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Struggling French empty their wine cellars

The French have confronted their worst economy in 30 years by locking up bosses, marching on the capital and barricading oil terminals. Now the cruelest cut of all: They're pawning off their wine.
Image: vintage French
An auction-house employee in Geneva shows off a rare bottle of French 1945 vintage Romanee-Conti wine, expected to bring in up to $41,000. Facing a tough economy, the French are cashing in on their stocks of vintage wine.Fabrice Coffrini / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

The French have confronted their worst economic outlook in 30 years by locking up their bosses, marching on the capital and barricading oil terminals. Now the cruelest cut of all: They're pawning off their wine.

Over the past year, cash-strapped Parisians have handed over thousands of bottles of grands crus to the Credit municipal de Paris in exchange for cash or loans.

The city-run lender and pawnbroker of sorts has seen demand for new loans soar in recent months. To help meet that growing need, it auctioned off about 2,500 bottles Tuesday, bringing in nearly euro200,000 ($273,000) in fresh funds.

"In the wine cellars of Paris, and even in the wine cellars of the provinces, there are veritable treasures," said Robert Gorreteau, wine expert at Credit municipal.

As the financial downturn deepens, more and more Parisians are converting those treasures to cash.

Credit municipal — founded by Louis XVI in 1777, it proclaims itself Paris' oldest financial institution — has seen loan requests climb to an average of 520 per day, up 30 percent since April 2008. Last year, the lender gave out euro75 million, euro10 million more than in 2007. And they're on track for an even bigger 2009, based on what they've seen so far this year.

Quick cash
More and more borrowers are opting to trade their bottles for quick cash instead of loans that accumulate interest and need to be paid off, Gorreteau said. The wines sold at Tuesday's auction were traded in by Parisians who agreed to part permanently with the bottles.

Credit municipal paid half-price for the wines, but sold them at market rates or better.

The auction saw a single bottle of 1982 Chateau Petrus go for euro1,950 ($2,660), a five-bottle box of 1990 Chateaux Margaux fetch euro2,400 ($3,270) and six bottles of 2000 Chateau Lafite Rothschild sell for almost euro4,000 ($5,450) — prices that might convince more than a few wine-hoarders that now is the right time to sell.

"During this sale, we heard people say, 'Oh la la, I'm going to give my entire wine cellar to the Credit municipal!'" said Gorreteau.

Despite his own love for fruit of the vine, Gorreteau is not saddened that some are trading the pleasure of uncorking a closely guarded bottle for the satisfaction of a full wallet.

"Wine, it's a convivial pleasure," he said. "It has to be shared."