Here’s what markets and small business minister Kevin Hollinrake had to say about the government’s decision to allow wine to be sold in pint bottles in future: “Our exit from the EU was all about moments just like this, where we can seize new opportunities and provide a real boost to our great British wineries and further growing the economy.”
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But the nuts and bolts of what the government grandiloquently terms “new freedoms” amount to allowing sparkling wine to be sold in 50cl bottles, still wine in 20cls, and both in pints (or 56.8cl).
Naturally, the pints bit got most media attention, even though it’s the least likely format of the three to get off the ground. Several tabloid outlets failed to grasp the terribly hard to understand nuance that we were talking about packaging and billed it as an opportunity for people to order pints of wine at the bar, but when have such publications ever allowed the facts to get in the way of a good headline?
Hollinrake further hailed the move as a victory for “innovation” and “choice”, as if such things had been withheld from producers, importers, retailers and consumers since wine was last sold by the pint in 1973.
It’s as if single-serve bottles, cans and bag-in-box had never happened – like it wasn’t already permitted to sell packaged still wine in eight different packs sizes and sparkling wine in five.
The impact of the change will be minimal. Glass manufacturers aren’t geared up to make pint bottles for wine, 50cl bottles for sparkling wine or 20cl for still wine and there’s unlikely to be a massive sea-change in their approach, just because one market wants to be out of step with the rest of Europe.
Neither is there any evidence of demand for wine to be bought, sold or consumed by the pint. Half-bottles already exist for those wanting smaller sizes, but volumes are relatively small. So too do 50cls for still wine, but are sold only in tiny quantities for a small number of niche products. If there was massive demand for something in the 50-ish cl bracket then wine producers could already satisfy it. There just isn’t.
And what of the argument that people will just want to buy wine in an imperial measure because it appeals to some sort of nostalgic image of how Britain really should be. Well, the government’s own consultation on measurement units in June 2022 found that 97% of people are in favour of metric when buying or selling, either as the primary (ie, alongside imperial units) or sole unit.
Beer is traditionally and legally bought and consumed in pints on draught of course, but even in that market, there’s never been any clamour for packaged beer to be sold in pint cans or bottles, even though there are no existing restrictions on pack sizes for beer in the UK and pint bottles are commonplace in the US. Consumers are quite happy to buy 33cl, 44cl, 50cl and other metric sizes and, as they say over the pond, “do the math” about how that translates into pints.
So having taken a few moments to let Hollinrake’s statement sink in (noting in passing how the end bit of his sentence doesn’t make any grammatical sense in the context of the rest of it) it’s hard not to see pint bottles for wine as just another gimmicky government initiative – in the mould of the Northern Powerhouse, the Big Society and Eat Out to Help Out – appealing to a rapidly evaporating minority of the population and carrying limited positive real-world impact? Much, in fact, like Brexit itself.