Monday, August 10, 2020

The Real Threat to Wine Sales is Being Ignored


While we've been fighting the Pandemic, another public policy battle surrounding health has been quietly fought in the shadows, the goal of which is to reduce or eliminate wine consumption by painting it as cancerous and unhealthy. This battle has been going on for a very long time, but the wine business hasn't responded or pushed back on the subject for 20 years.

Recent Warnings

I honestly had been living in the past with the belief that the French Paradox, the Mediterranean Diet, and Dr. Arthur L. Klatsky's extensive work on the cardiovascular health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption still maintained a place in the consumer's mind today. But I was shocked out of my sedated state in 2018 when I discovered the extent to which I was wrong, and started trying to get the industry's attention.

In the 2019 State of the Industry Report, I issued warnings about the rise in neo-prohibitionism; a loosely aligned movement with the World Health Organization as an axis, that has a goal reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption. They are well down the path executing their plan now.

In this blog in January of 2019, in a piece titled The Lost Wine Consumer of 2019, I spelled out how the message of the health benefits of moderate wine consumption that is scientifically proven in hosts of studies and adopted as part of the USDA Dietary Guidelines, had been removed from those Guidelines without public comment by the US Department of Health.

The anti-alcohol movement has moved off of the soundbite that wine in moderation created better total health outcomes measured in morbidity rates. They don't like it, so have spent time instead on studies that marginally link some cancers to alcohol. Never mind that you will live longer and that consuming wine in moderation is healthy for you. Consumption could possibly cause cancer. That is the current playbook.

I addressed the issue in "I Can't Take the Lunacy" in March of 2019 after a 'scientific study' that had the stated goal of equating wine consumption to smoking cigarettes came out. The study's authors said, "Our estimation of a cigarette equivalent for alcohol provides a useful measure for communicating possible cancer risks that exploits successful historical messaging on smoking." (emphasis added). The goal of this study wasn't scientific. It was geared at providing consumers misleading connections to cancer using specious study assumptions with the goal of having wine consumers believe that consuming wine had the same health benefit as smoking cigarettes.

In September 
2019 I published both, "Get Ready for Cancer Warnings on Wine Labels," and a second piece showing how trends and messaging had pushed milk into a long term state of decline "Wine & Milk in Decline due to Changing Science," the point of which was to draw corollaries between what's happened to milk and what's happened to wine in the media and culture.

Then in January of 2020 in the SVB Annual State of the Industry Report, I again called out the problem of neo-prohibitionism as a threat.

Not just limiting myself to writing, during the past two years I've had direct conversations with people in public policy roles within the alcohol beverage industry - wine, beer, and spirits. The beer and spirits folks seem to have made peace with a Drink Responsibly campaign and believe that approach long ago negotiated, would protect them against prohibitionist intent.

Those in industry associations that focus on public policy roles for the wine industry however, seem more worried about the possible regulator repercussions from claiming there are health benefits associated with wine consumption. That is an issue for a permit holder, but not for an industry group working on alcohol policy as that group isn't regulated by the TTB. The argument is the regulators may try and pierce the corporate veil and somehow go after permit holders, but there is no case of that ever taking place. 

To me, it's a choice between ignoring the real impact from biased attacks, compared with an imagined risk that could result from doing something about this problem. 

We don't need to fund our own biased studies. I've advocated for the creation of a group that can focus on the science that is already in existence, and that group be available to point journalists and/or state and federal lawmakers to the other side of this debate and supply useful leadership and messaging that can align the industry. Thus far, I've not been successful or sufficiently persuasive. 

Another Victory for The Cumulative Negative Health Messaging Campaign

Last week, the USDA Dietary Guideline Recommendations were released, and the recommendation from a sub-panel was included to cut the recommended daily limit of wine consumption by 50% over the prior guidelines. Those prior guidelines were set using the guidance of decades of scientific research. This controversial recommendation coincidently comes at a time when the alcohol beverage industry and the world are engaged in other battles and came without prior warning.

The small sub-group recommending this change is headed by Timothy S. Naimi who has a decidedly anti-alcohol bias and receives grant support from the National Institutes of Health and the CDC to research binge drinking, youth drinking, health effects of low-dose ethanol, and substance use policy including the impact of alcohol control regulations.

What science is behind the recommended change? The report cited only a single study that examined the difference between men consuming one or two drinks per day. My question is how can an unbiased group conclude that a single study should outweigh and counter the weight of decades of prior work? The document also concludes that the "preponderance of evidence" reviewed supports that men and women should only have one drink a day. If there is only one study referencing one drink a day, that doesn't seem like a preponderance of the evidence. 

I thought Former US Representative Bob Barr did an excellent job of pointing out the unscientific approach employed in an article called Nanny State Now Targets Even Moderate Alcohol Consumption.

Changing the Status Quo, And What You Can Do

Generally speaking, the Beer, Wine, and Spirits industry groups see each other as competitors. It's rare when they see eye-to-eye on a topic. And thus far - no industry group has really taken action on the information noted above. 

