The drug that knows the score

25 January, 2008

When I was invited to give a speech at a top public school a few years ago - the sort of place where you're unusual if your parents' address begins with a number rather than a house name - I started with a joke. "I'm probably the first drug dealer who's ever been asked to address the sixth form," I told the audience, to the sound of mild titters from the boys and tutting from their teachers.

I'm not sure I'd make the same gag today. Alcohol's status as "our favourite drug" is under attack as never before. We may tell ourselves that we recommend or sell a beverage that is civilised and, in moderation, good for your health, but not everyone sees it that way. However much we may care to ignore the fact, too many people in this country have no idea how to handle their drink. Local communities, the police and the medical profession are looking to the government to do something about it.

The news that the three youths who were convicted of killing Garry Newlove in Warrington had been on a seven-hour binge - before the fatal altercation over a vandalised vehicle - is only the most recent, albeit extreme, example of anti-social behaviour. Even in my comparatively tranquil suburb of

south London, behaviour on Friday and Saturday nights outside the local pubs is increasingly noisy, threatening and unsavoury. I don't know about you, but I don't enjoy stepping through pavement pizzas on my way to the bus stop.

Is wine above all this? Are the people we are talking about getting legless on lager, cider, cheap spirits and RTDs? Sadly, that's not necessarily the case. I don't imagine that the youths who killed Newlove were drunk on Chardonnay, but I might be wrong. Cheap wine is regarded by some as a source of alcohol and nothing more. To put it bluntly, a bottle of wine gets you drunk faster than a pint of Heineken.

Talking of which, a recent court ruling in Paris has made it illegal for the Dutch brewery to use advertising on its French website. According to one report, the head of the National Association for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Addiction , Alain Rigaud, believes that the "internet is not authorised as a publicity vehicle" for alcohol in France. If Heineken appeals, Rigaud will be delighted. "That way we will be able to take this to its logical conclusion," he said.

That decision follows a decree from the same court that a newspaper article in Le Parisien, which recommended a few Champagnes for Christmas under the headline

The Triumph of Champagne , had been too enthusiastic in its promotion of the world's finest sparkling wine.

The ANPAA said

the article should have included a health warning. This is the thin end of a very thick and potentially ruinous wedge. Even in the

States, where wine bottles have to carry wordy warning labels, no one has suggested that wine articles should be treated in this way.

Are we going to see similar things happening here? I hope not. We have no equivalent of the ANPAA, or rather no body that is prepared to be that aggressive. But the government appears to be gearing up for an unprecedented duty hike in the spring.

Wine is in the firing line and we, as journalists, importers, producers and retailers, need to do everything we can to promote its many virtues: wine with food, wine as civilisation, wine as an expression of place.

Of course wine is a drug. But, lest we forget, it's also a great deal more than that.




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