Should French Colleges Give Kids Wine Classes?

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Victor Fraile / Reuters

Wasn't France once the country where newborns received a finger dipped in champagne even before their first taste of mother's milk? Where children learned the pleasures and responsibilities of wine appreciation with watered-down sips at the family dinner table? Over the last 30 years, however, per-capita wine consumption in France has plummeted by more than 50%. In the meantime, the popularity of beer and spirits among young drinkers has only grown — along with the troubling trend of binge drinking, a habit that the French of all ages used to consider anathema. Now the authors of a recent government study have come up with a controversial way to teach young French that famous savoir vivre in sensible drinking: hold wine tasting sessions in college cafeterias.

Commissioned by the French Higher Education Ministry, and co-authored by a pair of respected French gastronomes — former director of Paris Sorbonne University, Jean-Robert Pitte, and television presenter Jean-Pierre Coffe — the report, published in March, includes a range of proposals on how to improve students' diets and consumption habits. Pitte and Coffe believe a university education shouldn't stop at the cafeteria door, and that alcohol should be on the syllabus too, in the form of lunchtime tasting classes. "We thought it was good to begin to instill a sense of responsibility in students, and teach them to how to appreciate good wine in great moderation," Pitte told France INFO radio last month. "And to show them that it is pleasurable and healthy, and part of our national heritage."

The recommendation didn't to go over well with Higher Education Minister Valérie Pécresse, who during the press conference upon the report's release made it clear that the government has no intention of adding alcohol to meals at university cafeterias. Coffe insisted that the report isn't calling for colleges to set up wine fountains at the students' tables. But, he added, when it comes to teaching about alcohol consumption, the report is as concerned with pleasure as it is prevention. "Why would we have sex education and not wine culture education?" he asked.

According to the report, too often today French students place their health in peril by binge drinking at parties where they down frightening quantities of beer and strong alcohols. French health ministry figures reveal that between 2004 and 2007 there was a 50% increase in the number of French 15- to 24-year-olds hospitalized for excessive alcohol consumption. In this context, the report claims, the initiation to moderate wine consumption is an excellent means to fight against alcoholism and enrich students' sense of culture and taste.

Rémi Martial, president of the national student union Mouvement Des Etudiants, agrees, saying that lunchtime wine tastings could serve to educate students about the joys of high quality, low volume drinking and "promote the French art de vivre." But, surprisingly, the intriguing proposal has not been unanimously embraced by France's college kids. "It's incongruous to want to prevent alcoholism while at the same time spreading the consumption of wine," Jean-Baptiste Prévost, president of the National Union of Students of France, told daily La Croix. "Universities would do better to see they no longer finance events with open bars and dedicate greater means to awareness campaigns."

And Alain Rigauld, president of the National Association for Prevention in Alcoholism and Addiction, finds the notion that wine could play any role in countering alcohol abuse almost comical. "It's naive to think we are going to reduce binge drinking this way," he told France INFO. In fact, he says, it could make matters worse. "The alcohol in wine has soothing, tranquilizing effects, and with all these students stressed out and worried about their studies, we are going to help them discover a means to manage their stress that is as easy as it is harmful."

Even if lunch hour at the cafeteria isn't the time or place for a lesson in sensible alcohol use, do Pitte and Coffe still have a point? Some experts on addiction say they do. Physician and psychotherapist Gérard Ostermann, who specializes in eating disorders and alcoholism, has long argued that the transmission of wine culture to young people can itself be a form of alcohol-abuse prevention. "It seems to me that there are less alcoholics in the world of wine, perhaps because the [consumers] are looking for quality, not quantity, but also — and above all — because there is transmission," he told weekly Le Point in September. "From the moment I can understand how wine is made, where it comes from, how it is tasted, I no longer see it the same way. To taste, sapere, in Latin, is wisdom. These are rites of passage that can become some of the best forms of prevention."

Perhaps. But with France's wine culture traditions around the family table increasingly becoming a thing of the past, it's not clear whether the time to catch up on vinous wisdom is really somewhere between Economics class and poulet roti.