So I take it with a degree of amazement to note that The Wine Institute, Wine America, The Beer Institute, The American Craft Spirits Association, and the Distilled Spirits Council banded together last week and are asking us all to make sure that Congress and the USDA see this recommendation as wholly unscientific, unbalanced, and understand why this change would be a disservice to consumers, if not an unhealthy recommendation given that moderate consumption is more healthy than abstinence as has been the case in decades of prior work.

What's Your Opinion?

  • Do consumers believe moderate wine consumption leads to lower total mortality?
  • Do consumers believe wine is healthy in moderation?
  • Have we done enough as an industry to fight this
  • Is there any marketing organization for wine today able to promote wine as part of a healthy lifestyle?
Please join this site on the top right-hand side of the page, and offer your thoughts below. I respond to everyone.

Please share this post on your favorite social media platform. We need to heighten the discussion of this topic.


  1. I Love it! All you Woke, Hip, Politically Correct and hip young journalists are getting bit on the butt by other younger, hip and woker Greenies seeking to destroy the wine industry like they've destroyed the rest of America's traditional values. Better figure out where your values are.

    1. Unk 8:36 - you had me at woker Greenies ... though I think I need to go into my dictionary of slang to check what it means. I'll tell you this though: I will drink to that!

    2. Exactly. There are many industry leaders who are touting the new buzzwords about equality, privilege, matters.
      What they miss is their scalp is prized by the woke no matter what their belief is.

  2. Thanks for posting, Rob. This is definitely worth being alert to. Just as the French Paradox boosted wine sales in the U.S., this movement could just as easily decrease U.S. wine sales, and at a time when we're already facing significant challenges.

    1. Brad - thanks for reading and posting. We are WAY behind in this battle and there are no organizations in the Wine Industry currently willing to take on the battle so we are just being run over with paid for science and better organized opposition willing to say anything.

    2. I'm not much of an organizer, but I'd be a willing activist in this battle. Any leaders reading?

  3. Rob - thanks for this. Do you have any Intel into what is motivating this anti-alcohol bias? I am sure if we visited Dr. Naimi's personal FB page we could dig out a photo of him enjoying a glass of wine. This can't be some fringe conspiracy group either. So what's the motivation?

    1. Bill - The battle has been going on for generations. They players have rotated and the soundbites evolve. Today while there are plenty of Government funded anti-alcohol organizations, I'd suggest starting with the World Health Organization.

      Read this PDF as a starting point:

    2. True. The wokes are a bit different; They are idealists but imagine themselves moving the needle by blowing stuff up.
      The have inflated opinions of themselves despite their ignorance. The wine business isconsideted White, European and must be blown up-reimagined whatever thst means.

  4. Did you write this at the Moana Surfrider? Great article!

    1. UNK 11:30 ... I only wish I was at the Moana Surfrider, but you are correct. That is where my photo at the top was taken. I am so ready to escape shelter in place and go there for a Mai Tai. (There is a camera you can access on top of the outdoor bar there. You can move the shot around and look at the beach and chairs. Some days I can't help myself and have to go for a virtual visit.)

  5. Oh, gosh! There should be a "trigger" warning on these blogs, because I'm feeling violated! But really, to me it's quite simple: how do you feel the morning after? Bad hangover? You drank too much. Feeling chipper? I can't see the problem then. And for those of you with a religious bent, if God didn't want people to have a tipple, She wouldn't have given us 200 gazillion different varieties of alcohol. Drink up! Just don't tell my mama!

    1. Dave - Thanks for the comments. I like your seat-of-the-pants approach to the topic. I was talking to someone today that had done work on the old winemakers from the North Coast of California ... Lou Foppiano, Robert Mondavi and the like - and they all lived extended lives. That's good enough for me!

  6. Rob,

    Thank you for posting this information. This is a critical issue that as an industry we can not ignore. The French Paradox triggered decades of growth. And a negative article could just as easily turn everything in the opposite direction. Our trade groups need to rise to the occasion. I understand your point about permit holders concerns, but trade groups have no such concerns. It issues like this that we all pay them to address. Let's hope they take notice. I am looking forward to seeing what they post here and what they plan to do.

    1. Gary - So far the Wine Institute hasn't been willing to take this issue on. That is the right policy organization to do so and in fact, there were more than 10 people at one point who were responsible for managing this issue. But they are long since departed and nobody has taken up the issue for close to 20 years.

      It was nice to see that the Wine Institute sent a letter to the US Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services on July 9th expressing their surprise and alarm about the subcommittee recommendations. And to be fair, the sub-committee did throw a curve ball because it was counter to the prior draft. But clearly more industry engagement was needed given the results.

      We as an industry aren't doing enough and our industry's policy advocacy organization is still considering if they should engage on this issue when to me it seems obvious and there is no other organization in existence who could take this on.

      Keep thinking positive thoughts.

