Richard Hemming: The subtle approach to a merry Christmas

Hey everyone, ’tis the season to be jolly! And when I say jolly, I mean ... drunk. right? Let’s not be squeamish: for most of the UK population, this is pretty much routine logic. Festivity means celebration, celebration means having a drink, and that inevitably equals inebriation, to a greater or lesser extent.

Wine fancies itself as different from cider, beer and spirits – as a civilised accompaniment to food, as something that gets savoured and contemplated. But at every Christmas party around the country, it’ll be wine that’s mainly on offer, and it’s not there to be revered.

I certainly don’t want to preach about sobriety – not least because I disagree with any guidelines which insist that nobody should ever consume more than two drinks on one occasion. Nor do I wish to debate what any putative limit should be. Anyone is arguably at risk from excessive drinking, but there is no way of knowing what a harmful level is from person to person, and according to different circumstances.

But disregarding drinking habits in our personal lives, there are important considerations for our professional lives because wine is just as liable to cause alcohol-related problems as any other booze. Furthermore, as alcohol looks set to continue to influence health (and tax) policies, the wine trade should be aware that blindly ignoring how our livelihood can cause people problems will only lead to more aggressive and restrictive legislation.

There are already legal obligations, of course, and it should go without saying that refusing to sell wine to minors or the visibly drunk is absolutely beyond question. Other options, however, are less obvious.

No wine retailer wants to wish their customers a temperate Christmas and an abstemious New Year because the moderation message sounds intrusive, patronising and, frankly, hypocritical coming from anyone who flogs booze for a living. But there are subtler ways to approach responsible wine retailing.

Restricting discounting is one. The deepest and most visible discounts appear deliberately to encourage people to buy and drink more, rather than to switch brands for an already planned purchase. Besides, they undermine the value of wine and discourage customer engagement – so kudos to Oddbins and all those indies who have flat pricing across their range.

Another huge area of potential is wines with lower than average alcohol levels. They may not be easy to source, but delicious reds and whites definitely exist between 10% and 13% abv, and often retail for below £10 too. Hunter Valley Semillon, German Riesling, Rhône Syrah and Vinho Verde are all good options – there are many more.

Then there are reduced alcohol wines, below 10% abv. Quality still needs to improve before these can really make an impact – but we shouldn’t be scornful by default. Any producer seeking to make a wine with reduced alcohol that consumers will enjoy deserves support.

By taking some initiative, the wine trade can prove it is responsible for itself without any need for compromise.

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