Wednesday, February 29, 2012

We don't need no education!

At the risk of sounding presumputous, I believe that I may have the answer to a long list of the problems that assail the world today, from Islamic extremism to teenage pregnancy, smoking, gun crime, gang warfare, drug and alcohol abuse... You name the issue and my solution stands a sporting chance of solving it. All we need to do in any of these cases is... to sprinkle it with a little pixie dust.

Ok, so I was being facetious. I shouldn't have said pixie dust. What I ought to have said was "education". There, now that makes a lot more sense, doesn't it? And unlike pixie dust, education really is the perfect word to utter when confronted with an intractable social issue. The second best thing about proposing education as a solution to the woes of the world is that almost no-one is going to disagree with you. Even professional contrarians like me are forced to nod sagely and acknowledge that yes, if everyone has been educated in the appropriate way, most of them will probably behave rather better. But that, as I say is only the second best thing. By far the best thing is that saying "education" is gloriously cheap in terms of money and effort. After all, much of the responsibility of actually cramming new ideas into possibly unwilling heads is always shunted along to someone else.

Which leaves the people who make and sell wine to go on making and selling wine, and the people who write about it to go on sharing their thoughts with the minority of the population that has already taken the trouble to listen to them. Education, for the wine industry, generally consists of holding tastings - for relatively small numbers of interested people - writing books and articles - generally for the same kind of interested readers - and trying - usually unsuccessfully - to get some mention of wine onto television or radio where it might hit a broader audience. Beyond this, there are efforts by industry-funded groups like Drinkaware in the UK to help parents and schools spread the word of moderation amongst the impressionable young. Though not, obviously, among their less impressionable parents, an apparently growing number of whom are doing irreversible damage to their their livers by drinking a bottle or so of wine every evening. (Some of you may have tripped over those words "apparently growing", but it's an inconvenient truth that alcohol-related liver disease has grown over fourfold in recent years in the UK, while the number of sufferers from all other major conditions is falling.)

Drinkaware does its best, producing packs that help schools and parents talk to children about alcohol and handing out grants to theatre companies to mount performances that encourage moderation. But even if/when Drinkaware gets the £5m annual budget it is projecting, this is a drop in the ocean when it comes to educating the public - especially when set against the drinks industry's £600-800m marketing budget. Now, it might not seem unreasonable to imagine that responsible adults who take the trouble to access the Drinkaware website to downoads that material might not be the ones in greatest need of help. But one might be wrong. While writing this, I have just talked to a French friend who lives in the UK and has worked in the wine industry. Last weekend she collected her 16 year old daughter from a party at which she and her friends were almost all too drunk to stand. Most, as she graphically described it, were lying in their own vomit.

These well brought up, middle class kids had all been "educated" by responsible parents about how to handle alcohol sensibly. Unfortunately, the vodka apparently trumped the education. But at least, when they sober up, my friend's daughter and her privately educated friends can read, write, divide and multiply reasonably proficiently. Unlike a frightening number of the young people who are currently on the job market. According to a 2011 survey of 500 of its members by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) over a third fail to meet basic mathematical skills and a terrifying 42% have inadequate literacy. These, don't forget, are young people who have recently emerged from being involuntarily educated on a daily basis.

When I raised the issue of wine-drinking middle class alcoholics last week and suggested that it might be a good idea for pubs to stop selling wine by the third-of-a-bottle, several people disagreed, saying that it was a "society" problem that needed a healthy dose of the "E" word. When I challenged one of these would-be educationalists to describe precisely how he would go about "educating" middle-aged, middle class men and women, he said that wasn't his job; he'd made a positive proposal. It was up to others to come up with ways to make it work.

Obviously, for reasons I've already explained, I'm not saying that education isn't a good idea; I'm merely pointing out that it's far, far easier to say than to implement with any success. And until someone proves that they really are using it as a remedy rather than a paliative, I think I'll go on making concrete suggestions for ways that the wine industry might try to address the problem rather than wait for the government to do so. Inconveniently, for people like me who don't like government regulation, there is some evidence that it can be rather more effective than the alternatives. In 2007, despite all the efforts of a broad array of well-meaning people (and quite a lot of education), 24% of under-18-year olds in the UK still opted to smoke. In that year, the government raised the legal age at which tobacco can be bought from 16 to 18. In 2010, according to a study by University College London, the proportion of young smokers had fallen to 17%. But then, I'm sure there are plenty of people who'll deny the existence of a connection between the two.

On reflection, I was wrong to pick on pixie dust as my solution to problems like alcohol abuse. Actually, cake would be a far better choice. I can see Marie Antoinette looking out at the revolting populace and uttering the words "let them be educated!"