  7. Great post as usual, Rob. Perhaps one of the reasons why there has been less action combating the change in guidelines is related to growing awareness that the USDA guidelines themselves are suspect at best. It seems to me that the YouTube generation is pretty skeptical of health advice from the government anyway. We all can find studies to support whatever point of view we want to keep - low-carb/no-carb vs lots of fruits and grains, low fat vs high fat, running is good for you but marathons are dangerous for long-term health... the list goes on. I'm not saying this isn't important (yes, I sent the letters on the link) but the good ole food pyramid scheme might have run its course and today's overly informed consumer is massively skeptical of studies on either side. To really win this fight with the consumer, perhaps the industry should embrace a real effort around transparency. This is not a truth-in-labeling pitch but I'm just saying, USDA guidelines probably don't hold much weight with today's skeptical consumers - they seem more likely to make their own decisions based on a level trust they have with a producer and personal experiences. But maybe that's just wishful thinking.

    1. Tim - Thanks for your well-thought comments. I agree with your basic premise that people don't trust government guidelines. In fact, this one thing isolated isn't a big deal. What is a big deal it the cumulative impacts of paid-for and biased science. At some point, when you hear it enough - milk really is bad for you, red meat really is bad for you, and a glass of wine a night really does cause cancer. It's the battle against a campaign of disinformation, not the skirmish against the US Dietary Guidelines that is really at issue.

      On your other comments about transparency and labeling - I couldn't agree more. The fact we are producing a consumer product and refusing to give the consumer what they are asking for is crazy. Most wines are plant-based, locally grown, artisinal, no added sugar, non-GMO, gluten-free, minimal intervention products. Why shouldn't we tell the consumer that?

      When I last spoke on stage in March, I ended my speech saying "Wine. It's what the beverage the consumer is looking for. They just don't know it."

    2. I like that statement a lot, well said. Completely agree on all. Thanks again.

  8. They should focus on hidden sugar in kids drinks and not on adult drinks

    1. Richard - I would be happy if legislators and regulatory bodies focused on delivering unbiased information for wine and sugar.

      Sugars can add to obesity and from that comes many health issues. But sugar in and of itself isn't truly bad for you and for some there are benefits. It's really about calories and which calories you are replacing if you are adding sugar calories. The whole product health statement is simplified with their anti-group by saying 'sugar is bad,' and that's what I want to avoid with wine.

      Wine like sugar has benefits. And in fact for moderate consumers - even with an anti-lobby that doesn't want to say it still begrudgingly acknowledges moderate alcohol consumption leads to improved mortality rates.

      Dumbing-down the message to "wine is bad for you," which is really what the neo-prohibition movement is trying to do, ignores the science that defends moderation and better health outcomes. It's telling consumers you aren't capable of understanding the difference between having two glasses of wine and drinking a bottle. And in the case of this advisory board, it's going at the debate by trying to stamp into regulatory literature that men and women should only drink one glass maximum per day - if you are going to drink at all.

  9. Rob - the annoying thing about this whole debate is that there is a demand for "healthy" wines - consumers are literally asking for them, and the wine industry just blows them off! I can't tell you how many boomer winery/wholesale owners I have seen in the last few weeks scoff at or outright dismiss Cameron Diaz's new brand, or at any of the new labels coming out that are purported to be "clean." While there can be debate about what exactly "clean" wine is, customers want to feel good about their choices, so why can't we talk that up, either as an industry, or as individual businesses, and aggressively market our products that way? My millenial and gen z friends would LOVE to have an excuse to drink wine because it's "good for you" but instead of acknowledging that, many in our business are simply missing the boat and pushing the same old same old.

    1. Merritt - Totally agree with your view.

      I find it amusing and disappointing that we are having a debate about Cameron Diaz and her wine, or the whole Natural Wine issue for that matter.

      All the passion I hear is from people debating what either of those terms mean to wine. But the truth is, that's not the way words derive meaning.

      Words derive meaning when people use them in context, not when a group of people get together and decide what they will mean and shout down others with a different definition. The words Natural, Clean, and Pure are already in Webster's and they didn't decide what they mean either. They collected information about what the words meant to others. THAT ... is much closer to marketing.

      If we really want to know what consumers want, we have to stop telling them what we want them to hear. We have to hear them talk about consumables and adapt their terminology and apply those to values important to them.

      Consumers are looking for products that are natural, clear of chemicals and additives, identifiable with a locale or place, few ingredients, and transparent as to what's contained therein.

      Wine is made from grapes and sulfites are added to preserve it. That's fewer components than spiked seltzer. It's a natural product from the perspective if you squish grapes, they will become wine with the ambient yeasts on the skins. Grapes are from specific places and grown often with minimal intervention and chemical inputs. What I say at the end of speeches is "Wine is what the young consumer is looking for. They just don't know it."

      That's our problem. If the consumer doesn't know wine has all the things they value because we don't tell them, we can't cry when they don't buy.

      Here is the kicker: It turns out that boomers have been influenced by their millennial children and have switched to adopt much of their health values. So when we keep selling wine as coming from special soils, ripened with long days and cool nights - we are missing the fact ALL CONSUMERS are looking for something. That something is what we already make, but we aren't telling them.