Don't give a sh*t? Maybe this wine is for you

David Common on the new Vin de Merde.

Even the polite translation is a bit rough: Crap Wine. So why would a small restaurant owner label his bottles Vin de Merde?

It may be Crap but it's no one's plonk. ((CBC))

And what can the world's wine producers learn from Crap's success?

Well, for one thing, it is that tastes are changing and wine selection is not always about finding the year's best grapes from the appropriate soil to capture the qualities and characteristics of a superior vintage.

Often, just like any other product, choosing a wine is about what catches the consumer's eye on the shelves. Ever walked in to your liquor store and bought the most colourful bottle, oblivious to what was inside?

Keen marketing, however, was not the initial motivation for Vin de Merde. Rather, it was a "stuff it" gesture to the elite connoisseurs who had turned up their collective noses at France's Languedoc wine region.

While it is the country's largest, representing nearly a third of total output, it has long been viewed as inferior. For centuries, Bordeaux and, to a lesser degree, Côtes du Rhone, have been France's signature districts.

And while areas, including Languedoc, have been doing well recently, their reputations have not caught up. In other words, people figure only crap wine can come from there.

What's in a name

Jean-Marc Speziale, the owner of a small, simple restaurant in the village of Aniane, knew little about wine. But he was fed up that Languedoc's vineyards were the butt of the nation's wine jokes.

So he drew up a plan. If the critics call it crap, he thought, I will do the same. 

Reporter David Common on the trail of the Languedoc grape. ((CBC))

Unlike the all-in-house approach of France's established chateaus — the houses that grow the grapes, press, store and bottle them — Speziale simply went to his neighbours, bought part of their harvest, took it down the road to the local storage and bottling facility and stuck on his label: Vin de Merde, that French word that every school kid learns by heart.

Further down that simple sticker, a not so subtle message: "La Pire … peut cacher le meilleur" (the worst can hide the best).

The first 5,000 bottles sold almost immediately. And the critics weighed in. Languedoc's latest creation is not, as it turns out, crap. No one is breaking out the gold medals just yet but Speziale has succeeded in making his point.

Then he smelled opportunity: this little "screw you" to the elite may just be profitable.

So Speziale trotted off back to his neighbours and bought more grapes. He jacked the price to about $11 — about twice what the French would pay for an ordinary table wine — and once again he sold out almost everything he had in his garage. 

When I went to see him, he was on the phone every second we weren't talking (and sometimes when we were), lining up further interviews and attempting to secure a lucrative distribution deal. Look out world.

The decline of French wines

His is a story of rapid success in an intensely competitive field. The French consume less wine than they once did. And the world consumes less French wine, opting for the multitude of vibrant flavours available from the so-called "New World" locales: California, Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, the list goes on.

Confronted with this overwhelming competition, the European Union has even begun to pay producers in France to destroy some of their vines, hoping to avoid losses through overproduction.

When vineyards can't sell, they, like other agricultural enterprises are eligible for EU farm aid, so the trade bloc is trying to head things off.

Many vineyards, incidentally, have simply shut their doors and sold off their land to the bigger players in the market.

In fact, just down the tree-lined road from Speziale's restaurant in hilly Aniane, one of those bigger players has already found success, following a similar bizarre-name strategy.

Thierry Boudinaud already makes Fat Bastard, a successful brand despite its rude name. His latest creation is Red Bicyclette, a catchy title with a simple, friendly label.

But Boudinaud was not attempting to confront those sticking their noses up at Languedoc wines. Rather, he was responding to consumers who find the time-honoured chateau-labelled wines as elitist, inaccessible and difficult to understand.

Catching the trend

Fat Bastard, Red Bicyclette and, yes, Vin de Merde can all be seen as part of the current marketing trend that includes wines like New Zealand's Cat's Pee on a Gooseberry Bush, South Africa's Goats Do Roam and Australia's Swagman's Kiss.

Traditionalists largely abhor the change. A quick search of wine blogs shows their contempt for these mass-marketed vintages.

These folk still tend to buy the pricier bottles with the not-so-catchy names. Then again, those making money in the wine business today aren't exclusively the traditionalists.

So can a reporter take a high-speed train for more than three hours, hop in a car and drive to do a story about wine and not taste it? Full disclosure: a drop or two may have touched my tongue. (We CBC journalists pay for our own wine, by the way, it doesn't come out of the taxpayers' pocket.)

I'm no expert. But I can say that Vin de Merde is not bad. It is not high-end Bordeaux, but the little restaurateur has made his point: Languedoc can produce Crap wine and people can enjoy it.