by Guy Woodward

The Politics of Wine

When I came into the wine industry 20 years ago, my impression was that, politically, it was broadly right-leaning. Certainly the upper echelons of the UK’s fine-wine fraternity were the domain of a private-school-educated establishment whose natural habitat was the drawing rooms of St James’ gentlemen’s clubs, where diversity meant serving Burgundy rather than Bordeaux at luncheon.

Joining Decanter magazine, I was faced by a wall of conservatism – with both a big and small ‘c’. The first three faces in the magazine were older, white men, in the form of columnists Hugh Johnson, Michael Broadbent and Steven Spurrier. One wonderful writer and two wonderful bon viveurs, but not exactly challenging the readership with a plurality of perspectives. At home, Broadbent drank Berry Bros’ Ordinary Claret most nights of the week, and Bordeaux was the benchmark for all three of them.

It was a similar scene in the US where Wine Spectator was home to an equally diverse cabal of contributors in James Suckling, Matt Kramer, Harvey Steiman and Jim Laube. The magazine was in thrall to the big money, big power and big reds that tallied with both the brash, blockbuster, ‘bigger-is-better’ vibe of early 2000s Napa Valley and the country’s then ruling Republican party. The magazine’s deference to the infallibility of its critics and its disdainful dismissal of alternative views makes sense when seen through the lens of its owner and overlord Marvin Shanken, since revealed as a donor to Donald Trump’s bullish brand of political tubthumping.

I have no idea of the political stance of Robert Parker, but his relentless affinity for big, bold reds and his cult-like following certainly bore comparison to that of both Shanken’s magazine and his political hero. The omnipotent critic dismissed the ‘anti-California, anti-New World movement [led] by Euro-centric, self-proclaimed purists’ and ‘Euro-elitists’. He accused Tim Mondavi of selling out by ‘chasing notions of Euro-elegance’, while food wines were pilloried as ‘dull’ and ‘insipid… so as not to interfere with your favourite tofu’.

Parker’s self-anointment as champion of the common, Cabernet-loving man brings to mind Trump’s representation of the masses via his tweeting of anti-elitist screeds from the gilded bathrooms of Mar-a-Lago. Except that this was in the days of George W Bush, the Iraq War and US depictions of the French as ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’. When, as editor of Decanter, I bemoaned Parker’s undue influence, he labelled the whole magazine ‘anti-American’ (I wanted to sue him for the defamatory slur but was overruled by lawyers).

I did, however, manage to bring on board the more cosmopolitan Jon Bonné as a columnist. Bonné, the former wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, was run out of California after putting himself on the wrong side of Napa producers with his support of the ‘In Pursuit of Balance’ movement, taking refuge on the more outward-looking East Coast. Like Andrew Jefford, who also joined Decanter’s vanguard of columnists, Bonné was a devotee of more subtle, nuanced wines (when Jefford moved from the UK to France, it was not to Bordeaux or Burgundy or even the Rhône, where most ambitious wine writers might have thought prudent to base themselves, but the more offbeat Languedoc). Their respective books, The New California and The New France, focused less on the starry, acclaimed producers, instead showcasing more recherché names. Both writers were also avowedly liberal in their political views.

All of which got me thinking about how our taste in wine aligns with our political sympathies. If US-based devotees of Napa’s domineering, bombastic reds show Republican Party sympathies, UK-based Bordeaux lovers, it strikes me, are more likely than not to vote Conservative. What could be more Conservative, after all, than the hierarchical, hereditary 1855 classification?

By the same token, I would put good money on fans of more esoteric output – the Jura, Georgia and the natural wine movement – being of a left-leaning, eco-conscious, possibly Green Party persuasion. Doubtless they would be dismissed by Parker’s cohort as overly ‘woke’ in their ideological devotion to biodynamic/organic/sustainable practices. (Parker once derided now trendy varieties such as Trousseau and Savagnin as ‘godforsaken grapes’ yielding ‘rarely palatable’ wines, prized by those whose chief concern was ‘not how good [a wine] is, but how obscure it is’.)

Somewhere between the two are the middle-of-the-road, centrist suburbanites who switch between voting Conservative and Liberal Democrat (but never Labour) and likely enjoy similarly middle-of-the-road wines: Rioja, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, maybe the occasional Sancerre, probably bought from the equally safe, reliable Wine Society. Then there are the Burgundy and Rhône devotees – trying so hard to burnish their ‘of-the-people’ tendencies via more artisan, authentic wines but, in so doing, merely confirming themselves as part of the liberal metropolitan elite; today’s Champagne socialists, if you will.

I’ve never quite understood why you can’t drink Champagne if you’re a socialist – though I guess ideally it should come from a co-op. Quaffers of the grandes marques, by contrast, are marking themselves out on the right of the political spectrum, endorsing the capitalist exploitation of the humble growers whose honest toil ultimately lines the pockets of bloated corporate enterprises. And then you have the achingly hip fans of grower Champagne, supporting the smaller independents in the same way that a Guardian-reading,  left-leaning champion of boutique artisans might shun the huge out-of-town supermarket in favour of sourcing their quinoa (or tofu) from a local farmers’ market.

And what about that ultimate local fizz? I was dismayed by a recent argument that English wine is primarily the preserve of a right-wing, jingoistic tribe. It’s true that a handful of wealthy owners of high-profile estates have been vocal supporters of Brexit. But Brexit itself has been a disaster for the nascent industry, stymieing the supply of casual labour and tying up exports in endless red tape. Moreover, Brexit supporters often occupy the same far-right territory as climate change sceptics – but only the wilfully ignorant could trumpet the upward trajectory of English wine and still deny the existence of global warming.

No, to me, English wine is more the domain of Middle England – a well-off demographic of swing voters who like to think that by popping a cork on a bottle of Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs they’re being both cosmopolitan and patriotic (hence why the wine intelligentsia find English wine a bit parochial and would prefer to quaff a Slovenian Xinomavro fermented in calves’ liver and aged in terracotta amphoras).

Despite my crass generalistions, when I look around the UK wine industry these days, it’s not so easy to stereotype. Recently we had the spectacle of the head of the country’s Wine & Spirit Trade Association lambasting a Conservative government as ‘anti-consumer and anti-business’. True, this was in response to its draconian wine duty impositions, and marked the performance of a tired, fractured government after 13 years in power. But could it also be reflective of a leftwards shift in the political outlook of wine professionals?

Certainly the industry as a whole is slowly becoming more diverse. And with that diversity has come greater choice on the shelves. Even at the fine wine level, Bordeaux is not so dominant as it was; the presence of more wines from Greece, Spain, South Africa et al reflects a more democratic approach at the highest level.

Is the same true when it comes to the political stance of wine-loving consumers? Maybe. Studies show that most US wine drinkers lean towards the Democratic Party. But ultimately, it’s worth bearing in mind one thing. Like it or not, as wine drinkers, you and I are the elite – liberal, metropolitan or otherwise. When those alcohol duty changes came in last month, the government focused on the falling price of a pint in a pub. Why? Because it understands one key truth. The real populace don’t drink wine. They drink beer.

Photo by Parker Johnson on Unsplash

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