  1. The problem is that since Tony B said education three times (sorry that should read Education, EducaTION EDUCATION) there has been a theory that it is the answer to all problems.
    Want to sell more expensive wine? Educate the unwashed (even if they don't want educating).

    Sure Education IS IMPORTANT - in context. As a manager and merchant I believe wholeheartedly in education. I MUST educate the people who work for me, that is all. If I happen to have customers who want educating then doing that as well is a good part of a complementary approach to wine selling - but I also must recognise that these people are a small part of the people who will buy wine from us. For the most part ensuring my sales people have tools to answer questions AND be the expert are enough. If I did no consumer education tastings my sale would drop a little - but not tragically so.

    1. Staff education is a very different matter, as you say. Especially as you have a captive audience with an incentive to learn!

  2. Keep at it, Robert. I admire the stance you're taking ... This whole issue and 'our' (ie, those involved professionally in the world of wine) attitude towards it has been conveniently and comfortably ignored for a long time (and I'm as guilty as anyone on that score); I have a mental picture of a grand generic tasting with a large pachyderm wandering through it. It is a hideously difficult problem, and an uncomfortable one, too. Hats off for raising it. We could all do with facing some of those scary health facts and trends. Probably won't win you many popularity awards, mind. ;o)

    1. Thanks Sal. Yup, I think you're right about the popularity awards. In fact, I'm surprised at the negative response I get from people I like and respect. But the truth, like your pachyderm (nice image) is not always welcome.

      I actually do love wine, but maybe I'm not as blind as some of her other lovers.

  3. Digging a little deeper here (and it might just be semantics) perhaps it's not actually 'education' that is needed but just a little awareness? By that I mean that education itself is just a broad term (and as you demonstrated something of a hollow one) but what is needed is heightened awareness. Awareness that a bottle a day WILL kill you, that 30+ drinks per week WILL shorten your life expectancy, etc etc.

    Perhaps the challenge is that we don't disincentivise 'abusive' alcohol drinking though? Children learn not to touch hot stoves because it hurts - they learn by pain. Besides hangovers (which go away) there is little in the way of immediate disincentives for most people to stop drinking at unhealthy levels.

    Of course the simple answer to that question is the blunt one proposed by many a government - heavy handed regulation. Surely there is something better than that though?..

  4. Thanks all, for the thoughtful responses.

    Andrew, my point is that the responsibility lies with us as an industry if we don't want that heavy-handed government regulation. The tobacco industry provides an excellent object lesson in how not to behave: deny the existence of a problem for as long as possible - until you are almost outlawed.

    I'm not convinced that we are much better, and the efforts to promote wine as medicine (which conveniently overlook the small size of the doses that are recommended) merely illustrate how out of touch we are with reality.

    BOGOFs, 250ml glass-servings and the "Cost-price=duty+VAT" all send the same kind of two-fingered message as bank chiefs defending their bonuses.

  5. The wine industry (as a generalisation) also needs to pull its head from the sand and stop saying things along the lines of "but it's not wine - it's beer, spirits, alcopops (remember them?) than people drink to get drunk. It's not wine's problem".
    It is wine's problem.
    It is wine - albeit probably not very good wine (education needed!) - that people often, and increasingly, drink to get drunk.

    If people in the wine trade admitted the problem, and encouraged people to drink less but better quality (and practised what they preached), the government would be far more likely to leave them alone to help solve the problem.

    As it is, blaming any drink other than wine, and suggesting the anti-alcohol stance is just a government attempting to levy more tax, or jumping on a bandwagon (while both might have an element of truth) is simply denial of the most irresponsible kind.

  6. Just an aside, when I was living in the Barossa in the late 90s/early 00s and working with the local winemakers, a friend of mine worked next to the regional venue for Alcoholics Anonymous. On occasion, she worked late and caught sight of those attending. She was admirably discreet, but did say that I would be absolutely astounded by the identity of many of the attendees.
    (Did anyone see that elephant, or was that just me?)

  7. Not sure if I'm one of the people you referred to as disagreeing with you, but I was sceptical about the idea of banning the large glasses as a solution. I do completely agree however, that "education" is useless. It presumes a "we-know-better-than-you" approach. We ALL need educating about the motivations we all have for drinking more (and selling more, despite the potential outcomes).

    Ultimately, however, it does come down to a more open & frank discussion about the benefits and costs of (moderate) consumption, and the implication of this, but in a way that encourages, rather than discourages, the notion of responsibility on all parties.

    This is not education, this is simply all of us growing up, and education happens on the way!