Does the wine industry have a drinking problem?

Today, Meininger's Wine Business International published this article, which editor-in-chief Felicity Carter described thus:

The piece, by Rebecca Hopkins, confronts the health implications of the elevated alcohol consumption habits (as well as excessive travelling and eating) that accompany the wine industry. The context of her piece was an industry conference for women involved in the industry, but it is an issue that affects everyone. To quote her directly:

How do we teach up-and-coming professionals to know that [...] you can have a successful career in wine and spirits without excess, when some of those in the industry who are considered “successful” also demonstrate existing or developing issues, or unhealthy habits that may cause problems in the future? This is a problem for everybody, not just women in the business.
— Rebecca Hopkins

Indeed, my entire professional experience in the wine industry has been among a culture where alcohol consumption exceeds the norm. If you work with something, you are inevitably going to become over-exposed to it. It's no good trying to be a celibate porn star.

Hopkins identifies problem cases, but it's worth pointing out that plenty of wine professionals are healthy, successful and responsible - despite alcohol (and calorie) consumption levels that are, on paper, way above average. Furthermore, every other work sector includes individuals with alcohol or obesity problems.

To a certain degree, then, it is a problem of individual personality as much as it is shared circumstance. Perhaps the wine industry attracts a higher percentage of the sorts of people who like to drink heavily. Or perhaps the industry encourages excessive consumption. Either way, as Hopkins points out, it's an issue that should not be ignored.

Drinking controls

Some initiatives already exist to encourage responsible drinking - for example, Wine in Moderation, which may have a laudable mission, but which has made no tangible difference to the wine trade culture I am familiar with.

That's not to say it isn't a worthy cause - the question is whether such movements can really tame the pervading culture of hedonism within the wine trade.

I suspect a more subtle change might be more effective.

The soft round

The most sensible drinking culture I experienced was while living in Sydney in 2008/09. I'd go bar-hopping with a group of friends, and we would periodically order soft rounds throughout the evening. This was simply a non-alcoholic interlude, whereby we would all drink a coke or lemonade or whatever, before getting another bottle of wine or round of beers. It was not only a break in alcohol ingestion, but a totally unremarkable routine to ensure our evening would be as long and enjoyable and painless as possible. We weren't trying to be sober; but we were trying not to get wasted.

One of the main things that facilitated this was a local New South Wales regulation (I think I'm remembering this correctly) that required soft drinks to be less expensive than the cheapest alcoholic drink.

This simple rule had a powerful effect. In a British pub, having to pay almost the same price for a pint of coke as you would for a pint of beer creates a strong disinclination to take the soft option. Whereas getting a cheap soft drink round in has a more motivational effect, and in my experience, it really helped moderate consumption.

Realistically, perhaps the chances of such a regulation being introduced in the UK are slim. Limiting prices in on-licensed premises would be a hugely unpopular and logistically nightmarish move. Even if it was to happen, engendering a culture of soft rounds would likely take a generation or more - if it ever got traction at all.

But, as Hopkins says:

We need the courage to step forward and share stories, challenges, ideas, and tools, so we can ask for change that we need and deserve. Not only will we make better bosses, leaders, employees and contributors in the workplace, but also more balanced partners, friends and community members to help support an industry we all love so dearly, and plan to stay in for the long haul, in a manner that is healthy for mind, body and spirit.
— Rebecca Hopkins