Grapevine: A Major Shift in French Drinking Traditions

Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

The French have a long tradition of fine food and wine, enjoyed in an atmosphere of camaraderie and conviviality. Generation after generation enjoyed a joie de vivre.

Generation after generation enjoyed a diet rich in classic French cooking, steeped in a tradition of butter and cream, foie gras and local cheeses.

Generation after generation consumed copious amounts of red wine to accompany this fat-rich diet. And generation after generation outlived their counterparts in the United States.

This anomaly of a perceived poor diet has been well-explored in the media. It is difficult to pick up a newspaper without reminders of the desirability and efficacy of the Mediterranean Diet. Termed the French Paradox–French citizens’ counterintuitive longevity, based on a diet routinely criticized as too high in saturated fats–it gradually gained acceptance in the United States, especially the red wine component.

So, generation after generation of French farmers, city workers and businesspeople continued their centuries-old lifestyle and continued to outlive the rest of us. Until recently.

While older French citizens still continue to practice their traditional dining and drinking habits, young adults are shifting theirs. These Millennials (18 to 31 years old), faced with a declining economy, socio-political unrest and changing social values, have turned to pre-21st century American diets (including fast food) without red wine.

The Millennials’ dining and drinking habits, most notably their reduced consumption of wine, flies in the face of their elders and forebears. Many are abandoning the red wine tradition of their parents, grandparents and a long line of ancestors. However, they are not abandoning alcohol.

What is emerging is a New French Paradox: an intergenerational schism. To the outside world, the French traditions continue, but its proponents are graying. Inside France, alcoholism and health issues are rising among young adults. Their beverages of choice? Beer and Vodka. Furthering the rise of the New French Paradox, wine is being viewed as a social scourge; anti-wine/alcohol campaigns are now proliferating throughout the country, in contrast to the favorable viewpoints throughout French history.

“Le Binge” drinking is on the rise and has become a serious concern. Its most disturbing manifestations are “apéros géants” (giant aperitifs, named for the traditional pre-dinner drink). A number of these flash mobs have ended in fights and unconscious drinkers. A pop-up drinking party in the city of Nantes last year attracted over 10,000 revelers and resulted in a death. This does not exude the enviable image of French savoir faire or the sophisticated flair of French je ne se qua of the past.

As the drinking problem continues to escalate, the French government is responding forcefully. A number of laws have been introduced or legislated to address this national crisis.

1. The legal drinking age has been raised, from 16 to 18. This is not as profound as in the United States, but it addresses a need. (By the way, the legal age in Italy and Germany is still 16.)

2. A pending bill to ban all alcoholic drinking outdoors, including picnics (the end of a loaf of bread?) and sidewalk cafes. This would effectively put an end to a longstanding tradition of daily French life.

3. A law that requires lowering the permissible breath-alcohol levels from 0.8 gpl (as in the United States) to .05 gpl is being considered. New legislation is being debated to lower the limit even further, perhaps as low as 0.0 gpl.

4. Last summer, a law was passed requiring all drivers to carry two breathalyzers (for the driver and one passenger) in their cars at all times. An enforcement date is still pending.

The United States has experienced, confronted and legislated against this drinking problem with our own youth. We even went one step further with the enactment of prohibition in 1920. Are the French heading toward this draconian state?

Don’t forget: The Westchester Wine Experience, sponsored by the Pleasantville Rotary Club is coming up on March 23. Over 100 wines and 20 plus restaurants will be presented in a convivial atmosphere. I hope to see you there.

Nick Antonaccio is a 35-year Pleasantville resident. For over 15 years he has conducted  wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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