Devil’s Advocate: Wine Has Lost Its Divine Right to Supremacy

Many wine people imagine that their favourite alcoholic beverage is innately superior to any others. Robert Joseph suggests that pursuing this line may not prove to be very productive.

Reading time: 4m

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

For most people living in the 21st century, the notion that there was once a ‘Divine Right of Kings’ and, in France, a droit de seigneur that gave monarchs and the aristocracy freedom to do whatever they liked without any legal constraints seems unthinkable. There was also a crime known as lèse majesté  which made it an offence to ‘defame, insult, or threaten the royal ruler.’

Of course, some people in the US apparently believe a 21st century president should enjoy similar privileges, and lèse majesté is still Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, so maybe these ideas have not quite hit their expiry date, but that’s not my focus here. I’m interested in the Divine Right of Wine: the belief that fermented grape juice is innately finer and more noble and more deserving of reverence and immunity to censure than any other beverage.

It is this tenet that justifies setting wine apart from spirits, cider and beer in the very real fight against neo-prohibitionism. Unlike those other forms of alcohol that people imbibe to get drunk, ours, we claim, is the civilised partner to food.

Wine slips to third place

And, like the blue-bloods of earlier centuries, we take it as our due that wine should also automatically get top billing among the populace. So, we are shocked when the US wine writer Karen MacNeil reveals the results of a Gallup poll showing that wine is now Americans’ third most popular drink, with only 29% preferring it, compared to 31% who opt for spirits and 37% whose choice is beer. This is, MacNeil notes, the first time in 30 years that wine has been overtaken by spirits.

Wine is now Americans’ third most popular drink, with only 29% preferring it.

We splutter into our Zaltos when we hear that, in many US restaurants, cocktails outsell wine, and that even in Italy - Italy! – sommeliers are now serving customers drinks that have been stirred or shaken rather than lovingly decanted.

How can this be? we wonder, just as we struggle to understand the failure of the Chinese to have been won over by the self-evident superiority of wine. Consumption there has plummeted and is now half what it was in 2012.

They don’t need no education

That fall is particularly concerning because it has happened despite us having put so much effort into something we believe to be crucial: education. Even though huge numbers of Chinese signed up for WSET courses, most people there are apparently still being persuaded by tradition and marketing to drink the local baijiu spirit. Apparently, all the fascinating stories we recounted about our monarchs – the wines we most admire – were not enough to guarantee them a place on the throne of China’s affections.

Apparently, all the fascinating stories we recounted about the wines we most admire were not enough to guarantee them a place on the throne of China’s affections.

And that’s my point: the blue-bloods of the past and their devoted courtiers never imagined their supremacy would end. Of course they might have squabbled among themselves for territory, like Napa Cabernets or Super-Tuscans trying to steal market share from Bordeaux, but none thought they’d ever really have to compete with those of lower-birth, like a bottle of wine against a bourbon or RTD.

We’ve been here for generations, they said. Nothing is going to budge us.

So, they refused to change. They went on living in their palaces and castles and posing for portraits in their regalia, until one day they woke to find that everything had changed. The people had become more interested in the activities of the Kardashians than those of royal princes.

While the blue-bloods struggled to find the cash to repair the roofs of their aristocratic homes, men with no noble lineage and with names like Bezos and Musk and Zuckerberg turned out to have as much money as their entire nations.

Even in France

In France, wine has just edged its way back to the front of the alcoholic pack in the nation’s affections, but there’s no guarantee that it can hold onto its lead. Less than a third of the French population now sees wine as an integral part of a meal at home, with fewer than one in ten always or nearly always drinking it then. This, in a country that only stopped serving wine to schoolchildren under 14 with their daily lunch in 1956.

To be blunt, the era of unthinking vinous supremacy, like that of all-powerful kings and queens, is over – even in its European homeland, let alone all those huge swathes of the planet where it never even began to impose itself.

It is time for the wine industry to learn a few messages from the monarchs and aristocrats. Monarchy may lost much of its allure of separateness – even when the blue-bloods still inhabit their palaces, we all know they are flesh and blood like the rest of us, subject to the same legal and financial hassles – but, in the 43 states with a monarch at their head, it still has the power to fascinate and it’s still an essential part of the societies where it has survived.

Wine is an alcoholic beverage and it is alcohol that the temperance campaigners and doctors have in their sights.

With a few exceptions – despite growing political opposition, Thailand is still jailing its citizens for its lèse majesté – monarchies no longer expect knee-bending reverence.

Wine professionals are loudly complaining about the threat of neoprohibition as if it were exclusively directed at them. Some seem to imagine that talk of food and wine matching, thousands of years of history and – maybe – marginal health benefits is going to save wine from the guillotine to which beer, cider and spirits will be consigned.

That is simply delusional. Wine is an alcoholic beverage and it is alcohol that the temperance campaigners and doctors have in their sights. They are not going to make an exception for Romanée-Conti or Zinfandel Rosé.

The drinks sectors are all going to have to work together and for wine to treat beers, cocktails and kombuchas as low-born, cocky upstarts is not a right. It’s not even an option.


Robert Joseph questions the accepted wisdom that wine education is the answer to declining consumption.

Reading time: 2m 45s



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