The social licence of wine

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The social licence of wine

I’ve been at the excellent Australian Wine Industry Technical Conference this week, where I presented on two topics. The first was on whether or not we make too much of terroir, and the second was on the social licence of wine. Here’s a written version of some of the ideas that I discussed in the second of these talks, which covered some tricky territory.

Wine’s privileged place
In the wine trade we are guilty of taking wine’s place in society for granted. For thousands of years wine has played an important part in many cultures. This has largely been in countries of wine production, but other nations have also had a thirst for wine: for example, the UK has been important in the development of the wine industries of Bordeaux, Jerez and Porto. Emigrants from wine cultures have taken their wine culture with them: for example, the Dalmatians at the heart of the NZ wine industry and the Silesians of the Barossa Valley.

In western societies, wine currently enjoys a privileged place compared with other alcoholic beverages. This seems entirely normal to us, now, but if we take a step outside the wine trade bubble and look inwards, then it is an unusual situation. It is in some ways a historical artefact, but it is one that we should work hard to preserve.

Wine has a privileged place on the table. In restaurants worldwide, wine and food have been linked to the point that when diners are seated they are offered a wine list. This will include other drinks, but it is wine that enjoys primacy. Food and wine matching is seen as an intrinsic part of fine dining. This is something the wine trade should celebrate, but something we shouldn’t assume will continue for ever.

At a more basic level, in most western countries people are free to buy and consume booze, with little regulation other than licensing of shops and venues, and some extra taxation. We’re able to operate.

In this article, I will be looking at some of the broader ideas surrounding the social licence of wine. This is an important discussion for the wine industry, but it’s also a complex one.

Alcohol and health
As I write I’m on a plane on the way to Australia. I remember the first time I flew to Australia, back in March 1996. Trying to find the cheapest flight, I opted for Olympic Airlines, Greece’s National carrier. It seems strange to think about it, but back in those days (20 years ago, now, but it seems quite recent) people used to smoke on planes. As we checked in, with our paper tickets, we were assigned seats in the smoking section. Our protests fell on deaf ears, and we had to fly at the back of the plane, where the 80% of the flight (mostly Greeks, practically all of whom smoke) congregated to puff away. It was pretty grim. Now of course, no one smokes on planes. It just seems a stupid idea. No one smokes in bars. No one smokes in the office. Advertising of smoking is severely restricted in many countries, and the display of cigarettes at point-of-sale is also commonly banned. This is a massive societal change, and from the perspective of me, as a non-smoker, it’s brilliant. Society has quite rightly become very anti-smoking.

Worryingly, though, society has also become somewhat anti-drinking, too. This change is not as dramatic, but for those of us in the wine trade, it’s certainly something we should be concerned about. The argument in favour of drinking is that there is a safe level of consumption, whereas any level of smoking is hazardous. This distinction is one that is now being disregarded in the UK by public health authorities, with the message being one that any level of drinking carries with it risk. Many in the public health sector would like to do to alcohol what they have done to tobacco.

The evidence against alcohol is mounting. The abuse of alcohol is widespread, and attempts have been made to quantify it. These reports make for sobering reading (apologies…). Of course, there’s no way of knowing how real the figures quoted are (and, just as with many grant proposals which begin with an assessment of the cost of the problem that the research is intended to solve, the numbers seem awfully big), these sorts of figures are likely to influence policy decisions.

The Institute of Alcohol Studies published a report in 2015 titled Alcohol’s Harm to Others. This is a quote from it:

In the UK, the cost of alcohol’s harm to others was estimated in 2004 at up to £15.4 billion including £1.4-1.7 billion to the health service, up to £7.3 billion in crime and public disorder costs and up to £6.4 billion in workplace related costs. Further, there are costs to family and social networks that cannot be quantified using available data, for example the cost to children affected by parental alcohol problems. More recent figures calculated for the European Union place the societal costs of alcohol consumption in 2010 at € 155.8 billion (£115.4 billion). In Australia, the tangible costs per year resulting from other’s alcohol consumption are estimated at AUS $14.2 billion (£7.2 billion) and the intangible costs at AUS $6.4 billion (£3.3 billion). Given limited government resources, this alcohol-related spending reflects a large opportunity cost in terms of other areas of healthcare or government spending sacrificed.

To governments in western nations, figures like this mean that the appeal of restricting alcohol availability through higher taxation, or limiting retailing or advertising, is irresistible.

Binge drinking among teenagers and younger adults is a huge problem in the UK. Chaotic drinking patterns are resulting serious liver damage – a hepatic surgeon I spoke to said that he’s regularly seeing patients with end-stage liver failure in their late 20s. And city centres on Friday and Saturday nights are turning into dangerous places. There is a strong motivation for public health bodies to do something.

Against this backdrop, the UK Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, has recently initiated a consultation looking to revise safe drinking guidelines. A consultation began in January 2016 on recommended safe drinking levels, and the new recommendations were proposed as 14 units per man/woman per week, and along with this came the announcement that there is no safe drinking level. The 14 units level was derived from setting a relative risk of death as 1%. This means that if you drink 14 units a week you increase your risk of dying by 1%, which is apparently the same level of increased risk as watching on hour of TV a week or eating two bacon sandwiches per week.

