Monthly Archives: March 2013
Among the many things we have to keep abreast of being MW students are the various ‘hot topics’ in the wine world. These include things like climate change, fraud, supply and demand (an interesting one this as we have recently moved from oversupply to under supply) and contentious issues such as minimum pricing. Minimum pricing in the UK is currently being evaluated by parliament and a decision is due sometime in May, though if reports of a couple of weeks ago are to be believed, it seems that things are not progressing smoothly.
So, what are the arguments for minimum pricing? Well, figures from 2010 show that the cost of treating alcohol-related diseases in the UK was £2.7billion. Added to this can be other diverse costs such as to policing, child welfare, the justice system as well as private costs to individuals and private property. All of which adds up to a pretty significant cost to the economy. The government has estimated that a 45p minimum unit price would cut alcohol consumption by 3.3%, reduce the number of crimes by 5000 annually and reduce hospital admissions by 24,000. Which sounds pretty good doesn’t it?
However, from my point of view, it is the other side of the argument that presents the stronger case. For a start, when debating minimum pricing it must first be determined that a) raising prices will reduce average consumption and that b) reducing average consumption will reduce harm. Alcohol consumption is already decreasing in the UK – since 2004 it has reduced by 13% and is predicted to decline by another 5% by 2018 without minimum pricing. But, while average consumption has been decreasing, harm from alcohol consumption is not – as a Saturday night out in any town centre will show you. This quite clearly shows that reducing consumption doesn’t necessarily reduce harm. 40% of the alcohol drunk in the UK is consumed by 10% of the population. It is these heavy drinkers that the government is most trying to influence with this policy. And yet, there is no research to show that raising prices will cause these heavy drinkers to drink less. In fact, an EU-wide study found that there was no relationship between price of alcohol and harm. In other words, people that want alcohol will buy it regardless of price.
I could give you all of my other anti-minimum pricing arguments, such as the fact that this is not a tax – but instead price increases will go straight into the pockets of the retailers so there is no added benefit to taxpayers, or that this will impact the poorest people the most (the government itself has estimated this will cost consumers an extra £1 billion a year due to the increased prices), or that the EU itself has said such a policy is illegal. But, the thing that really worries me is – what next? If minimum pricing of 45p a unit does go through, it seems pretty clear that this will have little positive effect on reducing alcohol harm. So, then what? A £1 minimum price? More? Or other draconian measures – perhaps raising the age limit to drink or limiting where or how you can buy alcohol? This seems to me like the start of a very slippery slope.
Yes, alcohol harm is a real problem in the UK and in many other countries around the world. I don’t have the solution to the problem, I just don’t think minimum pricing is it.
This year’s holiday destination is slightly out of the ordinary. The itinerary comprises surviving on 5 hours sleep a night, working from sunrise to well after sunset and being on your feet all day; regulated working hours and weekends off? Forget it. I had chosen to work a harvest, but I had chosen the winery with care. The remote and breathtakingly beautiful Cederberg Mountain conservation area is a vast and largely deserted place of stark red rock formations, 5000 year old San Bushman paintings and at 1100m high, South Africa’s highest altitude winery; Cederberg Private Wine Cellar. This is my home, my job and my heart for three weeks.
My little cottage is nestled into the mountains which pulse red at sunrise and sunset, next to it runs a perfectly clear river, my neighbours are a troop of baboons and my house mate is a large spider that I have named Bert. Up here, far from civilisation I feel free and able to breathe, it is an exhilarating and liberating feeling, especially with no mobile reception or internet access. I have a short drive to the cellar each morning through the vineyards just as the sun begins to rise bathing the vines in liquid gold. By 6am I am hard at work.
Despite my lumbering ineptitude and continuous stream of questions the team at Cederberg have taken me under their wing and shown me the ropes, always pausing to explain a technical detail for the umpteenth time. The camaraderie, the intelligence, the dedication and the unadulterated passion with which they work makes this close knit team a rarity to behold and a pleasure to be a part of, all be it briefly. I would love to go into detail about the research and experimentation they do with clones, rootstocks, aspect, soils, extraction techniques, yeasts, blending and barrels but it would never do justice to the combination of science and art that makes these wines so special. Rather you will see a snapshot of harvest through the eyes of a rather clumsy, completely unqualified English girl who, for three magical weeks is part of that dream team.
My nails have never been long nor manicured (to the disappointment of my mother), however I have swiftly seen the futility of having anything but clipped nails. Lacking a clipper of any sort I have had to resort to biting my nails off one by one. Each day I have a new fear to face. Cleaning out the pneumatic press is the first I was challenged with. This involves climbing into a large, cylindrical metal coffin, your access point is a small hole hovering over a rotating blade (hopefully inactivated at this point) within which you must scoop out the grape skins before hosing it out. Claustrophobia was the least of my worries – being pressed alive was a far more pressing concern (excuse the pun). However I have now discovered that the inside of the press has wonderful acoustics and I keep my mind occupied by blasting out a self-composed compilation of dodgy 80’s anthems. Apparently the press is not sound proof. When I emerge 20 mins later I am soaking wet with grape skins clinging to my hair, eyelashes and clothes but you can eat your dinner off the inside of the press.
Shovelling the skins out of the tank for pressing is another fear factor moment. This requires shimmying up the tanks (which are not at ground level) and manoeuvring yourself through a tiny hole in the side of the tank (an even harder endeavour on the return journey when you are slippery with juice) and lowering yourself into yet another metal coffin slick with skins often reaching waist height. These have to be shovelled out of a small hole at the base of the tank into the press. This is hard physical graft, a great substitution for the gym I have decided. Topping the barrels (to prevent oxidation and make up for the ‘angels share’ lost to evaporation) is another job requiring acrobatic skills. The barrels are stacked 5 high and I again find myself clinging precariously to the side of a sheer wall of barrels as the stack keens alarmingly to one side, hauling myself up until I am to reach the elusive top layer.
At the heart of the gruelling hours, the physical frenzy, the need for absolute accuracy and scientific understanding, not to mention being able to anticipate what each individual wine needs before it knows itself are the dream team: David, Tammy, Luzaan and Alex (despite much confusion this is boy Alex rather than ‘Tannie Groot Lay Gat’, my affectionate – I hope – nickname). A group of incredibly talented yet humble people who fill the winery with laughter, banter, energy and song (ok the latter is mostly my contribution) even when the heat is on. This has cemented my belief that in order to make good wine one must first have great grapes (something the Cederberg has in spades due to the complete lack of virus or downy mildew) but in order to make a great wine you must have great people working with those great grapes, again something Cederberg has in spades. Taste the soon to be released Wild Ferment Barrel aged Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir and you will see exactly what I mean.
I am bruised, I am cut, my feet are swollen and I am exhausted yet I have never been so happy or so inspired.
Chateau Haut-Bailly represented a surprising oasis of calm in a region frenetically competing for global market share. There was a Jane Austen type of serenity and a quiet self-assurance that permeated the whole estate from the vineyards to the cellar and made one feel that the goal of the Chateau was to simply be the best they could be rather than competing against others for fame and fortune.
It was a fabulous tasting and I am certainly looking forward to visiting again to see how the family is getting on.
February and March are mercilessly the busiest months in the UK wine trade’s diary. I say mercilessly as whenever you think you can take a deep breath and let it out slowly, you gasp and choke instead. Because hey, there’s ANOTHER tasting to organise or go to. Some tastings are more fun than others. The ones that involve Spaniards are, in my book, the best. With them come associated food, laughter and that elevated state of mind called ‘being pissed’.