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Culture : Wine Sales Sour, but Tradition Ages Well : * Fortunately, France's annual Beaune charity auction is about more than money. Its colorful story started in 1443.


BEAUNE, France — "The flame is almost out on this excellent Beaune Brunet," auctioneer Paul Berbery announced in a rich, stentorian voice that echoed throughout the rustic market auditorium here.

A hushed sea of faces stared up at the raised platform where the keeper-of-the-candle tended a flickering, pale yellow flame. Rich and prosperous Burgundy wholesalers sat in the front rows; discreet Japanese investors behind them; anxious French farmers and townspeople were in the back, spilling out the open doors into the market square. No one raised a hand or an auction program to signal another bid.

"It's flickering," said Berbery, turning to look at the candle-keeper's silver, hand-held wick box, where the flame was doing its last dance before dying in a puff of gray-white smoke. The candle ritual is an ancient French auction system. With each new bid, a new wick is pushed out of the silver box and lit. The sale is concluded when the flame from the last bid dies.

"It's out!" Berbery blurted, as though proclaiming the last breath of a monarch or a Pope. "Only 28,000 francs for this excellent red wine."

A murmur and a timid round of applause greeted the news. Only one wine into the 131st Annual Hospices de Beaune Charity Wine Auction, and prices for top Burgundy wines--sold in casks of 228 liters--were already well below last year and the year before.

The trend continued throughout the afternoon and into the cold, rainy evening. By the end of the bidding, the allotment of Burgundy wines from some of the world's most famous vineyards--Meursault, Corton, Pommard, Beaune--had sold for 30% less than last year; 55% less than two years ago.

The worldwide economic slump has finally come to the heart of French wine country, which had enjoyed several years of unprecedented growth.

The flame was definitely out here in Burgundy, where speculation, pushed by Japanese investment, had pushed prices of top-quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines to more than $50 a bottle, prices considered too high for most consumers. Although the wine was said to be superb, wholesalers' cellers are still full of unsold wine from 1988, 1989 and, especially, 1990.

Exports to the United States for 1990-91 are down 37%. Likewise exports of Burgundy to Britain fell 41% in the same period. The most dramatic decline, 45%, is in Japan, which until recently had been the best new customer for the French wine country. The market in France itself is down 11%. Only Germany is holding steady on its purchases.

"The Burgundy wine business is paying for its excesses of the previous years, especially in 1988 and 1989," wrote the wine critic for the national newspaper Le Monde. "It is coming in an international context that is the worst since the first oil crisis."

The candle is also flickering faintly in several other prestigious wine plots in France, notably in Champagne, where exports have have fallen precipitously. This year's just-opened Beaujolais nouveau promotion is also considered one of the weakest in memory, with little of the celebratory hype that normally accompanies the uncorking of the new batch.

More than any other single event in France, the annual Beaune auction is considered a barometer of market and prices for fine French wines, not only the red and white Burgundies in the surrounding Cote d'Or region of east-central France, but also Champagnes to the north and Bordeaux wines in the distant Southwest.

In all of the categories except Bordeaux, the market is down dramatically, despite another year of good harvests. In Champagne, for example, the bubble of high times has definitely popped. At the end of August this year, overall sales of Champagne--one of the world's great measures of good and bad times in the global economy--were down 19%.

Here, in Burgundy, the wine growers were trying to put a good face on the gloomy news. Retail prices, they said, are sure to drop, drawing back some old customers.

The honorary president of this year's auction, which benefits local hospitals and retirement homes, was champion French sailboat racer Florence Arthaud. In introducing her, Beaune Mayor Henri Moine couldn't resist using a sailing metaphor to make a point about the declining Burgundy wine market.

"She knows how to rise with waves when they are going up and slide with them when they are going down," he said.

As usual, one of the biggest buyers at the auction was Beaune wholesaler Andre Boisseaux. A small, dapper man wearing a gray suit with blue tie, Boisseaux was philosophical about the falling prices. "We've been very expensive for the past three years," he said. "Now we are back to a more normal price that should help relaunch business."

However, the lower bids definitely put a pall on one of the most unusual and festive charity events in Europe--the three-day weekend the French call "The Three Glorious (Days) of Burgundy."

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