Thursday, 28 July 2011

Who is allowed to tell us how much to drink?

The latest edition of Harpers Wine & Spirit Trade Review – the weekly wine trade publication – contains details of their “Responsibility OK” campaign urging companies in the drinks trade to sign up to seven alcohol responsibility pledges.  It’s a trade led campaign aimed at nudging everyone towards a healthier approach to alcohol consumption in an attempt to deflect government threats to legislate to the same effect.

The seven pledges are:
  1. No to drinking while pregnant and the associated drive towards clearer health warnings and unit content on wine labels.
  2. Awareness of alcohol units in the on-trade.
  3. Awareness of alcohol units, calories and other information in the off-trade.
  4. Tackling under age sales.
  5. Support for Drinkaware and their “Why Let The Good Times Go Bad?” campaign.
  6. A pledge on advertising and marketing alcohol responsibly (eg. no adverts within 100m of schools)
  7. Community actions to tackle alcohol harms.

These pledges are all sensible enough and we will happily do our bit to support the Harpers campaign.  Indeed, our constant recommendation has always been “don’t drink more, drink better” – it’s why we exist. Actually it keeps everybody happy because your alcohol consumption doesn’t increase (and may even reduce) and you get to drink better wines which are more enjoyable and memorable than the cheap dross churned out by the big boys.  However, how much you drink is a matter for consideration between your GP and your conscience; it is certainly not our place to begin to moralise on the personal drinking habits of our customers.  Were we to attempt this they would, quite rightly, tell us to get knotted!

As for the pledges themselves, I’m not sure what we can do about the first one.  Wines arrive with the suppliers’ chosen wording already on the labels so it’s not an area where we have any influence. Legislation is probably the only way to create a uniform approach here.

Pledges 2 and 3 request more information on alcoholic units and calorific content, much of which is already available but in any case the maths are easy enough.  Just multiply the alcoholic content (as a percentage) by the volume in centilitres to get the number of units of alcohol.  Thus a 75cl bottle of wine at 14.5% abv contains 10.875 units (75 x 14.5%).  You do not need to be Einstein to understand this – it’s primary school maths.

Pledge No.4 is a legal requirement placed on all who sell alcohol.  It is not clear why one needs to pledge to do this when not to do it would be breaking the law.

The rest of the pledges all make sense.  The Drinkaware campaign mentioned contains some great advice on how to drink sensibly and ensure you have a great night out (eat first, look after your mates, make sure you can get home ok – that sort of thing) but none of this is rocket science.  It also seems to assume that everyone tends to go out when they drink. As for No.6, what responsible company would advertise booze close to a school anyway?  Someone must have done for this to have been mentioned I suppose.  I wonder who it was?  None of this seems particularly relevant to Wines of Interest customers though, who simply enjoy a bottle of wine at home, usually with a meal.  Like they do on the continent.  In company, and where the town centres are much less likely to be littered with drunk leggy females who have lost their underwear (and self-respect) as the result of drinking lurid blue booze on an empty stomach.

We at Wines of Interest are blessed with customers who are some of the nicest and most sensible people we know.  They are intelligent, discerning and considerate.  It is difficult to believe that any of them go out and regularly get plastered; they drink wine because it’s a civilised thing to do and they enjoy it, alcohol just happens to be part of the deal.  Where campaigns and pledges (and dare I suggest subsequent legislation) need to be directed is towards those who drink specifically to get drunk, and the producers of the drinks that achieve this, and those who sell them.  We at Wines of Interest fully accept that as a retailer of wines we can be a small part of the solution, but we would respectfully suggest that businesses like us, and our customers, are not the problem.

I have contacted the Department of Health to offer support, and sign up, but so have many large producers and retailers, including those who supply the toxic products that some elements of our society choose as their preferred method of achieving inebriation. But it strikes me that this is the easy bit.  Many of the larger corporate signatories are still offering “half price” deals and multibuys in their stores.  Talk always has been cheap, and while they continue to fill their aisles with booze promoted at stupid prices it’s hard to see their sincerity as anything more than veneer.

If the intoxicated nature of much of our society is ever to be addressed something much more radical is needed.  The government can try all they like to “nudge” us all towards a healthier lifestyle, but the harsh reality is that it’s the sources of cheap booze that need nudging first and only some will respond.  Those who do not respond will be the ones who most need to of course, both corporately and individually.

