Sometimes widespread panic can last more than just a moment. In Europe, it seemingly is becoming a way of life for the alcoholic beverage industry.
Member nations of the European Union have been working themselves into a lather trying to redefine and re-regulate everything from niche products to entire swaths of the industry, such as Scotch whisky and wine. A September vote on a whole package of changes is scheduled by the European Parliament, which is creating enough tension as it is without the latest proposal.
The EP, headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, has proposed the destruction of hundreds of thousands of acres of European vineyards in an attempt to drain the "wine lake" and reconquer markets lost to non-European competitors such as the U.S., South America and Australia.
The European Union's annual "wine lake" of unsold wines is equivalent to about 1.7 billion standard-size bottles. The Parliament is proposing to pay producers of unsaleable wines to tear up their vines and, beginning in 2013, lift individual nations' restrictions to encourage wine-grape growers to shift to types of wine more in demand from consumers.
Part of the EU budget for supporting the wine industry would be shifted to a campaign to promote European wines on the international market. The distillation of surplus wine into industrial alcohol or disinfectants -- which costs about $680 million a year -- would end in 2009.
Mariann Fischer Boel, the European commissioner for agriculture and rural development, said the proposal would "boost competition, drain the infamous wine lakes and make things more simple. ... Until now we have been spending in an inefficient and indefensible way."
Some wine producers' organizations in France and elsewhere object to the plan, labeling it a "betrayal" of traditional European winemaking traditions to market forces and "ultra-capitalism."
According to the UK newspaper The Independent, "Much of the French, Spanish and Italian wine industry is already willing, in some cases eager, to take this approach. But there are fierce divisions between, and even within, wine-growing regions. The ban on the sugaring of wine would, for example, be very popular with southern French growers and disastrous for producers of cheaper red wine in Bordeaux.
"How much, and when, the EU plan would affect wine drinkers is unclear. The proposals will be fiercely opposed by some governments in the EU council of ministers. Much will finally depend on decisions still to be taken at national and regional level on the future of wine-making in Europe."
Despite a falloff in consumer demand in France, Italy and elsewhere, particularly among younger people, Europeans drink 60% of the world's wine. France, Italy and Spain are the EU's and the world's top producers by volume, but Europeans increasingly are drinking wine from beyond the EU. In 2005, the last year for which comp;ete figures are available, exports just barely outpaced imports.
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