Davies did a series of media interviews, including one on Radio 4’s Today programme in which she said this: ‘There’s an old wives’ tale that we were all brought up on – that a glass of red wine protected the heart.’ This is quite an extreme statement, because it flies in the face of the consistent, reliable finding of the J-shaped mortality curve. If you plot risk of death against alcohol consumption, the curve goes down so that for a certain level of drinking you are less likely to die. This is because of the cardioprotective effects of drinking alcohol. But alcohol also increases the risk of cancers and accidents, and at higher levels of stroke and cardiomyopathy, among other conditions. But there remains this sweetspot where moderate drinkers benefit more than they lose in terms of risk of death. This is an important message: there is a safe level of drinking, if you define safety as living longer, on average, than non-drinkers. Anti-alcohol public health people want to remove this message: they want people to think of alcohol as they do with tobacco.

So we have a problem. At the moment we in the wine trade have been granted licence to operate by society, but there are moves to impose further limits on us, and even to revoke this licence. Acceptance by drinks industry of these sorts of extremely conservative recommendations cements them into societal narrative on alcohol: if drinks companies print them on back labels, as they do with current recommendations, it validates them and turns them into a ‘truth’. This could severely affect the way normal people view alcohol, and wine, and in time reduce consumption. People currently drinking a healthy level of wine, for example a couple sharing a bottle over dinner, will be scared off this pleasure. It will be spoiled for them

While the motivation behind recommendations is a good one (there is no disputing that excessive alcohol consumption is a social ill that must be addressed), they are not a fair reflection of the research. The wine industry must be seen to self-regulate and behave responsibly, but must contest misleading presentation of science. This is a difficult balance to get right.

In discussions on taxation, the wine trade needs to act not only in its own interest. In Australia there is a discussion about moving towards a volumetric rather than value-based tax. This would seem to make sense: it’s a tax on alcohol, and it would make cheap products more expensive but would make more premium wines more affordable. The UK has a volumetric system and it works well. There was a recent proposal to move to minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol, and this would have had a very beneficial public health effect. Basically, as you increase the price of booze, you reduce societal harm. The drinks industry opposed this, which I think is short sighted. It would have got rid of a lot of very cynical products that have high alcoholic strength and yet are cheap.

There is also the issue of viticulture and food security. By 2050 the global population is projected to be 9.1 billion (a rise of 34%), and 70% of people will be urban (now 49%). According to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization, food production will have to increase by 70% to keep everyone fed. There will be a lot of pressure on land and water resources, and viticulture in good farming areas will be under threat as wine is regarded as a luxury not a staple.

If we are to maintain wine’s place in society, then we need to act now and seize the narrative agenda. People don’t listen to facts. Facts don’t change minds – stories and emotions do.

We should tell the story of wine. We should tell people about what we are doing, and explain why we think wine is different. This involves emphasizing its cultural richness, and creating positive associations with wine: gastronomy and beautiful places, for example. We also need to make the link between wine and place explicit, and this is why terroir is so important. We need to show people that wine is a heritage product. It is not just another alcoholic drink.

At the moment the wine trade isn’t having these discussions, and we are leaving the issue of the social licence of wine in the hands of public health officials, many of whom have an anti-alcohol agenda. We can’t sit back and allow alcohol to be turned into the next tobacco, because this would take down wine with it. It’s time for us to initiate these conversations, difficult though they may be.

5 Comments on The social licence of wine
wine journalist and flavour obsessive

5 thoughts on “The social licence of wine

  1. Yes, yes and yes! We are lucky to have such a great story to tell. We need to tell the stories of the many generations of families to make wine. Those are the human faces of our industry.

  2. That was a great talk you gave at the #16AWITC.

    Enjoyed it thoroughly, and agreed wholeheartedly.

    I can not believe the WFA’s answer to the taxation question on the first day. Absolute fear mongering. They will not enter into discussions about it, not even a study on the effects of a volumetric tax on all Australian producers.

    Silly Woofah…


  3. Being a wine blogger I’m sympathetic to your opinion and point of view, but it is also pretty clear from a medical point of view there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. It is a carcinogen (along with being a toxin to may other organs) with a dose related effect. I still choose to drink (but in moderation and intermittently) and I don’t ever imagine it will be something I will prevented from doing as a resident of a pluralist country.

    The J or U shaped curve you mention is controversial and it’s wrong to assert it is because there is a health benefit from alcohol. It may just as well be that those who are sick from medical issues have given up drinking, so giving an apparent increase in death rate amongst the non drinkers. The J curve is also present for body weight and again it probable that it is because in the underweight group there is a subgroup of people who are unwell for medical reasons.

  4. Edward, the J Curve is hardly controversial. Study after study has shown the same effect.

    As for ‘no safe limit’ of consumption and Sally Davies regrettably idiotic new drinking limits, they are unfortunately a result of lobby groups masquerading as experts and having an undue effect on government policy. Something that happens far too often nowadays.

    Please read the Times’ excellent research into how the new alcohol limits were decided on by a group dominated by activists and temperance

    I know the Times is behind a paywall, so a similarly detailed article can be read here:

    The result of such patently nonsenical advice from the government will only have a deleterious effect on drinkling levels. The previous more sensible limits were followed by many – the new ones will just be ignored for being too extreme.

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