Looking at the underbelly of wine

Wednesday, 30. January 2019 - 21:15

Photo by Mathieu Perrier on Unsplash

“Why are you always so negative?”

This is a comment that I sometimes get from a small number of the online wine community. In answer, I’d ask you to imagine my state of mind at half past eight on the evening of Tuesday 29th of January.

It was half time during a match between a football team I support called Fulham FC, and Brighton & Hove Albion. I had just spent 45 minutes in the cold and wet at Craven Cottage, the Fulham stadium, watching my team play very, very badly.

That night in London, politicians were discussing how to proceed with Brexit, a project that has been almost unanimously damned by the British business, scientific, medical and arts communities. Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump had just tweeted sceptically about climate change for the umpteenth time. And Oddbins, one of the UK’s few surviving serious wine retailers, announced that it was going into administration.

In the face of all this, I could have started to whistle ‘Always look on the bright side of life’. After all, the score at Craven Cottage could have been worse, and there had been a few moments of decent play from my team.

Brexit will be less damaging to Britain than, say, an outbreak of bubonic plague. Over the long term, future generations of Britons will get used to not being able to go and live and work and study as easily on the other side of the Channel.

Donald Trump will not be in the White House for ever, so maybe I should focus on the third of the US public who don’t share his views on ‘beautiful coal’ rather than the third who apparently do.

And, even if Britain loses a few more local wine shops and their enthusiastic staff have to consider a different career, well, hey, you can always go wine shopping on the internet.

So why do I fail to embrace this much more positive view of the world?

A couple of weeks earlier, when reporting from an industry conference in South Africa, I’d been implicitly criticised online by a respected UK wine writer, because I had quoted a local expert’s statistics on the high volumes and low prices of South Africa’s bulk wine exports. Why, lay the hidden message, wasn’t I simply praising the quality of the brilliant bottled wines on show from producers at the annual Cape Wine fair?

My answer is simple. When others are talking about that pretty white island they can see floating on the water, I wonder what lies beneath. This is not because I don’t admire the scenery as much as anybody else. I do. I regularly celebrate wine industry success stories, as anyone who reads the articles I contribute to Meininger’s Wine Business International will hopefully appreciate.

But I also celebrate success stories of which some of my critics disapprove. For example, when I described the US sales boom in bourbon barrel-aged wines and suggested that Penfolds might do well in China with its innovative baijou-fortified red, it did me absolutely no favours with them.

The reason I spend time talking and writing about the less visible and often ugly bit of the iceberg is because I don’t see enough coverage of it elsewhere. I don’t see many other wine writers, for example, taking much interest in the fact that, in 2014 – the latest figures I have found – French wine farmers made an annual profit of €1,869 ($2,147) per hectare, including subsidies. Given an average landholding in France of 10.5ha, this represents a profit of €19,624 for a family – little more than the minimum wage for one employee.

Why do these kinds of statistics matter? Because they explain why many of the sons and daughters of today’s generation of European wine producers are choosing not to take over from their parents, and why one South African wine grower apparently leaves the industry every two days.

And who benefits from all this? Most likely, the bigger, more ‘industrial’, more brand-focused, high volume producers of whom, again, some of my critics loudly disapprove.

I don’t begin to claim to have answers to the problems of the wine industry, but I hope that raising awareness might go some way to improving the chances of finding some solutions.

Confronting problems head on can lead to amazing results. During the half time break on that cold wet evening at Craven Cottage, Claudio Ranieri, the Fulham manager, gave his players a pep talk and perhaps more importantly, made a couple of substitutions. Against the odds, Fulham then went on to win the match.

Rest assured, there was absolutely nothing that was negative in my reaction to that result.
Robert Joseph