Devil's Advocate: The Wine Industry Has to Stop Being Tribal

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

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

Human beings are tribal. We are either inducted into a tribe on the basis of our parentage or where we happen to have been born and live and work, or we choose one for ourselves. This may range from supporting a political party or football team, to giving up meat or driving a classic car. As a reader of these words, you, I’m prepared to bet, are a member of the pro-wine (and quite possibly the pro-alcohol) tribe. You may also be tribally supportive of Pinot Noir. Or Pinotage.

Tribal loyalty can be hugely valuable, especially when the tribe is under threat, but the numerical support it provides may be of limited value when it comes to defeating an antagonist. A football team can go out onto the pitch in front of tens of thousands of passionate supporters, but however loud their chants and cheers, winning the game depends on scoring goals and preventing the opponents from doing so.

Tribal loyalty can be hugely valuable, especially when the tribe is under threat.

To do this consistently, a successful coach or military tactician will place himself in the shoes of the people they have to beat and to understand how and why they think and behave the way they do.

Most of us — including me — are not very good at this. I knew almost no one who supported Brexit and I struggled to imagine how or why anyone should do so. The same is true today of Biden and Trump supporters in the US, but it also applies to coffee drinkers who never drink instant coffee, people who take a daily dip in icy rivers, and wine drinkers who refuse anything that isn’t organic, or anything that describes itself as ‘natural’. And the ‘Neo-Prohibitionists’.

Considering the 'why?'

This term that is gaining increasing currency is used to describe a coalition of doctors, bureaucrats and killjoys who are out to demonise the product we all love. We may agree about the threat this represents, but how many of us have spent any time thinking about the ‘why’ that lies behind it.

Seeing the ‘Neo-Prohibitionists’ – or the WHO — as a faceless bogeyman is not going to help us draw up a useful strategy to beat them. We need to start to look at the human beings behind the anti-alcohol campaign, and to try to understand what is driving them.

And it won’t be one thing, any more than there is one reason why people choose to drink wine or whisky.

There will certainly be temperance campaigners with a genuine or quasi-religious animus to alcohol. These are men and women whose opinions may not be open to change. But there will also be medical professionals who believe the data about cancer risks and discount the research findings that show the positive impact wine can have against heart disease. Here, persuasion may be more of an option.

There will also be people whose own lives or those of people they love have been blighted by alcoholism, or violence or accidents directly linked to its abuse.

Repeating that ‘most people don’t abuse alcohol’ will be of no more help in changing their minds than — quite accurately — making the same assertion about firearms would have on those affected by a mass-shooting.

As members of the alcohol, not just wine, industry, we may have to reconsider what we currently do. Should we collude with on-premise businesses in serving 250ml/8oz glasses of wine? This size is not common in the US, where 5-oz/148ml is a standard measure, but it will be an option offered to almost everyone who orders a glass of red across a bar in  the UK or Ireland. Should we as an industry firmly disassociate ourselves from treating wine in a way that few of us ever would in our own homes?

What is the ‘correct’ maximum alcohol level for anyone who is driving a car? This ranges from 0.0% in the Czech Republic to 0.02% in Norway, 0.05% in Germany and 0.08% in the UK and US (where it used to be 0.10%). Does this variation really make sense?

Should ‘Happy Hours’ and Buy-One-Get-One-Free deals be outlawed, as they have been in some countries — or allowed, as they are in very similar nations on the other side of the border?


Drunken rats, polyphenols and the question of safe drinking limits — Felicity Carter went to hear the science on wine and health.

Reading time: 9m

Acknowledging abuse

The gambling industry has felt the need to publicly address the issues of those who are addicted to what it sells. How often do we hear wine industry people acknowledge the existence of the alcoholism we have all seen affect professionals who make and sell the product we love?

Far too often, wine people like to pretend that fermented grape juice is an innately nobler, healthier beverage than any of the other options on offer in most bars and restaurants.

But we need to remember that — and the clue is in the name — the World Health Organisation doesn’t see one form of alcohol as being any different to another. Or any particular nationality or set of human beings being less at risk from what they claim to be its intrinsic dangers.

Whether we like it or not, the WHO has a global agenda that takes no account of our tribal attitudes. 

This is worth remembering when members of the wine tribe try to distance themselves from the spirits and beer tribes, or when the southern Europeans suggest that their tradition of handling alcohol relatively well should exempt them from rules aimed at their more northerly neighbours who often make a sport of getting drunk.

Whether we like it or not, the WHO has a global agenda that takes no account of our tribal attitudes. If we are to prevent wine from becoming as much of a pariah as tobacco, we need to work together, both within the alcohol industry and across nations, and, to be blunt, to fight our tribal instincts.


As the US celebrates 90 years since the repeal of Prohibition, Robert Joseph looks back at the history of liquor bans globally and wonders if they are really a thing of the past.

Reading time: 4m



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