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Do you drink sensibly?

Published:  23 July, 2008

Two years ago, in a conference centre in Dublin, the drinks industry gathered to discuss what has become, in the context of governmental concern about the rising incidence of binge drinking, one of the major issues facing the drinks industry today: how to market alcohol responsibly and encourage sensible drinking. Spread over two days, the conference attracted top-level executives from all the major global drinks firms and retailers, and it also featured a programme of learned papers from experts on health, marketing and governmental policy. As one might expect at a conference, the first evening was a time for networking, or, in layman's parlance, an almighty bender. And so on the second morning, after surveying a roomful of bleary-eyed, tired and emotional delegates, the first speaker observed wryly: Well, if this is what happens at a conference on responsible drinking, I'd love to go and speak at an event on celibacy!'

That speaker, a doctor, must have felt that all the clichs about the drinks industry were true: that it is populated, even at its very highest echelons, by a bunch of old soaks, whose careers are nothing but an attempt to legitimise their dependence on booze. But would he be right to make that assumption? Certainly no one working in the trade would deny that they like a drink - it would be perverse if they didn't. And, for sure, we can all count among our professional acquaintances people who answer precisely to the description of an old soak. It is also true that, while many other professions - medicine, law and city trading, for example - have a heavy boozing culture, no other, with the exception of rock music, features alcohol consumption as part of the job description. But does that mean that the drinks trade - a multibillion-pound industry, let's not forget - is nothing more than a breeding ground for dipsomania?

Over the summer, we at Harpers decided to go some way towards answering that question by surveying our readers about their alcohol consumption and their attitudes towards alcohol. We were motivated in part by curiosity (or nosiness, if you prefer) about just how much you readers drink (or say you drink). But we also wanted to get a sense of how aware the trade is of the inherent perils of a career in which one is exposed daily to, and often obliged to engage with, a substance that has the potential to damage, and occasionally destroy, one's physical and mental health. Despite the impressive number of responses, what follows is in no way intended as a definitive piece of research; it is more a snapshot of how the trade views drink and how much its members are drinking.

How much do you drink?

All the respondents were aware of the Department of Health's weekly recommended guidelines of 14 units per week for a woman and 21 for a man, and all were aware of the definition of a unit: in wine terms, a 125ml glass of 12% ABV. Not surprisingly, given the tendency of survey respondents of all kinds to present themselves in the best light, most respondents - 80% - claimed to drink either exactly the recommended amount or slightly less. The consumption of the other 20% usually varied wildly from week to week, with higher consumption coinciding with weeks in which there was a number of big generic tastings and associated evening events. The consumers with the highest consumption tended to be younger, with the highest average weekly consumption being a 26-year-old's 90 units, although a 57-year-old managing director's 70 units was not far behind. At the other end of the spectrum, the lowest average weekly consumption was just five units.

How much do you taste?

As far as Harpers is aware, there is little in the way of hard data about how much alcohol we consume when we taste. What information there is comes from home experiments such as the one performed by Jancis Robinson MW, who estimated that she consumed one glass of wine for every 30 tasted. Our respondents had similarly rough-and-ready estimations: one reckons she consumes next to nothing' despite tasting as many as 400 wines a week; another thinks that he consumes a mere one glass per 100 tasted. There was a remarkable consistency in the number of units that 90% of the respondents believe tasting adds to their weekly consumption, however: an extra two to three units, or two to three small glasses of wine, per week.

The end of the liquid lunch

That much-loved and defining feature of the old-school wine trade, the long boozy lunch, appears, at least according to our respondents, to be disappearing. A number of respondents claim never to drink at lunch, and, with one or two exceptions, those who do admit to drinking (as opposed to tasting) during the day, admit to doing so very rarely and to consuming very little - a glass or two - on those occasions. But the evening is a different story. 80% of respondents say they drink every night, with many of those occasions being work-related'. As one respondent put it, I do think that the trade as a whole drinks much less at lunch these days - certainly less than 10 or 15 years ago - but the number of evening events more than makes up for it.'

