Richard Hemming MW: fighting for the rights of wine

In my last column, I asked whether wine has enough cultural and historical value to survive the increasingly prevalent anti-alcohol sentiment in Britain, which is precisely the kind of #bantz that explains why I always end up standing by myself at parties.

So this time, rather than worrying about the problems wine faces, let’s celebrate those values – the inherent, unique and remarkable qualities that makes wine such a valuable part of our world. It’ll be fun! We can put on party hats and have cake and everything! Hey, where are you going? Come back!

Several important things make wine different from other drinks, and it is those factors that make wine worth fighting for.

No other drink can be such a precise reflection of the people, place and time that produced it. Wine is as diverse and multi-faceted as society itself. Each vintage is a document of not only the weather of that year, but the prevailing cultural trends that influenced its winemaking. Over centuries, viniculture has identified hundreds of grape varieties, defined thousands of appellations and triggered millions of intellectual debates.

Anyone with a love of wine can use this wealth of evidence to argue for wine’s worth; to prove that wine has intrinsic cultural value which will surely guarantee its preservation in civilised society.

However, there’s an important distinction to make. It’s easy for us to forget that 96% of wine sold in UK retail costs less than £9 per bottle (Elementary Consumer Wine Education, Tim Jackson MW). Can the lower end of the wine world claim to have the same cultural distinction that we afford to fine wine?

It often claims to, with ambitious marketing shtick that evokes unique soils and traditional techniques. But in reality, this more commoditised product is far more susceptible to the pressure coming from those who want to reduce levels of drinking – precisely because it has less cultural credibility with which to defend itself. Furthermore, the affordability of wine at this level might make millions of wine drinkers happy, but is grist to the mill for the party-poopers.

Whatever your opinion on the debate around reducing alcohol consumption, let’s agree that wine can be divided into two types, and that the cheaper end is far more vulnerable. What does that signify for those of us who sell wine? Discussions about cultural value and intellectual debate can seem very abstract when you’re on the shop floor asking customers if they need a hand choosing a bottle.

But in fact, this is where the message matters most. Encouraging customers to trade up by  telling them the stories behind your wines will develop their connection to the cultural value of wine. More prosaically, it justifies spending more per bottle, providing greater quality and greater understanding of that quality. Both the financial and the emotional investment are crucial elements in helping to protect and preserve wine.

Not every customer will care. But each one that does is another convert to the party.

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