Monday, October 16, 2006

(Don't) Drink Me

Health warnings on wine bottles

If today's news reports are to be believed, Britain will soon follow the US lead in imposing obligatory health warnings on wine. Inevitably and predictably, several of my friends and colleagues in the wine fraternity have risen to the bait and pointed out among other things that a) these warnings have had little noticeable effect on the other side of the Atlantic and b) that if Cotes du Rhone is to come with a warning, similar rules should apply to Coca Cola. Both responses are perfectly valid, but a more dispassionate observer might be forced to point out that, possibly, just possibly, the wine world is only reaping what it sowed. In Britain as elsewhere, the wine industry has done its utmost to pretend that fermented grape juice is not like other forms of alcohol. Unlike beer and whisky, the argument has gone, wine is part of human civilisation: stuff that is enjoyed in moderation, with food.

Of course this is so partially true as to be a nonsense. No-one who has sat through a Burgundian banquet singing proud songs about the red nose one has gained from drinking copious amounts of Pinot Noir, or watched Frenchmen in bars downing a mid-morning "coup de rouge" could honestly support the with-food and in-moderation line for a second. And nor could anybody who's spent any time in a London, Sydney or New York bar watching "Chardonnay Girls" at play.

Sugar is sweet, enjoyable, fattening, tooth-rotting and bad for your heart. Wine is an alcoholic beverage and just as inextricably associated with all of the desirable and undesirable characteristics that are attached to those two words. As Christopher Carson recently stated in the 12th annual Wine & Spirit Education Trust lecture, the time has come for the wine industry to work "with government and not against it...[and be] vigorously committed to preventing alcohol misuse". Carson's role as a bearded sage, chairman of Constellation Wine Europe and of the UK Wine & Spirit Trade Association gives him a highly influential voice, but it's a pity he didn't make some of these points rather earlier. The wine trade (and other parts of the alcohol industry) should long ago have acknowledged its responsibility and begun going into schools preaching the coolness of moderation with the same kinds of skills that the anti-meat campaigners have been promoting vegetarianism.

Health warnings are only the first step. How easy would it be to find reasons to oppose a zero-alcohol rule for first-year drivers, or unnder 25 year-olds? Or a cut in the UK drink-drive permitted limits to the levels imposed elsewhere? And anyone who imagines that raising the legal drinking age to 21 is impossible should try raising the subject in the US: there are all sorts of issues that bother Americans today, but the requirement to prove your age on the way into a bar by flashing a driving licence does not seem to be one of them.

I suspect that the battle to avoid the eventual imposition of these kinds of restrictions in Europe may have already been lost, but anyone who thinks it's still worth trying to fight them off would do better to follow Carson than the well-meaning brigade of protestors whose voices are currently being raised against the health warnings.

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