The Devil's Advocate: the Tricky Politics of Wine

As Ukrainian cities are devastated and populations displaced, wine businesses are increasingly expected to join in the boycott or Vladimir Putin's Russia. But, Robert Joseph wonders, how relaxed should they feel about some of their other export markets?

Reading time: 2m 20s

Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

There is no wine market in Saudi Arabia, so producers don’t have to worry about whether or not they should be shipping bottles there every time they read a discomfiting headline about the behaviour of that country’s government.

How to Deal with Russia?

Right now, and for obvious reasons, the question of how to deal with Russia is rather trickier. Big businesses with shareholders to consider will probably have decided to make public their decision to halt exports and, where relevant, to close offices and shops. Smaller ones that rely on the – until-recently, fast-growing – Russian market are in a trickier position. So, while French, Italian and Spanish wineries may have halted sales there, some of their counterparts in Georgia and Moldova, both of which are far more directly threatened by possible aggression from Moscow, continue to accept orders. Should wine companies refuse orders from Russian importers while European countries continue to fill Russia’s coffers by buying its energy?

...and with China?

Then, there’s China. The mass of evidence about the treatment of the Uighur Muslims has been growing for several years, and now increased attention is being devoted to the 60-90,000 organ transplants that are being carried out by Chinese surgeons every year. How many of these livers, kidneys and other vital body parts have been ‘harvested’ – what an horrific term! – from Uighur Muslims and members of the Falun Gong religious sect?

India? North Korea? etc.

How relaxed can any western wine company be when filling containers of wine for sale in China today? But how qualm-free can one be about selling to India, a supposedly secular nation whose minority persecution has led it to being ranked as ‘Tier-1’ alongside China, North Korea, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom? Should we close our eyes to the Bolsonaro administration’s ravaging of the rain forests when looking to build markets for our wine in Rio or São Paolo? Or when enjoying our cup of Sul de Minas Brazilian coffee?

And what about Israel?

In April, in Canada, supporters of Palestinian prisoners picketed a Vancouver liquor store in protest against the continued importation of Israeli wine by the British Columbia monopoly. When you see some of the reports from the occupied territories, do you dismiss those kinds of actions as entirely without cause? Especially when some of that wine may come from the annexed Golan Heights which is internationally is not recognised as being part of Israel. (Apart from by the US, whose policy was changed by Donald Trump.)

I remember the heated arguments among the international wine trade over South African wine imports in the 1980s.  My liberal British friends firmly refused to drink wine from the Cape that, I discovered, was being bought and plentifully enjoyed across the border in Zimbabwe by President Robert Mugabe who was then feted as a revolutionary hero and enemy of racial oppression.

I was confused then and have no clear answer to these questions today.

The Perspective of the Consumer 

But in a world where growing numbers of people are becoming politically engaged over everything from trans rights to climate change and animal welfare, I don’t think we can pretend they are of no concern.

A small wine business may not be confronted by a probing journalist but, even if the answers they give are not the ones that some will want to hear, they should be ready to face questions from customers with social media accounts that can have as much effect as any writer for a newspaper or magazine.



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