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Regime Change, Riots, and a Glass of Roditis

I admit it: I have a wine problem. I try to connect everything I see, read or hear to wine, and then I draw arguably oddball conclusions.

Take, for example, two of this week’s front-page stories: the appointment of Christine Lagarde as the new head of the International Monetary Fund and everyone in Greece going absolutely ape over their pending economic doom. Not only do I believe that Lagarde will be proven the right choice to lead the IMF (contrary to what many say about her views and lack of economic experience), I’m certain that the Greek economy is seriously, totally, unquestionably screwed despite Parliament passing an austerity measure that is, currently, calming global financial markets. I know all this because of my experiences involving wine.

Seriously.

First, here’s my thinking on Lagarde. I watched her speak at Vinexpo in France in 2007, and though most of her remarks were not delivered in English – she could have been talking about paint thinner for all I cared – she’s captivating. You can tell that there’s no ambiguity with Lagarde – she believes what she says, and she’s used to being right about things.

Had I actually spoken French at the time (I’m still limited to “foie gras” and “au bon pain”), I’d have known that Lagarde, in her position then as France’s Agriculture Minister, was speaking out against the European Union’s plan to solve the continent’s surplus-wine problem. The proposal – in response to domestic consumption, prices and exports all in free fall – called for a halt to vineyard plantings and distillation subsidies, as well as the uprooting of some 200,000 hectares of vineyard land. A scaled-back version of the plan ultimately passed and was implemented, but before then, at Vinexpo, Lagarde rejected the proposal and instead suggested that French vintners roll up their sleeves, make better-tasting wine, start labeling it in a way comprehensible to the rest of the world (like, you know, with the actual grape variety listed on the front label), and start marketing it intelligently and effectively overseas.

“Let’s go and conquer these far-off countries, with our sails full, rather than sinking our own ship,” Lagarde said at the time.

I should point out that Lagarde served as Agriculture Minister for a grand total of a month before she accepted a higher-profile government job. But my point is, even though a version of the EU plan did pass and Lagarde had about as much influence on the wine industry as Ashton Kutcher has had on Two and a Half Men thus far, she’s a fresh thinker, unafraid to take a controversial position. (Rent the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, in which she features, if you don’t believe me.) Something tells me that she’s going to be good for the IMF – and the world.

That is, of course, if the Greek economy doesn’t screw everything up. The markets may be stable now, but I think things are headed further south for the land that gave us The Iliad, the Olympics and a Paris Hilton boyfriend. Why? Because the Greeks have been spending some serious ducats marketing their wines here in the U.S., as if that will help them.

Sure, in theory, it makes sense for the Greeks to promote their exports in trying economic times. But pushing wine right now is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Agriculture is a whopping four percent of Greece’s GDP, and assuming wine is just a part of that, it’s basically nothing. I can’t fault the Greeks for at least trying, but my skepticism is rooted in their execution: They hired several New York PR firms.

I don’t mean to bite the hand that feeds to some extent, but in the past six months I heard from two different wine/lifestyle PR firms representing Greek wines or brands, and a third, expecting a piece of the action as well, told me at another country’s wine event, “The Greeks are making a BIG push right now.”

PR firms love getting national or regional accounts since they’re essentially licenses to bill like they’re Silvio Berlusconi’s secret-keeping, morning-after maids. Wineries spend a lot of money on PR. Regional bodies spend armloads. Countries spend Jay-Z money.

Yes, PR can be an effective tool. And for the Greeks, this seems to be working a little, if this article in the San Francisco Chronicle is any indication. But, then again, there was this blog post titled, “Greek wine industry on suicide path.” Ouch.

But don’t just take it from that blog, take it from a sommelier friend of mine who recently visited Greece on a wine trip sponsored by the EU and a U.S. importer of Greek wines. While my friend was able to put one or two Greek selections on his fancy restaurant’s list, he didn’t expect them to go gangbusters. After all, if money is no object for diners in a high-end restaurant, which it usually isn’t, why go Greek when they can go Grand Cru?

That said, because of the PR push, I’ve tasted several Greek wines in the past few months. Are they exciting and affordable enough to inspire a bard? Some are, some aren’t, though the fresh, crisp, white variety Assyrtiko offers the best bang for the buck in my opinion. But even if American wine drinkers do get excited about Assyrtiko, I only see it benefitting a few New York PR people. Not the Greeks.

On the bright side, when and if the situation worsens for Greece, there’ll be one person ready with an idea or two: Christine Lagarde. Not only do I think she’ll last more than a month in this job, she’ll say and do the things everyone else has been afraid of thus far.

I know, because my wine-filled gut tells me so.