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Is Neo-Prohibition Coming to Europe?

On Monday, the European Commission will decide the fate of our continent’s wine…
by Giancarlo Gariglio

On April 20, the destiny of European wine will be decided. The location is Latvia — not exactly Burgundy, Bordeaux, Barolo or Montalcino, but it will assume the next presidency of the European Union. The purpose is one: a summit that brings together not the ministries of agriculture of EU countries, but their colleagues in the departments of the health to discuss measures to tackle the harmful use of alcohol.


A preamble: This is not your typical rant against the choices of the European institutions, nor against the appropriate control of alcohol abuse. Slow Food and Slow Wine are at the forefront of consumer education (for example, through our Master of Food courses and the University of Gastronomic Sciences), to promote a conscious and responsible consumption of alcohol. Without culture, we drink poorly and we don’t even enjoy ourselves, because we gulp down rubbish.


But let’s get back to the issue.  Monday will see will see the discussion of a long and interesting document, Member States call on the European Commission for a new and comprehensive strategy to tackle harmful use of alcohol and alcohol related harm, written by the Committee for National Alcohol Policy and Action (CNAPA), which points the finger at alcohol for the economic and health-related damage that it has caused over the past decades.


While we are in complete agreement with the need to tackle binge drinking and alcohol abuse, what worries us is that the document in question tars everything with the same brush. Not once does it make a distinction between spirits/beer/wine, industrial/artisanal or large-scale/small-scale. Do the Ministries of Health and the distinguished academics who wrote this paper really believe that these are all the same thing?


We heard from Matilde Poggi, president of the Italian Federation of Independent Winemakers (FIVI) , who summarized a letter sent from FIVI to Italian Minister of Health Beatrice Lorenzin and her European colleagues. Its main points are these:


Firstly, placing restrictions on free intra-European circulation of wine (as we dread), goes against treaties.


Secondly, the document proposes placing a fixed minimum price on alcohol, which is not in line with the Common Agricultural Policy and the rules of the EU regarding wine. What would a minimum price for wine mean? That even the rubbish that arrives in certain discount stores will have a fixed price. Adios then to the efforts on the part of producers of everyday wines to aim for better grapes and better quality, as history has taught us. If you’re producing an affordable wine, but now appear on the shelves in the same price range as poor-quality industrial  wines, why strive for quality? Competition will also receive a blow.


Finally, the proposal to lower alcohol percentage simply cannot work with wine. It could for beer (industrial, that is), or spirits (also industrial), but not with wine. The alcohol percentage depends on the climate, the ripeness of the grapes, their health, etc. An artisanal product cannot be distorted from its essence. Dealcoholization (normally done by a powerful physical process that modifies the structure of wine) should be done for one percent, maximum. Any more — if you’re making good wine, that is – and you will gravely affect the quality.


Statistics from Italy and southern Europe tell us that the consumption of wine is in constant decline, therefore the real enemy is another. Rather, young people are victims of industrial spirits and premixed alcoholic beverages. Why don’t these measures aim to tackle these drinks, instead of creating blanket rules that will affect producers of good quality products that are not part of the problem?  And why not invest resources in the cultural education of our young people, teaching to appreciate and respect good wine, beer, and spirits, and appreciate the human efforts, skill and centuries-old traditions that went into making them?