Of all the topics this column has returned to, I wish that anti-alcohol rhetoric wasn’t the most frequent. But it remains one of the most threatening issues the wine trade is facing, and the one which our industry seems to find most challenging to counter effectively.
As usual, the beginning of the year heralded articles across mainstream media promoting dry January. This typifies the general prevailing sentiment regarding alcohol; the assumption goes that every citizen should be concerned about their alcohol intake and the potential harm it might cause.
In such conversations, wine is no different to any other alcohol – indeed it is often characterised as the drink that surreptitiously invades the kitchens of the middle classes to harm those who are least expecting it.
The first point to make in this argument is that the putative facts behind any claims relating to alcohol consumption – whether for or against – are, sadly, becoming irrelevant. There are so many studies offering evidence that alcohol consumption can be either good or bad for personal health or the economy or the moral fibre of the nation that each side could endlessly bark statistics at each other and make no meaningful progress. Which is exactly what often happens.
For example, the BBC website ran a front-page article in which ‘experts said’ that abstaining from alcohol would allow you to lose weight, stop snoring, feel more energetic, improve your skin, save money and reduce erectile dysfunction. Whereas Decanter.com have a piece written by a liver doctor stating that there’s no scientific basis to believe that abstention is beneficial.
With such irreconcilable rhetoric, it hardly matters if one is ‘more correct’ than the other; what matters is what becomes most widely perceived to be correct. And the current advantage seems to be with the anti-alcohol campaigners.
Many of our industry bodies are working hard to put forward arguments defending the virtues of sensible alcohol consumption. The problem is that alcohol has become so demonized that making a defence of it gets harder and harder.
We need to appreciate that this issue affects everyone who works with wine, from CEOs to part-time sales assistants. All of us have an individual responsibility to understand what’s involved, and to reassure those who campaign against alcohol that we sympathise with their concerns – and for good reason. (Some initiatives along these lines already exist: one recent example was the in-store Drinkaware campaign encouraging supermarket shoppers to think about their drinking habits).
If we accept the basis of the objections against alcohol – that its abuse can have a negative impact on personal health, with consequent ramifications for wider society, especially on healthcare and policing – and also agree that we need to work with those who want to reduce it, then we have a better chance of protecting and preserving all the things that we value about wine.
Opposing anti-alcohol campaigners isn’t working. The advantage of a collaborative approach is that it encourages concessions on both sides, allowing the wine trade a stronger voice in negotiating how alcohol is viewed by society.