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Mixing politics and wine

Published:  22 November, 2019

What attracted me to wine journalism nine years ago was that the stories were about the wine and the people, not cocaine-fuelled celebrity mishaps or sexual exploits involving a reverse osmosis machine. The beauty of wine was that, by and large, there was no 'news.'

Unfortunately, what is a gift to tabloids and broadsheets alike in 2019 - Trump's trade wars, Brexit and the rising devastation wrought by global warming - means that the wine industry can no longer remain hidden in the pages of ‘safe’ wine writing.

For most of the mid-to-late 20th century, the wine industry was hardly at the frontline of political debate, which is exactly how liked it. Even recent events of the 21st century haven't dramatically altered that reticence; in 2017 I attempted to gauge the reaction across Napa Valley to Donald Trump's incendiary rhetoric on immigration and free trade, with frustratingly predictable results.

“Most people in the wine industry don’t want to talk politics, now more than ever. If you say something positive or negative about any candidate, you’ve probably alienated half of your customers,” said Ken Morris, communications and marketing manager at Grgich Hills Estate.

This increasingly looks like cowardice. In the UK, the kind of Brexit many of Boris Johnson's supporters want lays the foundation for creating a dystopia, with the distinct possibility of reverting to WTO trading rules in 2021. Can the UK wine trade really claim it wouldn’t be devastatingly affected by such an outcome?

The WSTA has been a vocal critic of the consequences of no deal, however, and by and large the trade continues to stick to the ‘we'll just have to prepare as best we can’ line. But shouldn't the trade be doing more – joining the car manufacturers and other vital industries in highlighting the economic downsides of Brexit?

Meanwhile, the Trump administration notified the United Nations that on 4 November the US would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. That same week, Professor Richard B. Alley at The Pennsylvania State University warned that devastating wildfires, like the Kincade Fire in Sonoma in October, could very plausibly become a yearly occurrence in the vineyard cycle.

According to Alley, since the early 1970s California's annual wildfire occurrence increased fivefold. He emphasised that the growing trend was mainly due to an eightfold increase in summertime forest‐fire area and was very likely driven by drying of fuels promoted by human‐induced warming. Gone are the nice stories about terroir – livelihoods and lives are at stake.

It is clear that the wine industry, like all agricultural sectors, stands to lose a great deal from global warming. Much admiration should be levied at Torres, which has campaigned for the wine industry to take more drastic and urgent steps for many years – Miguel Torres Snr is the poster child for this movement.

ProWein is also set to present its business report addressing the theme of climate change and its impact on the wine industry at a media summit later this month.

Nevertheless the industry is, for the most part, having largely internal conversations about climate change. But as Trump and his acolytes increasingly wash their hands of attempting to address this global crisis, isn't it time the wine industry threw itself into the political discourse and ratcheted up the volume?

“I think that wine companies should be more active in the political debate. The wine industry suffers from being very fragmented but we must remember that it is the only branded agricultural industry in the world. It can and should take a leadership role,” argues Taylor's CEO Adrian Bridge.

“Wine grape farmers are uniquely positioned to help combat climate change and many are already doing a great deal. If we stop thinking about competing and think about cooperation we can make a difference. Competing on climate is a non-starter, the wine industry can share any lead. I am not going to sit by whilst our region is devastated by climate change. We are doing much but many other wine regions are doing more, so hence the Porto Protocol and the idea of sharing best practice [on climate-focused sustainability].”

A recent story that emerged from the Langenlois region in Austria provides some glimmer of hope that more winemakers are starting to take direct action. Strong and targeted campaigning during a recent election, led by winemakers worried about global warming’s ability to destroy the typicité (and bankability) of a cultural icon, was instrumental in helping the Austrian Green Party more than treble their share of the vote in parliamentary elections. This has opened the door for coalition talks with Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives, who are more reticent about tackling climate fears.

“If global warming continues like this, we are really in for a disaster. Our cultural assets — from skiing to Grüner Veltliner— are acutely at risk,” winemaker Willi Bruendlmayer told the online publication euronews.

Indeed, this is not a low stakes game, which makes it all the more surprising that wine corporations in the US aren't (publicly) up in arms about the Trump's administrations apparent wanton indifference.

However, a growing number of nations are realising that global warming should sit atop the political agenda. The wine industry's best hope of staving-off disaster, short of joining Extinction Rebellion, is to mobilise its key strength – its mass membership and economic importance – and campaign harder and harder for real policies to tackle this pernicious phenomenon.

And if not climate change, then how about getting more vocal about protectionist, damaging trade policies or the potential self-inflicted lunacy of a hard Brexit. It's time for the trade to shove politeness aside with so many raw political issues to shout about.