How the wine industry should react to new alcohol guidelines

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Today, new guidelines on alcohol consumption were published in the UK. They are significantly more restrictive than the previous guidelines published in 1995. The weekly allowance has been cut to 14 units per week for men and women, and people are advised not to drink every day. There's also a warning that any amount of alcohol increases the risk of cancer.

Predictably, a lot of initial reaction from the wine trade was either scornful or dismissive - but this is a potentially disastrous attitude underestimating the momentum of the trend.

When I was 18 (nearly twenty years ago), I remember seeing articles published in national broadsheets claiming that one or two cigarettes a day could have beneficial impacts on health. Surprise surprise, the research this was based on was funded by the tobacco industry. Nowadays, such a suggestion would be unthinkable.

At the same age, my peer group would never have dreamed of drinking and driving. We knew how dangerous it was, how threatening to life it could be. But back when my Dad was 18, driving home after a heavy session at the pub was completely routine. 

Today, alcohol-related harm costs the UK around £21 billion every year, according to the UK government's 2012 alcohol strategy [pdf]. It doesn't matter if that figure is accurate; so long as it is believed to be true, there will be an overwhelming incentive to reduce alcohol consumption in the UK. I believe this is a far more most salient point for the powers that be than the health implication stories which are dominating mainstream media coverage.

Just as tolerant attitudes to smoking and drinking and driving were flipped within a single generation, there's every chance the same thing could happen to alcohol.

I'm not suggesting that alcohol drinking will be completely eradicated, but it is entirely possible to suggest that future generations will view our early-21st century attitude to alcohol as excessive and harmful. That has very pessimistic implications for the wine industry.

Here's what we must not do. Any arguments about health are already lost. We've been protesting the potential benefits of alcohol (and especially wine) for years and it hasn't made the slightest difference. The results of research are too conflicting, and besides, the government has now explicitly denied that any level of alcohol consumption can ever be beneficial.

Here's what we must do. Admit that if the evidence is correct, reducing alcohol consumption is desirable. Of course, anyone senior in the business of booze is highly unlikely to make such a kamikaze confession. Yet through the Portman group, the wine, beer and spirits industries have been working together to reduce alcohol consumption, chiefly by offering a greater array of lower abv products.

This brings me to the most important point for the wine industry. We must champion lower alcohol wines with a unified voice. That doesn't mean shunning products like port and sherry - although I'm afraid this certainly isn't good news for them.

Instead, it means raising the awareness and popularity of wines that are lower than average in alcohol but which are still authentic and flavoursome. There are plenty of candidates: Riesling (especially from Germany), Hunter Semillon, Muscadet, Loire Cabernet Franc, Gamay, some Mencia from Bierzo, most rosés, and sparkling wine from all around the world.

There is already a swing away from late-picked, high alcohol styles of recent years. Now is the time to capitalise on that trend to show that there are plenty of wine options that allow people to continue enjoying wine without consuming alcohol excessively.

Continuing to deny or repudiate the moderation agenda is utmost folly. We need to take a positive message about wine to the world. It's not just the health of the nation that's at stake, but the health of our industry.