Jacques Berthomeau, who died on November 6, at the age of 74 will be remembered by many wine-loving French-speakers as the author of a popular daily blog on food and wine, and by others as the author of an eponymous 2001 report that laid the foundations for the eventual modernization of the French wine industry. Few of the 15,000 people who loyally followed the 8,593 opinionated posts on food, wine and French culture Jacques Berthomeau published from 2005 until November 4th of this year will probably have read the Rapport Berthomeau – Berthomeau Report - that he delivered to the French minister of agriculture in 2001. Those who shared and applauded his enthusiasm for natural wine – he drank nothing else – may be surprised to learn that two decades ago, his focus was on persuading the government and wine industry to adopt something very like the model of Vin de France we know today.
France Falls Behind
It was a very challenging period for French wine. In key export markets like the UK and US, Bordeaux and Muscadet were being supplanted by Californian, Australian and Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. France had limited means to compete. Regulations in AOC regions outlawed the mention of a grape variety – as did laws covering basic Vin de Table which also banned any reference to a vintage. The only major exception to this rule was Languedoc Roussillon where pioneers like the pasta magnate Robert Skalli were successfully producing varietal Vins de Pays.
At that time, Berthomeau had a very different image to his more recent one as the unshaven, 70-something year-old, t-shirted writer of discursive – some might say rambling - blogs that appeared at least once a day. Always on the left of the political scene, during the socialist François Mitterand’s time as president, he was a civil servant, acting as technical adviser first to the president of the National Assembly from 1981-1983, and then for the following three years to Michel Rocard, Minister of Agriculture, with responsibility for wine, fruit and vegetable production. He was also closely involved in the agricultural implications of Spanish and Portuguese membership of the EU.
Telling the Minister
After a two year move into the commercial world as director at the Pernod Ricard subsidiary, SVF – Societé des Vin de France - he returned to government as director of the Cabinet of the Minister for Agriculture 1988-1992. Seven years later he went to see Jean Glavany, the Minister of Agriculture at the time, ”to tell him my doubts about the future of French wines. Without hesitating for a second he commissioned me [to answer the question: ‘How can French wines be better positioned for export?‘]. I had no idea that my writings would have such an impact.”
In his task, Berthomeau led a steering group made up of six personalities spanning French wine production and distribution. These included winegrowers Pierre Aguilas of Anjou and Jean-Louis Piton of Luberon; Pierre Mirc, head of the Sieur d’Arques cooperative in Limoux; Robert Skalli, Bordeaux negociant Jean-Marie Chadronnier and Jean-Louis Vallet of the Carrefour supermarket chain.
Into the Spotlight
While all seven shared the responsibility for their recommendations, the report itself was very much Berthomeau’s. The document was very much le Rapport Berthomeau - the Berthomeau Report. And it brought him a lot of fame.
As he said, "There was a time when I used to joke with certain journalists that my dear mother had not named me "Rapport" but Jacques.”
Berthomeau’s contribution extended way beyond chairing the group and collating its conclusions.
“For almost a year, without anyone asking me to account for anything, I crisscrossed France, listened, read, discussed, and then one fine day in June, on my return from Vinexpo, I wrote this report… without any presupposed plan so that it would be read and understood, both by my client, the Minister, and his cabinet, as well as by as many people as possible.”
Fighting Each Other
Berthomeau was critical of the fact that the wine producers’ “national game” was “to wage war on each other”. Bordeaux, for example, believed its biggest competitor was Côtes-du-Rhône ”The appellations d'origine contrôlée are fighting each other instead of working together to increase the market share of their products, in France and abroad.” He wrote, continuing that “The French wine industry is certainly fragmented, but building a common base and thus trying to stabilise the market share of wine is within its reach. The French wine industry will not be able to develop its sales or go into battle with the wines of the New World without this collective effort to win back the market.”
Even when they were focused on domestic sales, French communication campaigns were “aimed at an existing audience and not at potential new entrants.”. Ever the hedonist, Berthomeau bemoaned the French tendency to take wine too seriously and to underplay its role as an enjoyable beverage. Why, he wondered, did restaurants not offer more good wine by the glass? and why did they disapprove of diners taking unfinished bottles away with them at the end of a meal?
His report published in 2001, included a simple, but radical solution: create a new Vin de France designation that would allow wines from all wine regions to be sold with varietal designations and vintages.
It was not welcomed by the industry which initially at least preferred to commission a succession of other reports, including one that proposed the creation of a ‘super AOC’ French equivalent of Italy’s DOCG.
This notion, championed by René Renou, head of the INAO went nowhere, while Vin de France quietly overcame resistance to be launched as a category in 2009. A decade later, some 744 producers were selling 354m bottles a year, 16% of French still wine exports.
By then Jacques Berthomeau had long since left up his role in the civil service and, in 2005, focused on his Vin et Cie (Wine and Company) blog.
Becoming a Blogger
He described it as a “blog conceived as a space of freedom… Every day, with your breakfast… a free pen tries its hand at relevance and impertinence to create or recreate links between those who think that it is around the table where we share bread, wine and the rest for ‘a little sweetness, conviviality, shared pleasure, in this brutal world... ‘".
Writing about himself, he noted, "With wine, as with painting, I don't hoard, I don't buy the good stuff, I'm eclectic and after having a nice cellar when I had a lot of space, I now prefer to have instant pleasures. I hate official art and fixed hierarchies, so my blog is meant to be a defector, a storyteller, a transmitter of ideas, and a mood-setter, so that the world of wine can renew its links with the new generations, so that wine can return to people's lives..."
Ironically, and far from his expectations when proposing Vin de France as a means of competing with New World varietals in export markets, the category has been embraced by the innovative and often young natural winemakers of whom he became so fond. But these will not be the only French producers who will regret his passing.
A Personal Recollection
Magalie Dubois, Assistant Professor at the School of Wine and Spirits Business, Burgundy School of Business, knew Berthomeau well.
I contacted Jacques in 2010 to interview him about his report for my Master’s thesis. He kindly accepted, we met at Le Select and ended up tasting wines with my friends in my little Parisian flat. He was 40 years older than me, but above all he was a free spirit, generation gaps were never a problem for him, as evidenced by all those who gathered around him on his birthdays, and on every occasion to enjoy honest food (I owe my taste for guinea fowl to him) and nice wines (natural, of course..
Over the years, thanks to his blog and his kindness, Jacques built up a network of friendships in the wine industry and beyond. Friendships that earned him a welcome everywhere, in Champagne at Olivier Horiot, Pascal Agrapart or Jacques Selosse, in Burgundy at Alice and Olivier De Moor, at Claude Chevalier when invited as honorary president of the Ladoix Serrigny march or even at Cantillon's in Brussels, to mention only the places where I had the pleasure of accompanying him.
Recently I interviewed him again at length to write an article on natural wine, and he insisted on being introduced as a "retired, naked wine drinker". Visionary, generous, and facetious, he – and his daily dose of wit and wisdom will be sorely missed.