What if fine wine had plain labels?
In recent years, alcohol has been under the spotlight for its potentially harmful effects. European health lobby groups such as Eurocare have been strongly influencing the agenda, and most member states have adopted the outlook that alcohol consumption must be reduced.
In 2012, the UK government's alcohol strategy pledged to remove 1 billion units of alcohol from the market by 2015. Wine is just as much a part of this as spirits, beer and cider.
Part of the approach involves controlling how alcoholic products are packaged - and this is something that has really significant implications, especially for fine wine. Currently, voluntary warning labels are supposed to be present on 80% of all alcohol packaging in UK retail (this is a WSTA initiative). Some countries are already discussing whether to use graphic warnings on wine labels, in the same way that cigarette companies were forced to, as this mock-up illustrates.
After graphic warnings, cigarette packets were no longer to be sold in public view, and the next step is for them to become completely de-branded. This is already happening around the world.
For many health lobbyists, it seems that both alcohol and tobacco should be treated with the same contempt - as irredeemably harmful products. What's interesting about this possibility are the implications for fine wines.
There has been lots of discussion about the impact of how knowledge of a wine's prestige affects the drinker's perceptions. Some advocate blind tasting as the only way to ensure critical impartiality. Others argue that understanding the style, track record and ageing potential of certain producers is vital to giving fair assessment, especially for young wines. There's also the issue of typicality, raising the question of whether wines that are rated highly when tasted blind should be marked down if they turn out to be atypical for their appellation or grape variety.
Both sides of the argument have merit, and no answer can satisfy all parties. The concept of plain packaging makes the issue even more complicated.
If all bottles of wine looked the same, would the perception of quality in fine wine be diminished? A great deal of the prestige in luxury goods relies on presentation. Within wine, certain labels have iconic status. If DRC, Latour and their kin suddenly looked indistinguishable from cheap bulk wine, it seems probable that their appeal would be negatively affected - despite the fact that the intrinsic quality of the liquid would not have changed.
The most extreme scenario concerns champagne. The leading brands have a huge amount of equity in their labels and associated marketing. Imagine Dom Pérignon or Cristal reduced to the same denuded labelling as the cheapest sparkling wine on the market.
Plus, there's the additional issue of counterfeiting, and the ease with which plain packaging can be reproduced.
Before 1971, cigarette packets didn't need to display any warnings whatsoever. Back then, tobacco manufacturers would have considered the likelihood of plain packaging as utterly risible. Today, it's no laughing matter. I wonder whether any fine wine producers are making contingency plans.