Great debate: Is wine heading for tough times? YES

Sunday, 21. October 2018 - 15:15

Is the wine industry heading for trouble? YES.

Of all the talks, presentations and seminars I’ve attended this year, one speaker stood out for me. He was an energy sector executive who took the microphone at the Fine Minds 4 Fine Wines think tank in July, and said, “Could what happened to us in energy happen to you in wine?” When he started in oil and gas, he said, “We were the heroes. We kept the lights running. Now with climate change, we’re the villains.” 

Then he brought up the landmark The Lancet analysis published this year, which was a meta-analysis of 83 studies done on the effects of alcohol, based on a total of 599,912 drinkers. It concluded: “These data support limits for alcohol consumption that are lower than those recommended in most current guidelines.”

“Is the wine industry in danger of losing the social contract?” the speaker finished. The answer, unfortunately, is starting to look like “yes”.

The bad news
This year, there has been a sharp rise in the number of major articles about the impact of alcohol, particularly when it comes to drinking and women. One notable report, called ‘Did Drinking Give Me Breast Cancer’, came out in May in the widely respected investigative magazine Mother Jones. The author, Stephanie Mencimer, noted that, “The research linking alcohol to breast cancer is deadly solid. There’s no controversy here. The National Cancer Institute says alcohol raises breast cancer risk even at low levels.”

These reports are coming on top of governmental and World Health Organization attempts to limit drinking, including the French government’s plan for cigarette-style warnings on wine. Western governments are facing a ‘silver tsunami’ of ageing citizens who are likely to drain the healthcare system, so they’re looking for any way possible to reduce injury and illness – and they have alcohol in their sights.

The steady drumbeat of health warnings is already having an effect. In August, The Guardian reported that “abstaining from alcohol was becoming ‘more mainstream’ among people aged 16 to 24” while “more than 25% of young people classed themselves as ‘non-drinkers’.” Forbes has called Millennials “Generation Sober”: Young people are turning away from alcohol.

That’s not the only bad news on the horizon. The rise of cannabis products in North America has the potential to reduce wine consumption. Then there’s the threat of private label, where the retailer owns the brand, and just buys the wine to fill the bottle, reducing wine to a commodity. Because of consolidation in the distribution chain, it’s also becoming extremely difficult for smaller players to break into the market.

The future, then, is fewer drinkers who drink less, plus a market that’s harder to enter.

Producers are already adapting to the threats of consolidation and cannabis, including by focusing on direct-to-consumer sales and investing in wine tourism.

However, too few people are taking the health lobby threat seriously. In fact, every time Dry January comes around, wine social media erupts in derision at the neo-Puritanism on display, not recognising that what’s going on isn’t simply a temporary behavioural change but a social move away from wine. Another problem is that many in the wine trade believe that wine is the healthy option and it’s the other beverages – spirits, beer, mixers – that are a problem. 

Wine does have a halo of health, thanks to evidence that small amounts can have a positive cardiovascular effect. But that halo won’t be strong enough to ward off the assault that’s coming.

There are a few things that we could do. The most important is to take the threat seriously. The second is to be careful of spreading information that may not be true, which means not forwarding or publicising the many bogus wine and health claims that pop up in lifestyle media. Another is to think carefully about involvement in cancer charities, particularly anything to do with breast cancer – not because they’re not good causes, but because such gestures can be misinterpreted. Given the strong link between alcohol and breast cancer, attempts to raise money could look like ‘pink washing’. It would be awful to see well-meaning people, many of whose lives have been touched by the disease, accused of that.

Wine is a delicious link to the land that weaves tradition, family, history and good environmental stewardship together. At a time when people are craving authenticity, that’s something that wine can provide. What wine is not, is a health potion. And if we don’t recognise that, we’re in trouble. 
Felicity Carter

This debate first ran in Issue 5, 2018 of Meininger's Wine Business International. You'll find Robert Joseph's NO response here.