Will President Trump be good or bad for wine?

Friday, 20. January 2017 - 13:30

On 20th January 2017, noted teetotaler Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. The decisions that he makes will help to shape the world - so what effect will they have on wine?

Trump is, after all, the man who once said, “I never understood why people don't go after the alcohol companies like they did the tobacco companies.” In the same 2004 Esquire interview he added, “Alcohol is a much worse problem than cigarettes.”

Given his animosity to alcohol, it’s not unreasonable to ask if Trump might advocate for some kind of Prohibitionist measures, or encourage legal action against alcohol companies. Yet his relationship to alcohol is complex.

On the one hand, Trump has a clear grudge against it: alcoholism killed his brother Fred at the age of 43. However, while Trump personally doesn’t drink wine, he acquired a winery of his own in 2010, in Virginia. Although Trump Winery now belongs to his son Eric, it’s unlikely that Trump would want to do anything to upend the wine market.

But could Trump’s teetotalism have an impact on consumer behavior – or on the US wine industry?

Noted consumer psychologist Philip Graves says the empirical answer is “yes”, at least to the impact on the industry.  “The mechanism of action is, I suspect, less to do with consumer psychology and more to do with organizational psychology. When a leader has a clear behavioural preference, it is likely to be an easy door on which a minister can push; if you’re the health minister looking to make your mark, you’ve much more chance pursuing something that you know resonates with the prime minister or president.”

Graves says this extends all the way down the chain of opposition and lobbying organizations, who are “more likely to see an opportunity to pursue their agendas. This could be a legitimate opportunity or a placebo effect that causes them to try harder – either way, the result is a greater likelihood than would otherwise be the case that there will be regulation or policy that impacts negatively on alcohol sales.”

Possible upside?

If Trump wants to pursue an anti-alcohol agenda while also protecting his son’s interests, he might be tempted to encourage the drinking of wine in preference to other types of alcohol.

The US wine market would probably welcome this kind of effort, as there are early signs that the once-booming wine market is, finally, slowing down. As a November 2016 Wine Intelligence report noted: “Two measures suggest that the US market for wine may have peaked – or at least paused. There has been a reduction in the average consumption per head of wine in the last few years, coupled with a reduction in the number of very frequent wine drinkers – that is, those drinking wine on a near daily basis.”          

Part of the slowdown comes from ferocious competition from craft beers, spirits and the cocktail culture. If a Trump presidency emboldened politicians and others to push an anti-alcohol agenda, they might find it worthwhile to leave wine out of their lobbying.

Wine populism?

Another possibility is that Trump could take a leaf out of Putin’s book and make it unpatriotic to drink anything foreign, as part of his 'Make America Great Again' agenda. There is a precedent for this. Ronald Reagan made an effort to promote American wines, as illustrated by a toast he gave the French President in Paris: “We know, of course, France has great appreciation for fine wines, and that’s why we decided to treat you to some California wine tonight.”

New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov says that prior to Carter and Reagan, it was mainly fine French wine that was served at official functions. Then it became policy to serve only American wines. Asimov is not particularly impressed with the wines being served at Trump’s inauguration, however. “I would say they’re an awful selection,” he says, but adds that “there has never been a tradition of good selections of inauguration wines. Bad taste in official American wines seems to transcend party affiliations.” He thinks it might be because no incoming President wants to be accused of snobbery.

Being called a snob will never be Trump’s problem, as it’s well known that his gastronomic preferences run to McDonald’s. But given his contradictory positions – hating alcohol, but having a vested interest in wine – where does that leave the issue of wine in his new administration?

Perhaps alcohol consumption of all kinds will simply shoot up, as more people turn to drink.

One certainty

Back in October 2016, Trump Winery’s general manager Kerry Woolard told Meininger’s that sales were up 55% year-on-year, driven by post-Trump rally sales.

So while everything else is in flux, at least one thing is certain: Trump’s foray into politics has been very good for one wine brand. His own.

Felicity Carter with Robert Joseph

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