Thursday, 4 February 2010

The Elite drinking, not binge drinking, is the problem

The rich and powerful constitute the biggest threat to the wine world, not the nebulous attack on society's binge drinking.

Health lobbies and scientists in the western world are currently spending much of their time telling us about the dangers of drink. In the UK, binge drinking has been a cultural phenomenon for years. Judging by my friends from there, it has been much that way in France too. Although in France it seems to occur behind closed doors, not spilling out from the pub.

Wine is one of the major targets for the health lobby at the moment. The first attack is that wine is too cheap - it's simply too easy to buy too much, and therefore drink too much. This was addressed, pathetically, by Decanter editor Guy Woodward in his latest editorial.

'The real problem,' Woodward writes in the March issue of Decanter, 'lies with supermarkets who use wine as a loss-leader, slashing margins, bullying suppliers and dragging down prices in order to attract customers...Selling wine at a loss helps neither consumers nor the trade.'

Blaming the supermarkets has become the easy way out of any consumerist issue. They're bad, they're cheap, it's their fault. However, it does not address the fact that their power stems from our patronage. If anything, the supermarket phenomenon is merely an expression of our economic system.

In any case, you can still find stupidly cheap bottles of wine from any handful of high street wine shops. The problem is our economic outlook itself, especially when a packet of paracetamol costs the same price as a bottle of Muscadet.

If you have been following some of my blogs, you'll know that I am all for capping wine pricing, but as long as we cap prices at a maximum as well. I agree that wine cannot be allowed to slip away from its cultural significance by becoming a loss leader, or a quick-and-easy way to get drunk. But by the same token, it must not be allowed to slip from our grasp.

Let me illustrate this.

If you can read French, have a look at this news report about a Bordeaux wine festival. If you're not a francophone, it basically says that the Bordeaux regional council will not help subsidise the Bordeaux wine festival - it will be holding on to its €80,000.

And then look at this (also in French): a Bordeaux and charcuterie evening for the country's deputies held in an 'open bar' at the French National Assembly. Reading about French politicians drinking and shouting away while regional funds are withheld from a wine tasting for the people they represent really sticks in my throat.

A tipsy Deputy comes up to me. "Say, miss, which newspaper do you work for? You look like a lefty. Libération? No? Jolly good, or we would have been forced to undress you and hang you from the window, haha." Haha.

We live in a world where those at Davos are served 1959 Yquem and French Deputies get drunk on Côtes de Castillon. All while we are bombarded with the dangers of drink and funds are stopped for public wine events (ref. even the New York Wine & Grape Foundation).

The greatest danger the wine world faces today is in not that the general public will turn its back on the bottle for health reasons, but that it will turn its back on it because it feels that wine does not represent them.

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Thursday, 28 January 2010

Wine is political

Last week I might have angered a few people. Well, maybe about five because that’s how many stopped following me on Twitter. What I did then was to attempt to make parallels between wine and politics, wondering why high-end wines appear to follow the line of right-wing political thought, or at least that of the economic ‘elite’.

And you've guessed it, I’m going to do it again. Because yesterday I read about the movers and shakers in Davos being served Yquem, Cheval Blanc and Krug. Well, the organisers of the tasting realised that it might be a little insensitive to hold it in Davos, so it was held at Zurich airport instead. But once again I have to ask myself what function these wines serve and what LVMH is doing hobnobbing with these people in the first place?

Is great wine – and there is no doubt that we are talking about very good wines – only deserved by the rich, the decision-makers, the ‘ruling class’ if you will?

Read into the tone of these two blogs, one from FT, the other from the New York Times. ‘It’s alright for some’ they seem to say, in that slightly piqued, slightly indignant fashion (although I suspect Gideon from the FT actually quite enjoyed it - who wouldn't).

But you have to wonder. Oh, the frolics, the enjoyment, the luxury that mere plebs cannot understand... Does everyone sit round the fire in the big Davos bunker, have a Cohiba smoke-off while a bevy of eastern European prostitutes occupy themselves on the roulette table?

Has wine become the Nero’s fiddle? Marie-Antoinette’s cake for the masses?

Perhaps you think I’m reading too much into it (and I’m beginning to bore myself, I admit) so let me leave you with Roland Barthes. He might have written it in the 50s but you’ll see my point:
It is true that wine is a good and fine substance, but it is no less true that its production is deeply involved in French capitalism, whether it is that of the private distillers or that of the big settlers in Algeria who impose on the Muslims, on the very land of which they have been dispossessed, a crop of which they have no need, while they lack even bread. There are thus very engaging myths which are however not innocent. And the characteristic of our current alienation is precisely that wine cannot be an unalloyedly blissful substance, except if we wrongfully forget that it is also the product of an expropriation.

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