Hello, my name’s Paola and I’m a peddler of death. I have a licence – to kill. Entering my shop could seriously harm your health.
An exaggeration, of course. But, if you’re in wine retail, like me, it does feel a bit like, following the new government drinking guidelines.
My fears of a future where the windows of wine shops will have to be covered up, and all wine labels utilitarian, may not seem so outlandish after all.
Much has already been written about whether the science behind the guidelines stacks up. There are allegations, too, of political motivations, and plenty of breast-beating from oenophiles about the cultural significance of wine. (I’m writing this in Santa Barbara, a US city where wine plays a big role in the local economy, drawing in tourists like me.)
But as a trade professional and as a consumer I am torn.
On the one hand, I get angry that the mainstream media tends to treat wine simply as booze. No one drinks it for pleasure. They self-medicate with it, to get over the stresses of the day. It could be neat Vodka. It could be Cloudy Bay. It’s all the same. Booze. Everyone’s an alcoholic. Wine is the devil.
On the other hand, I get irritated that going out and getting smashed still seems to be a badge of honour for so many Brits, from all walks of life. Men well into their 30s (and beyond) boasting about their endeavours “I was SOOOO drunk”. The embarrassment of that picture of sprawling Manchester revellers on New Year’s Eve being shared around the world. Non-drinkers feeling castigated. Wine is getting divorced from food (“I want a red wine I can drink on its own,” is a common request) and so smoother, riper, higher ABV wines are becoming the norm.
As a retailer, I’m pissed off at the punitive rate of UK duty charged on wine. Yet, the fixation on cheap wine (deals, bargains, offers) by newspapers and TV critics seem to underpin a supermarket-led culture of “drink more for less”. I have a few customers who say they can’t afford to buy from me everyday. Newsflash: I’d be worried about a customer who bought wine from me everyday.
I rail against Stoptober and Dry January because they don’t teach you anything about controlling your intake of alcohol on a permanent basis. But I do believe in alcohol-free days. At least two, together. For life. Yes, it’s hard to do that week in week out. And sometimes I don’t manage it. Like this week, when I am on holiday in wine country.
I’ve always taken headlines about the health benefits of wine with a pinch of salt. My recent favourite was the one how drinking a glass of red wine had the same benefits as an hour in the gym. Where’s my six-pack? (It was actually about the benefits of resveratrol on the heart.) And I certainly don’t dismiss links between cancer and wine. But to take this in isolation and not look at other factors such as overall lifestyle, genetics and age seems odd. Isn’t cancer a risk of living?
What’s missing in the dialogue around wine – both in the supposed benefits and the risks – is the concept of pleasure. I drink wine because it tastes nice, not to get a buzz. Sharing a bottle or two with friends is fun. Pairing delicious wines (i.e. more than one glass) with food is a highly enjoyable activity. Discovering new grapes and wine regions is fascinating. Tasting how wine develops over the years is enlightening. I could go on, but my point is this: is our purpose in life to live as long as we can? Or is it to actually LIVE?
The guidelines I try to follow are simple:
- Don’t drink every day (except on holiday, obvs)
- Try to have at last two consecutive days off wine
- Don’t drink without food – even if it is only crisps, nuts and olives – or water
- Treat wine with respect, choose quality over quantity
I believe I can sustain a business if my customers take this approach too. Drink less, but better.