On being negative about wine

Robert Joseph says it's not negativity to worry about the health of the wine industry - it's a matter of urgency.

Ice berg by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
hoto by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I've often been accused of being negative.

In response to this comment that I sometimes, Id ask you to imagine my state of mind at half past eight on the evening of Tuesday 29th of January.

It was half time during a match between a football team called Fulham FC, of which I'm a long-term supporter, and Brighton & Hove Albion. I had just spent 45 minutes in the cold and wet at Craven Cottage, the Fulham stadium, watching my team play very, very badly, allowing in two goals in the space of 17 minutes and showing few signs of being able to score even one themselves.

Also in London, that night, a few miles further east in the Houses of Parliament, politicians were discussing how to proceed with Brexit, a project that has been almost unanimously damned by the British business, scientific, medical and arts communities. Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump had just tweeted sceptically about climate change for the umpteenth time (he'd already hit send’ on 115 of these messages, way back in 2017). And, for those who live in the UK and care about wine, Oddbins, one of this countrys few surviving chains of serious specialist wine retailers announced that it was going into administration.

Of course I could simply have started to whistle ‘Always look on the bright side of life’. The score at Craven Cottage could have been even worse, and there had been a few moments of decent play from my team.

Brexit will be infinitely less damaging to Britain than, say, an outbreak of bubonic plague. Over the long term, future generations of Britons will get used to not being able to go and live and work and study as easily on the other side of the Channel. 

Donald Trump will not be in the White House for ever, so maybe I should focus on the third of the US public who don’t share his views on ‘beautiful coal’ rather than the third who apparently do. 

And, even if Britain loses a few more local wine shops and their enthusiastic staff have to consider a different career, well, hey, you can always go wine shopping on the internet.

Looking at the broader picture, a couple of weeks earlier, reporting from an industry conference in South Africa, I’d been implicitly criticised online by a respected UK wine writer for quoting a local expert’s statistics on the high volumes and low prices of his country’s bulk wine  exports. Why, lay the hidden message, wasn’t I instead lauding the quality of the brilliant bottled wines on show from producers at the annual Cape Wine fair?

My answer is simple. When others are cooing about the pretty white island they can see on the horizon, it’s in my nature to wonder about what lies beneath the water line. This is not because I don’t admire the view as much as any of the other observers. I do. I regularly celebrate wine industry success stories, as anyone who reads the interviews and articles I contribute to Meininger’s Wine Business International will hopefully appreciate.

But I also celebrate success stories of which some of my critics disapprove. For example, describing the US sales boom in bourbon barrel-aged wines and suggesting that Penfolds might do well in China with its innovative baiju-fortified red, did me absolutely no favours.

Stated bluntly, the reason I unashamedly spend time talking and writing about the less visible and often ugly bit of the iceberg is precisely because I don’t see enough coverage of it elsewhere. I don’t see many other wine writers, for example, taking much interest in the fact that, in 2014 – the latest figures I have found – French wine farmers made an annual profit of €1,869 per hectare, including subsidies. Given an average landholding in France of 10.5ha, this represents a profit of €19,624 for a family – little more than the minimum wage for one employee. Professor Simone Loose of Geisenheim University has similar figures for Germany.

Why do these kinds of statistics matter? Because they explain why the sons and daughters of today’s generation of European wine producers are not very inclined to take over from their parents, and why, on the other side of the equator, one South African wine grower apparently leaves the industry every two days. 

And who benefits from all this? Most likely, the bigger, more ‘industrial’, more brand-focused, high volume producers of whom, again, some of my critics loudly disapprove.

I don’t begin to claim to have answers to the problems of the wine industry, but I hope that raising awareness and understanding of them might go some way to improving the chances of finding some solutions. 

During the half time break on that cold wet evening at Craven Cottage, Claudio Ranieri, the Fulham manager, gave his players a pep talk and perhaps more importantly, made a couple of substitutions. Extraordinarily, his team then went on to win the match.

And, I can assure you, there was absolutely nothing that was negative in my reaction to that result.

Robert Joseph

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