Devil’s Advocate: Time to Rethink the Drink?

When a host says 'can I get you a drink?', they're rarely offering No-Lo wines or sparkling tea. Robert Joseph suggests that, despite not containing any alcohol, these are ‘drinks' too – and deserve rather more recognition than they're currently given.

Reading time: 3m

Robert Joseph - with horns
Robert Joseph - with horns

The US state of Oregon’s current ‘Rethink the Drink’ campaign has ruffled a fair number of feathers. In particular, Oregonian wine professionals have complained about their tax dollars being spent on a TV advertisement depicting a father and daughter shopping in a supermarket.

The message behind the ad has the subtlety of a sledgehammer. First, the man puts a load of beer into the trolley, explaining to the young girl that, although it wasn’t on the shopping list it will be ‘needed’ for the ball game. Then he casually picks up a bottle of wine.

“Why can’t I drink wine” asks the child.

“Because it isn’t good for you”, comes the reply.

“Is it good for you?” she responds.

“Not really” says her father.

“Then why do you drink it?”

At this, the adult frowns thoughtfully and says “Honestly, that’s a really good question” and returns the bottle to the shelf.

Unsurprisingly, apart from the use of a child to shame a parent who’s simply buying a bottle of red, there are accusations of partisanship: at the end of the clip, the beer is still in the trolley.

Feeling guilty?

I sympathize with the critics of this particular ad, but I can’t object to some of the thinking behind 'Rethink the Drink'. As many who have struggled – or continue to struggle – with alcohol point out, their lives are not made easier by the expectation that drinking, quite possibly to excess, is almost automatically associated with having a good time – and being ‘one of the gang’. When anyone says, ‘can I get you a drink’, unless they specifically list what’s on offer, it is reasonable to imagine they are referring to alcohol. And a request for a non-alcoholic beverage can still raise eyebrows and possibly even questions. “I noticed XX isn’t drinking. Do you think she might be pregnant?”

This casual centrality of alcohol in social attitudes is admittedly less widespread than it used to be. My son reports that new members of the hockey team at his university are no longer obliged to down unimaginable volumes of beer and vodka as part of their initiation rite. But most still do.

Daniel Radcliffe, the actor whose teenage tussles with alcohol while filming the Harry Potter movies were widely reported, said in a recorded interview that getting drunk similarly seemed to be almost expected of young film stars.


No-alcohol was the talk of the World Bulk Wine Exhibition, held in Amsterdam. Felicity Carter went along to find out why people are so excited.

Reading time: 8m

The stuff we rarely talk about

As wine professionals, we rarely address the positive or negative aspects of the 12-15% component of our product: the relaxing companionable buzz and the potentially addictive creator of hangovers. We much prefer to obsess about food and wine matching - and terroir.

And, as Marc Almert, recent Meilleur Sommelier du Monde, pointed out during the No-Lo session he, top French somm Dominique Laporte, and I hosted at Wine Paris, the idea of wine with no alcohol seemed to make winemakers in the audience at that event decidedly uncomfortable.

But it’s not so long ago that men often had a similar reaction to female airline pilots, priests and judges. Times change.

Cabernet or kombucha?

Alcohol-free wine may not be ‘wine’ (I certainly don’t think it should be described as such) but it’s still a ‘drink’, like alcohol-free beer and spirits. And, like those, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be given the same status as a glass of Cabernet, single malt or lager. Or a delicious example of kombucha or sparkling tea.

In any case, whether one likes it or not, that’s the way the wind is blowing. Sales of ‘wine’ may be flat or falling in most markets, but those of No-Lo are going up. Indeed, as the strategist and winemaker Nicholas M. Karavidas suggested recently in a Linkedin post, in the US, taken together, the two sectors may collectively reflect a healthy rise in the total consumption of grape-based beverages.

Alcohol and Alcohol-Free adult drinks of all kinds are going to have to learn to live together. They will often be made by the same producers (declaration of interest: I’m involved in both sectors), sold in the same places and enjoyed by the same consumers.

So, maybe, instead of trying to make adults feel guilty for wanting to purchase some beer or wine, the Oregon Health Authority would do better to show them buying it - along with some alcohol-free beverages for guests who, for whatever reason, might prefer them.

Now that would be really Rethinking the Drink...


Robert Joseph suggests that, if the wine industry is to combat the threat of Neo-Prohibitionism, it needs to work together  with producers of other forms of alcohol, to create a strategy, acknowledge some of its own failings, and to understand where its foes are coming from.

Reading time: 4m



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