Professional purposes, professional pressure

It is at those evening events where most of our respondents admit to having felt pressured', at one point or another, into drinking. And it's also here that many admit to having had a drink on some occasions when they would have preferred not to, simply because the occasion seemed to demand it. It's very hard to say no sometimes,' says one. It does feel odd [to decline], although I have done so in the past, and it gets easier as I get older.' Many respondents, about 50%, also feel that the drinking they have to do for professional purposes, either tasting or socialising, has affected their health in some way. The effects are various. More than one cites weight gain' as a result of drinking for work; a few say that drinking through work has affected their relationships; and a few more suggest, ironically, that their work has suffered. But the other half of respondents are adamant that drinking through work has not caused them any ill effects.

Having said that, most respondents, perhaps unsurprisingly, do admit that their consumption of alcohol is higher now than it was before they started working in the trade, suggesting that this a particularly boozy trade. But, according to the respondents who have been in the trade long enough to make a comparison, it does seem to have become less drunken than it used to be. As one says, There is simply not as much alcohol around and opened in offices these days. The trade has moved much more in line with other professions.' Furthermore, of those people who have worked in trades or professions other than the wine trade, there was a consensus that the wine trade was no more inclined to produce drink problems than any other. Quite the reverse if anything,' says one. The wine trade tends to be much more aware of the problems and much more careful about avoiding them. Of course, when it does go bad in the wine trade, it goes very bad indeed.'


Most respondents claim to have practised abstinence at one point or another in their careers, although there are great variations in the length of time, the reasons for doing so and the perception of the benefits of going through with it. Many say they abstain for one month a year, usually January, but others prefer to approach the matter by the week, having at least two or three alcohol-free days or taking a week off each month. The most popular reason for doing so was to lose weight, although others suggested that it was to ward off encroaching alcohol dependence - or, as one puts it, to prove to myself that I can do it'. Curiously, a number of those who claim to practise abstinence say they don't feel all that better afterwards. As one puts it, I took a week off a couple of years ago, and though I didn't feel any better afterwards, I did lose half a stone!'

Awareness of problems

It is heartening to see how well informed our respondents are about the potential dangers of alcohol, as well as their awareness of how easy it is to slip into both alcoholism and alcohol dependency. The most widely listed dangers linked to alcohol in the survey were liver disease, heart problems, obesity and dependency. Most said that their awareness of those problems was due to their own research, and few say that their employers took much of a role in educating them about the dangers of alcohol; however, most say that their employers do have a responsible' attitude to alcohol.

Do you drink too much?

Generally speaking, our respondents do seem to have healthy attitudes towards both alcohol and drinking. But a few - around 20% - do confess to concerns about their drinking and to having had problems in the past. Among those respondents, the most common concerns were weight gain and the effects that drink has or has had on their relationships and ability to work. Of more concern, however, was that most feel that

if they were ever to give up drinking, whether out of choice or because of mental or physical health problems, they would not be able to continue with their career. If I could continue to taste then maybe [I could continue in the trade],' says one, but if I had to stop tasting, then I would have to change career. I just can't see how anyone could continue in the wine trade if they couldn't drink. You have to be able to taste.' Another, more succinctly, says: No tasting, no wine trade!'

Are they drinking too much?

While our respondents appear to be a functional bunch, they have had their share of encounters with members of the trade who are a little more cavalier about alcohol and health. Many speak of occasions when either they or their employer have taken steps to help a colleague whose drinking had become problematic, and many also speak of current colleagues with alcohol-related problems such as absenteeism, poor concentration at work and troubled relationships at home. Other common concerns are those colleagues who attend tastings with the intention of getting tipsy' and who are not all that careful about spitting out what they taste, and those who cannot attend a function without getting plastered'.

On the whole, though, our survey suggests (and, as mentioned earlier, it could do no more than that) that the wine trade is far from being a repository for drunks. Indeed, many respondents seem positively ascetic in their approach to alcohol. This is not to ignore the dangers of working with alcohol or the fact that the trade is no place for anyone with an addictive personality. But only the terminally puritanical would suggest that the drinks trade is, by definition, a dangerous place to work and a trade to be avoided. In Harpers' experience - and, again, as the survey suggests - the trade and, more generally, drink are not unhealthy for the vast sensible majority: they are simply a lot of fun.