The worldwide glut of wine has become so huge that for the first time in history, France is distilling some of its higher-rated wines into fuel. It is a painful thing in a land where winemaking is a labor of love and the fruit of that labor is celebrated as much as any art.
France has periodically turned oceans of lowly table wines into vinegar and ethanol. But bottles of quality French wine have been piling up on supermarket shelves and in vineyard cellars across the country, to the point that some of it is now cheaper than bottled water.
By early this year, with some winemakers taking to the streets to protest low prices, France asked the European Union to approve the distillation of 150 million liters, or about 40 million gallons, of Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée wine. By the end of the year, 100 million liters, enough for 133 million bottles, will have been turned into crystal-clear ethanol.
The ethanol is sold to oil refineries, which use it as an additive that they mix into their gasoline, part of a European campaign to increase the use of renewable fuels. French gasoline already contains about 1 percent ethanol, mostly distilled from France's plentiful sugar beets. That percentage is supposed to rise to 5.75 percent by 2010 to meet European Union demands.
Because France exports gasoline and one of its biggest markets is the United States, by sometime next year, some Americans may be pumping their cars full of gas that includes a bit of Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.