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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!

More on varietal labelling (Varietals: 2)

A few posts ago I posted a question about how important the use of varietals on the label was. Andrew replied:

“Important. Various reasons but mainly as an indication to the novice (even the intermediate) on what to expect. A Pinot Grigio is different to a Chardonnay. Having said that how many could tell the difference between a New World Shiraz and a Cabernet Sauvignon?”

Good point. I was following a specific train of thought and ignoring some other important issues.

If a particular producer has several different wines, made from different grapes in the same region, then of course it makes sense to label them as such if only to differentiate one from another. If I happen to want to buy something from “Montana“, it matters whether I pick up a Sauvignon Blanc or a Riesling.

However, my “beef” (argument / issue / hang-up) is with the “tyranny” of varietal labelling in principle not simply as a differentiator, but as the main sales cue.

Producers from well established regions in France and other parts of Europe, are being told that one of the reasons they cannot sell their wines is that they don’t list the constituent varietals on their label.

The issue is, for example, would the label “Chenin Blanc” be any useful indicator for a novice consumer of Savennieres? Would the blend of Carignan, Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache really enlighten a potential consumer of St. Chinian? In either case the consumers might get a shock.

What I wanted to get at is that if we restrict the entry level wine education to learning the “basic” grape varieties it is very difficult to broaden people’s horizons beyond the usual suspects. It also makes selling blends more difficult (when these might actually be more approachable for beginners).

Most importantly, it perpetuates the dominance of “New World” brands that can market whatever varieties they want or are popular. If they can extend their range to include anything the consumer might recognise, why should the consumer look to a lowly regional European producer whose local laws and limited access to vineyards only allow him or her to plant one or two?

This question is almost too broad for a blog, so I apologise for the length and the ranting tone. However, I think that if we could address this issue we would see a way for a re-energising of quality wine sales that would benefit producers and consumers alike. Wouldn’t that be worth it?

Alcohol makes people lose their senses. Shock!

Although this topic has been & gone in the media recently I thought I would add my 2 cents’/pennies’ worth as it does relate to my thinking on Wine Culture.

Should “children” under 15 be allowed to drink at home whilst supervised?

Unequivocally YES! The whole discussion is ridiculous. The alternative is unenforceable, a complete over-dramatisation, focused on the wrong problem and also, simply put, wrong.

They key is supervision and sensible parenting. Do we want to start assuming parents are not generally sensible and issuing “baby licences” before allowing anyone to have a child? Sound like an invasion of privacy to you?

What are they trying to address? Stopping reasonable people from educating their children or increasing teenage alcohol and drug abuse? Does anyone really think that home consumption is to blame? If you are trying to involve parents in the issue, is positive support not better than meaningless threats of legal action?

We cannot remove the allure of getting pissed on too much alcohol to try and impress peers or as escapism from boring lives. However, we can demonstrate our own mature attitude to alcohol by talking about it and sharing it, with an understanding of its negative effects on children of course. Hopefully this will then encourage the younger generation to have a more sensible and mature attitude to alcohol.

We are bombared routinely by nanny state style announcements like this which are encouraged by the media, then further sensationalised for their own purposes. They only serve to further enflame extremist commentators, which of course gets even more media attention. Eventually they move on leaving confused parents in their wake.

I will leave others to discuss the power and responsibility of the media, but it makes me wonder, both as a parent and a member of the wine trade, how we can have sensible and positive discussions about alcohol without such silly headlines.

Which brings me on to wonder about the legal drinking age. What should it be? 15? 18? 19? 21? Can anyone remind me of the justification for Americans being the only ones to have to be 21 to drink (but not join the army, vote, pay tax, etc.)?

Alcohol really does get people to lose their senses, but it seems that it has that effect on some people whether they are drinking or not!

On glassware and wine experience

I have never been a big believer in the Glassware cause. When I read that Riedel has launched their latest glass design especially for drinking Mavrodaphne or whatever, I usually ignore it.

However, I have been away for a week staying in what was otherwise a very nicely furnished cottage in Cornwall. Unfortunately, their choice for wine glasses was limited to a heavy glass beaker in the shape of a martini glass.

I didn’t really care as we were not drinking expensive wines most of the time. However, when we did buy some better wines (including a Pipers Brook PN from Tasmania with thanks to David McWilliams at BinTwo in Padstow) the wines were obviously great, but really struggled to show their true colours.

It makes you wonder how many people are put off wine by a combination of selecting the wrong wine for the occasion (Zinfandel with Fish & Chips?), poor storage (reds stored next to the cooker!), wine faults and poor glassware. Any one of these could be enough to turn away those who did bother to open a bottle, and they are more than likely to turn up in combinations.

Of course glassware is the least of these, but it nevertheless shows that you need to consider many different issues if you are to understand how others see and interact with wine, even potentially minor and uncontrollable variables such as the choice of glassware.

Next time I’ll pack some better glasses, just in case!

In Wines and Spirits we Trust

Been a little more quiet recently as I am attending a course all week at the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust), and studying all the materials they sent through.

This is a well known trade qualification, but if you have not heard of it, then I thoroughly recommend you look at one of their courses as a great grounding in wine.

Where we take it from there is the fun bit!

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