Why wine industry must be ready for more warning labels

With calls for more warning labels growing and more consumers embracing ‘mindful drinking’, the wine industry should swim with the tide and do its best to attach positive messaging, argues Chris Losh

The series of shocks to the wine world over the last three years has been relentless and unprecedented. From (in no particular order) Trump’s embargo on key European wine regions and Brexit, through Covid and the supply-chain squeeze to the war in Ukraine, soaring inflation and the cost-of-living crisis.   

And let’s not even get started on the impact of global warming, which is rendering ‘normal’ years the exception rather than the rule and playing havoc with both wine styles and vintage sizes. 

Producers, importers and retailers must feel like they are trying to bail water out of a storm-tossed boat with a tea cup. No two ways about it, wine is more expensive to produce and harder to move than it has been for decades. 

It’s also harder to sell. 

Even before the cost-of-living crisis led to consumers nervously tightening their belts, demand was already mostly stalling or falling in key markets around the world. Europe has been sclerotic for a while, but the darling of the last 15 years, China, is grinding to a halt, too. 

Even positive markets such as Canada and the US come with caveats attached once you drill down into the data. Their reliance on drinkers over 60 and the difficulty in attracting Generation Z to the category suggests a future that could well be rocky in the medium- and long-term. 

At a briefing earlier this year, the OIV (Organisation International de la Vigne et du Vin) did its best to extract the positives, citing a big increase in value sales in 2021 compared to 2020. But I’d imagine this is largely due to increased costs; it doesn’t necessarily mean anyone is making any more money. 

Certainly, no producers or importers who I speak to are feeling particularly flush at the moment. While there are individual success stories, good news is generally hard to find. 

It was against this somewhat febrile backdrop that representatives from the main national wine organisations in France, Spain and Italy got together in September to swap thoughts, analysis and ideas. The intention was to find common positions against elements that threaten the industry, so they could form a united front. 

There is, of course, little the industry can do about energy prices, and the producers seemed gloomily resigned to being buffeted by the multiple economic storms over which they have no control. 

But where they did see room for active intervention was a proposal submitted to the EU by the Irish government this summer. 

Dublin is zeroing in on alcohol legislation. I wrote earlier this year about the country’s decision to introduce minimum unit pricing; now Ireland wants to ramp up health warnings on labels. 

The Irish government is proposing that all bottles – whether beer, wine or spirits – carry three warnings, covering liver disease, risks to the foetus during pregnancy and a statement that alcohol causes fatal cancers. 

Under the plans, the warnings would also need to be clearly visible in physical venues (on- and off-trade) that serve alcohol, and on websites that sell it. 

Dublin has been working on this process for five years and recognises it could go on a while yet – particularly if EU members continue to raise objections, which, given the size of the producer lobby in France, Spain and Italy (not to mention northern European brewers) seems likely. Certainly, the two sides are poles apart. 

The Irish government’s starting point is the country has a serious drink problem. One in five drinkers binge when they drink, and Dublin claims this means it will be spending 4% of its entire health budget on alcohol-related disease every year for the next 30 years. 

For their part, Europe’s wine bodies are fearful of a new wave of what they see as creeping ‘prohibitionism’. 

From the wine bodies’ point of view, such labelling constitutes a threat against the entire sector and everything it represents in Europe. This, in other words, is not simply a health issue. As they see it the entire dolce vita European lifestyle that wine represents is under threat. 

Consumers’ growing interest in health

But, as well as being a battle between an EU member state and some of the bloc’s most powerful lobbying groups, it could also be seen as a battle between old thinking and new. 

Key to the latter is transparency. When it comes to putting things in their bodies, more of the world’s population is increasingly sensitive. All age groups, but particularly those under 40, expect to be able to access credible information about what they eat and drink wherever they are. 

Refusing to give them that information – even if you do so on the grounds of having nothing to hide – smacks of a cover-up. The drinks industry (and wine in particular) dragged its feet on this but has capitulated in the end. 

As of December 2023, wine labels will need to include full nutritional information, including calories and allergens. 

Could the same thing happen with health warnings? 

On one hand, it seems an extraordinary question to ask, given it doesn’t seem very long ago that wine was surfing the cardio-benefits of the Mediterranean paradox. Now Ireland’s medical officers want to tell people that it gives them cancer. 

Wine, it seems, is going the same way as cigarettes. For producers who’ve spent their entire life peddling tradition, food-friendliness and conviviality, it’s a startling prospect. 

The producers have fought back against the medical warnings with the traditional arguments about the proven medical benefits of moderate consumption. There are entire European bodies dedicated to pushing this argument. 

But that doesn’t mean it will be successful. 

Attitudes to alcohol have changed hugely over the last decade. ‘Mindful drinking’ and temporary abstentions are very much part of the landscape now. For a growing number of the population, alcoholic products are seen not as inherently aspirational or proof of sophistication but a potential problem to be managed with care. 

And the ‘part of your culture’ brigade is starting to feel out of step even in their own countries where, like it or not, growing numbers of young people don’t drink at all, and many of those who do, do so irregularly. Dry days, weeks and months are part of the calendar even for those who still drink alcohol. 

To this journalist, the direction of travel looks to be set, which means that enhanced health-labelling is likely inevitable sooner rather than later. It’s a genie that shows no signs of going back into the bottle. 

The smart thing to do, then, might be for the wine industry to swim with the tide – even if it’s through gritted teeth – and do its best to attach positive messaging where possible. 

Wine already has an old-fashioned image, so it needs to be seen to be part of the solution, rather than relying on sulky appeals to an increasingly dusty past.