Demonised wine drinkers don't even know how the units stack up

09 August, 2007

In this era of climate change, it's only right that the media's traditional August silly season of over-spun news stories has also started early. Recent press evidence would suggest that alcohol is only marginally behind global terrorism in terms of the danger it poses to our society.

For years Middle England assumed that irresponsible drinking was something spotty youths did in sticky-floored pubs, and that regular wine consumption was actually healthy. Now Middle England is given to understand that its members are in fact a bunch of dangerous near-alcoholics whose two glasses of Cabernet of an evening pose a serious threat to their health, the finances of the NHS and the future of the nation. You need a degree in Spinology to keep up.

Clearly, we have a responsibility as an industry: we are selling a legalised drug which we know can have damaging effects on our health if consumed to excess. There's no doubting the more extreme effects of alcohol when we are in any city centre on a Friday or Saturday night, or - at this time of year - when some Mediterranean holiday destinations become exported Alcohol Disorder Zones.

Amid the hype, however, the battle lines have shifted: both the government and the opposition have announced policies targeting the supposedly mild-mannered at-home wine drinker with a proposed cocktail of taxes, drink-drive clampdowns and scolding literature.

This has serious implications for the wine industry in particular: Wine Intelligence research shows that those who drink wine frequently at home are 35 to 65-year-old middle income couples who enjoy a glass of wine or two in the evening.

They are the heartland of the market who can be relied upon to put three or four bottles of wine in their shopping trolleys every week.

Testing the nation

But how "dangerous" are these drinkers? Nobody really knows for sure. For one thing, do we as consumers really know how much alcohol - how many units - are in our everyday tipples? In data collected in the Wine Intelligence Vinitrac survey of 1,000 regular wine drinkers in the UK in July this year we decided to test the nation at how good they were on estimating their alcohol intake.

It will come as no surprise that we British drinkers are not very good at knowing how much alcohol we are actually ­consuming. Although women are generally more aware of alcohol units than men, widespread confusion still persists.

When asked how many units a large glass of wine contains (25cl), only half of female respondents answered correctly whereas only 40 per cent of male respondents gave the correct answer of 2.5 units. We even allowed a bit of room for error - we marked them as having the correct answer if they were within half a unit either way.

The bigger issue for the wine industry comes when the same question is asked of consumers about alcohol content in a bottle of wine. Again, allowing for a margin of error, only 13 per cent of UK regular wine drinkers could correctly tell how many units of alcohol were in a typical 75cl bottle of wine. For most of those with the wrong answer, they had significantly under-estimated how much alcohol the bottle really contained.

Similarly, only 25 per cent of these respondents could correctly identify how much alcohol was in a pint of cider. When it comes to a single measure of spirits, a pint of bitter or a pint or normal strength lager, only half of the respondents could correctly estimate how many units were in these drinks.

And who is most aware of the correct number of units? Well, it's not the over 55s. These older drinkers are significantly more likely to get the answer wrong. Indeed, as one of the most frequent wine-drinking groups, only 6 per cent of them really know how many units are in a bottle of wine. The class swots tend to be between 35 and 44 years old.

Getting the message across

So it seems that we have some work ahead of us when it comes to informing our drinkers. As many wine producers are now introducing back-labels with simpler unit and alcohol labelling, it seems likely that the message will be easier for consumers to understand.

The jury is still out on the really personal and social impact that wine has - but the evidence is very clear when it comes to the consumer: they really don't know how much alcohol is in a bottle of wine.

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