wine sales for Binny's Beverage Depot, said the changes are a "reaction," especially by the French, to the innovative success Australia has had on the world market with its wines.
"It seems the French want a piece of this action too," he said. "The end result is more and better options for consumers."
Fischer Boel had said the money used to get rid of Europe's unwanted wine will go toward regaining market share. Bill Terlato, president and chief executive officer of Lake Bluff-based Terlato Wines International, thinks "drying up" Europe's wine surplus will be a good thing.
"Subsidies are anti-consumer and anti-competitive," he said. "This will force competition and increase quality. ... Anything that results in better quality wine."
A fear of critters
Others aren't so sure.
Todd Hess, co-owner of H2Vino, a Chicago wholesaler, talked about the "Yellow Tail phenomenon." Yellow Tail, with its cute kangaroo label, a so-called "critter" wine, has come to epitomize the world-wide success of inexpensive, fruity Australian wine.
"What's happening is [the Europeans] are looking at Yellow Tail and saying 'if we can do funny labels and mess around with the wine, we'll be as successful.' I think that's wrong. What they're trying to do is make a soft, round fruit-forward wine that tastes good -- like Yellow Tail."
The new legislation also will allow wines made without geographical indications to include vintage and grape variety on the label. Historically, European winemakers have labeled their bottles by region or vineyard while New World vintners have focused on putting the grape name on the label.
Labeling by region can be confusing. Consider, for example, montepulciano, the Italian grape; montepulciano d'Abruzzo, the wine region in central Italy using the montepulciano grape; and vino nobile di Montepulciano, a separate wine region in Tuscany where the wines are made mostly of the sangiovese grape.
If your head is spinning over that -- and I used well-known quality wines as an example -- imagine what can happen with little-known (for Americans) table wine. This label rule change with its emphasis on the varietal should make it easier for American consumers, trained to buy by grape type, to hone in on certain European wines.