In the 1960s and ’70s, there was a collective societal buzz that having a glass or two of wine a day was akin to a sort of medicine, treating everything from indigestion to heart disease. That buzz eventually turned into “facts” when studies seemed to back up the assertions. Years passed, and the idea that wine was good for you became something nearly everyone accepted. But over the last decade there has been growing evidence that is counter to the “wine is medicine” hypothesis. And what is at the moment a low buzz of concern will likely grow in intensity in the coming years. These growing health concerns will have a negative impact on wine consumption and therefore sales.
Take, for example, the recently published report from the World Health Organization (WHO). On Sept. 21, 2018, the generally well-regarded institution released its findings on the health impact of “harmful alcohol use.” The word “harmful” had been footnoted in their 2010 report as “Harmful in this strategy refers only to public-health effects of alcohol consumption, without prejudice to religious beliefs and cultural norms in any way.”
In the 2018 report, there are at least three statements that stand out and should give pause to anyone in the wine industry: First, 3 million people died from harmful alcohol use in 2016. Second, three-quarters of those who died are men. And finally, WHO is calling for more taxes to pay for alcohol-related health costs and consumption-reduction efforts. In the forward to the study, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Ph.D., director-general, ends his summary of the report with this quote: “We have no time to waste; it is time to deliver on alcohol control.”
Beyond the WHO report, other recent studies have highlighted the dangers of even one glass of alcohol. A recent Lancet study examined more than 20 different diseases and their association with alcohol intake and found that just one drink per day increases the risk of getting one of these conditions by 0.5 percent, two drinks by 7 percent and five drinks by 35 percent.
In 1964, Bob Dylan’s words—“times are a changin’”—captured the imagination of a generation. Today, within the world of wine, his iconic message rings true. When he first uttered those words the world was shifting toward a belief that wine was healthy, but today it appears the shift may be heading in the other direction. Any shifts in perception do not necessarily have to be based in fact, but a constant trickle of nearly any information can change the direction of consumer preferences.
Will the consumption of wine drop dramatically? Not in the foreseeable future, I imagine. But the impact of health concerns will help drive younger consumers toward lower- or even non-alcohol alternatives. We are already seeing a shift toward cannabis products, with some wine producers making non-alcoholic wines infused with marijuana. (Current California law does not allow pot and alcohol combined in the same product.) There has been an increase in low-alcohol wine consumption as well as in canned reduced-alcohol wines, and younger generations such as the Millennials and Generation Z are reporting less interest in wine than their parents had. Some are even noting that they’d prefer to go into a virtual-reality landscape rather than drink or smoke any “relaxant.”
So there we are. Although not calling out wine directly, WHO has expressed concerns over alcohol use and is calling for more control over its consumption. More broadly, health concerns about alcohol consumption are being fueled by recent scientific studies just as the competition from and interest in alternative products is also increasing.
Does all this mean the wine industry is doomed? Highly unlikely. Wine has a coveted place in world history and in many cultures. However, what this does mean is that to thrive, innovative wine-industry professionals must constantly scan the world stage to understand where and how their business strategies might provide them the greatest advantage in what is a complicated and shifting marketplace.
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