Richard Hemming MW: A future without wine?

Attempting to see something from an alternative perspective is like leaving you running in circles before collapsing on the floor, panting heavily.

When I started this column five years ago, I had no inkling that the subject I would return to most frequently would be the movement against alcohol consumption. Understanding the perspective is essential if we are to defend and preserve our livelihoods.

So, at the risk of collapsing on the floor and panting heavily, let’s first consider some alternative perspectives – on smoking.

For my generation (I turned 40 this summer), the prevailing attitude to smoking is utterly different to that of our parents. For them it was a social norm – in 1960, nearly 60% of the adult population smoked, and tobacco could be advertised (and smoked) almost anywhere. By the time I was a teenager, it had become a dirty habit, but you could still smoke in most places, and legally purchase cigarettes at 16. Nowadays only 17% of the population smoke, tobacco advertising is forbidden, under-18s can’t buy it – and, furthermore, vaping is offering a credible, safer alternative. Socially, smoking is becoming virtually outlawed.

Today, 79% of the population drinks, but for 16 to 24-year-olds, that percentage has dropped from 81% to 73% in the past 10 years. That means more than a quarter of young adults are now teetotal. But encouraging young people to drink is as unthinkable as promoting the virtues of ciggies – what we need to do instead is understand their perspective.

If subsequent generations see alcohol the way most of us now see tobacco – as a dispensible social habit with more drawbacks than benefits – then a future without wine is, sadly, no mere fantasty. When I used to smoke, cigarette packets displayed desperately naive warnings such as “leave a longer stub”. How much longer before wine labels start telling us to “leave more dregs”?

The opinion of the healthcare lobby is unequivocal – reducing alcohol consumption benefits health. The recent BBC documentary Drinkers Like Me included the quote: “If alcohol was discovered today, unquestionably it would be illegal.” Arguing against rhetoric like that is difficult.

The critical question for wine is whether it has enough cultural and historical value to withstand a backlash against alcohol consumption. We’d all love to think so, of course – but that’s very much our perspective. Already, the wine trade mantra is “drink less but better”, emphasising the importance of quality while acknowledging the trend towards decreasing consumption. For any wine merchant with long-term vision, focusing on premium wines with provenance is much safer than commodity brands and discount offers, in anticipation of a perspective that stigmatizes alcohol as much as tobacco.

And if that sounds ridiculous, ask a teenager if they can believe that, as recently as 11 years ago, people used to smoke inside pubs. That might put things in perspective.

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