Why it matters that wine gets you drunk

Last night, I delivered a short speech at the launch event for the 2018 Masters of Wine Symposium. The idea was for a group of wine trade people to talk about something important and potentially controversial in an irreverent way. Here's a rough transcript of what I said.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a shocking confession to make. As I stand here before you, wobbling somewhat on this precarious soapbox, I am drunk. Perhaps only slightly, but there is no question that I am under the influence of alcohol. Indeed, every person in this room drinking wine right now is drunk, to a greater or lesser extent. 

This is not a subject officially scheduled for discussion at the upcoming Symposium – nor in fact is it much discussed anywhere within the wine trade, yet this is surely wine’s most controversial ingredient: not grape variety or enzymes or cultured yeast or sulphur dioxide or terroir, whatever that is, but alcohol.

When this great Institute was first founded in the 1950s, wine labels didn’t even need to state alcohol content. Today, not only must abv be stated but the majority of wine labels carry guidelines about safe consumption levels, and warnings about consuming alcohol when pregnant.

For wine professionals such as ourselves, the alcohol level on a label is primarily a useful hint as to the wine’s quality and style – a Syrah at 12.5% will be very different to one at 15%. But we tend to avoid talking about the effect of alcohol on our bodies and minds – the effect that we are all experiencing right now, and which is making me look so particularly attractive to you all.

But consider this: in 1979, the guideline for maximum alcohol consumption was 56 units per week, which was subsequently reduced to 36, then 28 then 21 and now 14. At this rate, within our lifetimes, government guidelines will recommend drinking no alcohol at all.

Of course, that isn’t very likely – but then again, who would have predicted the severe clampdown on tobacco over the last forty years?

Incidentally, alcohol guidelines vary hugely internationally – from 52 units in Fiji to 35 in Spain to 7 in Guyana. So perhaps the answer is that we all move to Fiji, where drinking alcohol is evidently much safer.

So, what’s the right response? For a long time, the wine trade was very keen on presenting the health benefits of wine consumption, but such a tactic seems extremely inadvisable now. The primary argument against alcohol is its cost on our nation’s health, and specifically on the NHS – a sum estimated at £3.5 billion every year. That’s the same price as a case of Petrus 1990.

But we can’t ignore the issue either. Health lobbies are becoming more influential and anti-alcohol rhetoric is growing. For them, all types of alcohol is the same – a harmful drug that should be regulated, restricted – even prohibited. It may be true that lower alcohol wines are becoming more commonplace and trendy these days, but so long as it contains any alcohol at all - and I for one pray it always will - wine will always be a target.

Wine is a drink with unique diversity, and of rich cultural, historical and artistic value. It also gets you drunk, and we must admit that alcohol is an integral part of wine, rather than trying to pretend otherwise. If we are not honest about the role of alcohol in wine, then everything else we value about this precious, fascinating drink is at risk.