What is required is a sniper’s rifle approach and not a blunderbuss.  It needs to be aimed at supermarkets, high street outlets and off-licences who stock the bottom end of the market dross that only sells because it’s alcoholic, and silly “happy hour” type promotions in the on-trade.  We also need to address the misperception that you cannot have a good time unless you’re plastered.  Slapping all of us with one-size-fits-all pledges and/or legislation would not be fair and those who always have been sensible about their drinking and responsible suppliers will, collectively, fight back.

Finally, having read all this, does it not strike you as a bit strange that, as a business trading to (hopefully) make a profit and support two young families, we are being urged to encourage our customers to buy less by the obsession of the anti-alcohol lobbies?  I’m sure our accountant and bank manager would regard this as a uniquely absurd position.  Acquaintances who occasionally visit certain well-known “fast food” outlets report that they are always being encouraged to buy more of their deep fried cardboard and left over bits of cow in the form of “supersize” deals – an obvious attempt to get the customer to spend (and eat) more.  The secret here of course is that how much the customer buys and consumes is their business and not for anyone else (especially the government) to dictate.  By all means educate, but leave us free to choose.  After all, there is a world of difference between being told you’re drinking too much by your GP, and being told the same by your MP.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Gold Medal? So What!

Walking through town today I passed a pub advertising “Award Winning Wines” and I wondered whether anyone has ever looked at this and thought “Award winning eh?  I’ll pop in for a glass!”

I suppose some see a certain reassurance from a medal on a bottle, but (remember the Emperor who placed such trust in the opinions of others that his new clothes showed him to be a fool?) placing exclusive trust in wine awards can be misguided.  Why are we so frequently unprepared to make our own minds up?

In 1980 the Olympic Games were held in Moscow.  The previous year Soviet troops had marched into Afghanistan and the United States decided they didn’t want to play, along with Japan, West Germany, China, the Philippines, Argentina and Canada.  The UK supported the boycott but said its athletes could compete if they so wished.  Allan Wells competed won the men’s 100m fast running thingy.  He has a gold medal to show for his efforts but I’ve often wondered whether he would have won had the Yanks turned up?  This is purely hypothetical of course; on the day he was the fastest man in the world and nobody can dispute that.

Wine competitions are different in that so much is subjective but, like Allan Wells, wines can only compete against the other entrants and there are thousands of wine producers who don’t go anywhere near the competitions for very good reasons.  One producer’s response was to say “I already sell all the wine I make and I have a loyal following.  Why would I want to enter a competition?  If my wines do well I increase demand yet I cannot make any more wine.  All I will do is annoy my existing customers. It’s a waste of time and money for me.”

Other producers believe (correctly) that they make wines of such individuality that they would probably not be understood by the competition judges.  Is this why mass-produced “commercial” wines win so many awards? They certainly seem to dominate the entries, they do not tend to create strong opinions one way or the other, which means that hardly anyone actively dislikes them and they would welcome any increase in demand because it’s easy enough to let the tap on the end of the production pipe run off a few more thousand cases.

I was once asked if I would be interested to join the judges of a major wine competition but it transpired that I was required to attend a course to make sure that I came to the same conclusions that the other judges did.  I thought this would be unwise for someone who had been in the trade as long as I had when what they really wanted was more of a blank canvas to “clone”.  I thought my Mother-in-Law would be a good choice.

One skill that we should all develop is the ability to differentiate between that which we like (or dislike) and that which is good (or poor).  I recall having a major disagreement with a trade customer once who simply could not grasp this difference, pronouncing one of our wines as “disgusting” (which is certainly wasn’t) instead of recognising that she just didn’t like it (not the same thing at all).  This concept applies to many things in life as well; theatre, music, writing, food, even people.  The pub that this lady ran eventually went out of business, so it wasn’t just that I didn’t like her…

I have a lot of time for people with opinions of their own.  This is largely because they have obviously thought about something deeply enough to formulate an opinion.  I can disagree with them if I so wish, but at least the way is clear.  It should be the same with wine but so frequently drinkers end up with characterless alcoholic fruit juice because that is what the producer (and frequently competition judges) find least inoffensive.  It’s so much better to have wines with strong personalities that force you one way or another towards either total admiration or a preference for something else.  Only with wines like this will drinking them be truly memorable.  After all, what fun is there in you constantly drinking hooch that someone else says is good without knowing why?

We reckon every wine in our shop is good, but we would not guarantee that everyone will like them all.  But that’s the fun of it!