Neo-Prohibitionists and What the Wine Trade Can Do

One of the most interesting panels at Vinitaly was on the topic of the anti-alcohol movement and its impact on consumers. The panellists also discussed ways to push back against disinformation.

Reading time: 3m 45s

(L-R) Susan Kostrzewa, Amy Gross, Gino Colangelo and Felicity Carter discussed the anti-alcohol lobby
(L-R) Susan Kostrzewa, Amy Gross, Gino Colangelo and Felicity Carter discussed the anti-alcohol lobby

In January 2023, the World Health Organization released a statement saying "no level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health".

This came as a shock to the wine industry, coming as it did after decades of research showing that moderate consumption of alcohol has health protective effects — a finding that was confirmed, once again, in a major study published in July 2023.

But the WHO statement, plus other health messaging, has already had a dramatic effect, with younger US consumers expressing the belief that even moderate consumption of alcohol is bad for health.
 

A look at the situation

Meininger’s contributor Felicity Carter, along with Gino Colangelo, Amy Gross and Susan Kostrzewa, discussed the threat from the anti-alcohol lobby at a panel called “The Growing Threat of Neo-Prohibitionism and What the Wine Trade Can Do About It", held at Vinitaly 2024.

“Historically, wine has always been considered the healthiest of beverages,” Carter began. “Well, not any more, because there is a very dedicated group of non-governmental organisations who are looking at making changes to the way alcohol is talked about.” Some of these groups work closely with the WHO and a number of governments, she said.

Carter went on to say that while the science around wine and health is very complex, stories around the dangers of alcohol have caught fire in the media, partly because people have become very interested in health since the pandemic. She also noted that the rise of the smartwatch is alerting people to the ways that the consumption of alcohol is interrupting their sleep and having other effects on their bodies.

Consumer perceptions about health risks
Consumer perceptions about health risks

Survey about the attitudes to wine and health

Gino Colangelo presented research that his company, Colangelo & Partners, had done in conjunction with Wine Opinions; they surveyed around 2,000 wine drinkers and asked them about their attitudes to wine and health.

More than half of survey respondents aged 21-39 say they already participate in Dry January and/or Sober October, and nearly two thirds said they intended to participate in 2024. One in four in that age group said that “a health concern over their wine consumption level would begin at one glass of wine daily, or less”.

The United States Department of Agriculture is currently revising its alcohol consumption guidelines and are considering recommending two standards drinks a week or less.

“Can you imagine what that does to consumption?” asked Colangelo. “Can you imagine the magnitude of the impact on the wine industry?”

Rely on classic principles of marketing

Amy Gross, president of Women For WineSense, an American advocacy group, said the wine industry faced something very similar back in the 1980s, and “a bunch of women winemakers and women that were in the industry said, ‘I don’t think alcohol is this bad. Let’s look into it’.” Those women went on to inspire the famous 60 Minutes segment that introduced the concept of the French Paradox, which went on to drive sales of red wine.

Unfortunately, said Gross, people consume media differently today. Past consumers relied on authority, whereas current consumers want to be their own source of authority. “What we need to do is own the narrative,” Gross went on. “Let’s not stick our head in the sand, but if you’re not a cardiologist, let’s not talk about health benefits.”

Instead, it would be better to rely on classic principles of marketing. “In the past, everybody could just talk about how great wine was and how delicious it was, and we could talk about scores, and everybody would trust us.” Today, however, people are more likely to respond to the things that wine provides—it’s about people who care about the environment, and who make a great product. “Real people, the earth, great products, inspiring adventures at different price points.”

Gross suggested that when wineries post on social media, they think about posts showing the realities of agricultural life, from tractors that get stuck in the mud, to picking grapes. And to particularly focus on sustainability actions.
 

The role of the wine media

Susan Kostrzewa, one of the USA’s most noted magazine editors, agreed and said it was time to communicate about wine differently than in the past.

“We, the wine media are translators,” she said. “Our challenge is to understand what the producers in the industry want to say, but use language the consumer understands.”

She suggested using things that the consumer already understands, like food, as an entry into wine culture. “Put it into a real-life context. Make it simple and digestible, from pouring to opening.”

Kostrzewa added that wine tourism is one of the fastest-growing segments of the travel industry and that people are intensely interested in seeing the wine life from all angles, both through travel and on social media. Above all, she said, it’s important not to demean the consumer by suggesting they're ignorant about wine, or that they are somehow making mistakes in their choices, as the media occasionally does.

"We in the media often frame the wine-learning experience in a way that's less a shared journey and more of a 'how come you don't know anything about wine?'" she said.

Kostrzewa ended by saying that there are several initiatives about to roll out in the USA, to showcase wine as not just a natural, agricultural product, but also a sociable one. “The Wine Institute, the largest not-for-profit member organisation for wine in the US is going to be launching an integrated communications campaign in June,” she said.

“The key is to break through to the consumer because we all talk to each other a lot, but until we start reaching consumers with this positive messaging about wine, we’re at risk of losing that battle. But I think we can all agree on the wonderful attributes of wine.”

Insights

The World Health Organisation has alcohol in its crosshairs. One industry expert tells Felicity Carter that the wine industry needs to pay attention.

Reading time: 4m 30s

 

 

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