January is abstention or certainly moderation month for many. Out on the web, the world may notice that wine communicators’ blogs, tweets and FB statuses are somewhat more sober than usual: recipes for special juices, angst about resolutions made or not made, and declarations of resolutions kept or broken break through the usual wine tasting notes and articles.
But, what about our responsibilities during the whole year? Indeed do many wine bloggers (and in that term I include those who tweet, FB or use other social media channels) consider their responsibility as bloggers, or should we perhaps consider a code of ethics?
Among the wide ranging sessions at the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Vienna last October was one entitled “Freedom, Rights and Responsibilities”. I found the three speakers both fascinating and horrifying in their different ways (so much so that I have just watched the complete video again). However, due to time constraints, there was little opportunity for a real debate, which might have been constructive.
Ken Payton of the Reign of Terroir blog, who was the third speaker (following Adam Watson Brown of the EU Commission and George Sandeman representing the Wine in Moderation programme) has summarized the session on his blog in his customary intelligent, forthright and questioning way. Here, I want to elaborate on a question that I asked at the end, to raise some points that resonated with me, and finally to be perhaps a general killjoy concerning what I can only describe as ‘Payton’s Defence’.
What about EU Alcohol Responsibilities?
Adam Watson Brown emphasized that EU alcohol policy (as in the USA and elsewhere I imagine) does not distinguish between types of alcohol. He was able to state that 34% of alcohol consumed in the EU is wine, but he admitted that the demographics of use/harm of different alcohols have never been compared, speculating that wine might be responsible for a quarter or a third (wildly different figures) of harm. In relation to binge drinking he said “I don’t know how far wine really is the problem in relation to binge drinking.”
Adam pointed out that northern drinking habits (including binge drinking) are spreading south and I do not doubt this. My question at the end of the session was: considering the financial importance of wine (jobs, tourism, taxes etc) in the EU, why has wine’s part in the harm caused by alcohol never been studied, and was there any chance of this being studied in the future. To paraphrase the answers: to the first part, we don’t really know (but it was a similar situation with cigarettes versus cigars, yet these are hardly comparable in financial terms), and to the second part, simply no.
The Collective Effects of Alcohol Communications
According to Adam Watson Brown, the medical profession criticizes the total ‘weight of communications’ about alcohol (i.e. not just advertising, but editorial of all kinds) and he urged bloggers to think of the collective impact and to consider the signals we send out. I wonder if he had spent longer extrapolating on this and if we had been able to debate it, whether this might not have been more constructive than presenting scare-mongering alcohol misuse pictures described by Ken Payton as “perhaps better suited to an audience of high school teens than a room full of industry professionals”.
Ken also mentioned that the EU stance gave “a transparent warning of the coming regulatory storm looming on Europe’s horizon,” and I believe it is this that too many wine bloggers are blissfully unaware of, and that needs much more debate. You only have to follow what has been going on in France for two decades since the Loi Evin was introduced in 1991, to appreciate the real threats, which translate to wine being virtually unmentionable on French TV, citing just one example.
This was the second time I had heard George Sandeman explain very clearly to wine bloggers about the valiant position taken by the worthy “Wine in Moderation” organisation, of which the company he works for, Sogrape, is a supporter. After talking a little about using “best practice communication” George suggested that when we related an amusing tale that might mention over-indulging, we should perhaps ask ourselves, “is this [really] a joke?”.
And it is at this point I fear that I am becoming not so much a joker as the laughing stock of wine bloggers….
I believe that if we work professionally (earning any money whatsoever) from communicating about wine (and of course any other alcoholic beverages), then we have a responsibility to refrain completely in the public domain from admitting that we have over-indulged, unless it really is a self-confession piece, complete with self-flagellation, and that’s best avoided. And, sorry folks, in my view, that includes not only tweets, and posts anywhere that’s even semi-public (e.g. Facebook), but also should apply to anyone who classifies themselves as a wine blogger, not only professionals. I don’t want to see tweets about hangovers, one drink too many, behaving disgracefully etc. And, ideally I’d love to see the end of those January hangover cure articles written by wine writers/bloggers … surely these belong in a different lifestyle or health category?
Ken writes in his blog post: “Strongly implied by both gentlemen in their official capacities was that we as on-line alcoholic beverage writers, principally wine in this instance, need to begin to take note of our position as influencers. But this idea is shadowed by an additional disturbing dimension. Also strongly implied was that we may ultimately be subject to regulation and sanction because of a growing temptation within the EU and beyond to understand alcoholic beverage writers as a subset of the advertisement industry, as themselves potential promoters of alcohol abuse.”
Knowing both France and the basics of the history of alcohol attitudes around the world, I don’t think this is at all surprising or unlikely, and I believe Ken really knows this too. We all need to be aware and to fight this by taking our own responsibility much more seriously than some of us do.
Ken, you came to our defence by describing bloggers as “essentially goodwill ambassadors to the wine world” and saying how we disseminate stories of wine culture, and yes, I agree that many, many worthy wine blogs do just this. But not all, by a long, long way. And, what about in our tweets, which as you, Ken rightly pointed out are no longer transitory and are being catalogued?
Personally I do not believe it is enough to, as Ken expressed it so eruditely, “remove alcoholic beverages from something to merely drink and place them into a wider, more expansive context, into a timeline of cultural work.” Ken said so much more than this and I commend you to read his excellent thoughts and of course, to continue striving to communicate on-line about the many historical, cultural and political influences connected with wine. I think we wine bloggers have to do much more if we are really to take responsibility and to be prepared for our beloved wine and our beloved communication about wine to be constantly under threat from misguided legislators.
Even if we should fight it, as Ken suggests, we must accept that for now, to legislators and anti-alcohol ‘do-gooders’, wine is just alcohol, and for that reason we must take much greater care to be vigilant in what we say about our private activities in the public domain. Share the enjoyment of drinking wine with the world, yes absolutely, but do not joke about any over-indulgence.
Thanks to the speakers above, to Ryan and Gabriella of Catavino and Robert of the Wine Conversation for organising such an interesting European Wine Bloggers Conference 2010, and to all the sponsors, especially Austrian Wine for hosting us.