Archive - August, 2007

Alcohol Monopoly

I have been visiting Nova Scotia in Canada for a number of years (it is absolutely beautiful by the way) and usually I am critical of the concept of the Canadian state (well, the Provincial governments) having a monopoly on the sale of alcohol. You can check out the range here.

For those of us living in the UK or most of Europe, the idea that the state should control what wines or spirits should be available, where, and for how much is extraordinary (if you live or visit Sweden this is probably not such a shock for you).

[Some might argue of course that this is exactly where we are heading in the UK because of the retail strength of the supermarkets like Tesco - but even here we at least have a number of alternative ranges to choose from]

My reaction is usually – “How could one organisation tell us what wines we can drink?”, especially when the result, at least in Canada, is a pretty limited range of branded wines?

The reason for this structure is most likely still a hang-over (!) from Prohibition (yes, they had it here too), and there is a sort of puritanical streak to the management of this ‘vice’ which I personally disagree with. It also means that there is a form of “lowest common denominator” effect at work which determines that all wine have to be available in minimum quantities to supply all stores, have to be consistent and also be able to comply with the kinds of red-tape only government departments are able to create. This often results in a pretty bland range.

However, there is one small silver lining to this was pointed out to me which I had not considered. In the UK we have such a high density of population that we can pretty well guarantee access to supermarkets or shops wherever we are, with a few exceptions of course. This means that the market can operate quite freely and there will be someone who can sell you what you are looking for within a reasonable distance.

When you take a country like Canada, this is definitely not the case outside of most large cities. So much of the infrastructure here depends on government support to reach tiny communities in distant areas, that if the government did not step in, certain items (especially luxury items such as wine) would either be impossible to get, or prohibitively expensive.

OK, so wine is probably not the main justification for this type of system, and I’m sure they make a pretty penny or two in tax from selling and taxing all that alcohol, but at least they can get it. Hopefully in time, and with a little popular pressure, the range will improve further.

I’m sure the local “liquor commission” would tell you that a monopoly also means that there are clear & limited channels for reaching consumers, giving the opportunity for ‘managing’ consumer alcohol consumption. I still think that in the longer term education works better than restricting access. However, thinking positively, it does mean there are obvious places to start reaching consumers with information on wine to educate and inform them and improve their experience.

Still, I’ll take Tesco’s range over the NSLC one any day!

Cultural truths and myths

Sometimes articles come along that remind you that the full wine message has still not got through to all corners of the wine drinking world.

The BBC magazine site has a pretty good and well researched article on wine and wine appreciation. Kate Thal at Green & Blue helps to explain that understanding wine is not as complicated as many think, nor as many ‘TV celebrities’ try to make it.

It also points out that even a wine producing country like South Africa may not actually have an evolved Wine Culture because there are lots of people who have no knowledge or access to the stuff. Wine production and wine appreciation are not strictly linked (there are some countries that seem to forget this).

What is most interesting about this article, however, is not the main body but the way it ends, and the comments that readers make following it.

At the end of the article it feels the need to have a dig at (French) sommeliers saying:

“Ms Overton also suggests that there has been a hangover from the days when sommeliers were rather haughty and French and the wine trade was filled with posh Oxbridge types.”

Sometimes it seems that when you are down, you get kicked no matter what. However much the French, or for that matter the Germans, do to improve their wines, their presentation or their communication, the old truths just seem to hang around for ever. When was the last time you REALLY met a ‘haughty French sommelier’? Why dig it up again even if it was true?

Then we go on to read some more prosaic ‘home truths’ (amongst some other pretty good comments):

QUOTE: “The bigger the dent in the bottom of the bottle, the better the wine (so I’ve been told)”
RESPONSE: No! The dent in the bottom of the bottle, or punt, has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the wine. It often represents a more expensive bottle, so you could argue that pound-for-pound with another wine, it is probably worse value (with more of your money being spent on the bottle and not the wine). It may be that a good producer has chosen a more unusual bottle, but this does not reflect directly on the quality of the wine.

QUOTE: “I go for three things:
1. Full bodied
2. New world
3. Half price
It’s served me well so far.”

RESPONSE: Lucky you! Half price wines of good quality do exist, but you really are not experiencing the true possibilities of wine with this formula.

QUOTE: “My criteria: 1. must be between £5 and £10; 2. must have an animal on the label; 3. must be from S. Africa, Chile or Australia and 4. definitely not French.”
RESPONSE: Oh dear! It started so well with number 1.

and my personal pet hate:

QUOTE: “I always choose my wine by the alcohol volume.”
RESPONSE: Would you ever say: “I choose my holiday by the plane I’ll be boarding”. Of course alcohol is a factor, but it tells you NOTHING about the quality of the wine on its own. And what does this mean anyway? Do you aim for more alcohol per pound, or less? It reminds me of 20 years ago, with impoverished students trying to squeeze every ounce of alcohol from the weekly budget. Unfortunately I thought, or hoped, that wine had moved on from those days. There is so much good wine out there, even on a budget, that this kind of statement really needs to be consigned to the quote bin of history.

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