Are we too cavalier about alcohol?

Drinking alcohol is everywhere in our media landscape and especially on social media, upon which wine in BC has been latched for a fair number of years. Photos of wine bottles in exotic places with amazing food and lovely people are all over the internet on Facebook and Instagram accounts. Add in the trending craft breweries, distilleries, and cideries, plus the marketing power of the big name brands and it seems like an entire generation of adults are drinking without care and living the life. Only the benefits of booze are promoted by social media but nobody offers anything about the potential for problems, societally and personally, that might have occurred, or will occur, later on. People who are fall-down drunk in the gutter are probably not steady enough to take a selfie and post it. Have our attitudes become too cavalier about alcohol lately?

The irony of writing an article like this on a wine blog is not lost on me in any way. I am a huge fan of irony – got the poster, seen the show, own the DVD – and that is why I am hoping that maybe this might get people thinking a little bit more about it. People in the wine industry are all trained through the Serving It Right program, an irritating but necessary course that every person who wants a job serving alcohol in this province must take. We are trained to know the law and what to do in various circumstances  and now we now must be re-certified every five years to stay current. If it helps keep people informed, I’m all in. It is not a bad thing to be thinking about this beyond the online exam. A recent article in the Globe and Mail by André Picard summarized the way that we “romanticize” alcohol in Canada while scrutinizing opioids, marijuana, and other nebulously legal / illegal drugs. Alcohol, according to Picard, is “too often portrayed as good, harmless fun.”

Lots of people have an amazing ability to drink often and well because alcohol in some form is easy to find. People promote their lifestyle on social media and when visiting wineries. (I do that, of course. You are reading some of it now.) But sometimes they make jokes, which to me seems to trivialize it. I have often heard people say, “We NEVER have any wine left over in our house! Ha-ha!” (Ha-hah, yes. Good one.) They buy t-shirts with funny slogans on them proclaiming their love of wine. (Oh, the doctor says you need “glasses” – so funny.) They mock wine sales professionals such as myself for spitting out wines when we taste, calling it ‘alcohol abuse’, and then laughing with their friends. (Hysterical! Did you just make that up yourself? I’ve never heard that before…)

I think that these cavalier attitudes may be masking something potentially more harmful.

Drinking has always been a part of life everywhere I’ve lived and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it in moderation. Alcoholic beverages are perfectly natural, safe to drink, and preferable in most circumstances, especially when traveling. As we learned from North America’s great ‘college-experimental-phase’ with Prohibition almost a century ago, trying to ban it altogether is like trying to ban precipitation and is clearly futile. Prohibition resulted in the complete opposite effects, namely even more consumption, binge drinking, clandestine alcohol production, and dangerous situations to drink. Furthermore, the only alcohol that was available was potentially more harmful because it was coming from a completely unregulated, illegal industry.

Legal alcohol industry or not, some people have an inability to stop drinking once they start. That’s where we get some of the social problems that come from real alcohol abuse (not the spitting-out-at-a-wine-tasting kind). According to a World Health Organization chart on alcohol abuse rates throughout the world, Canada has a total rate of 7.35% of the population (5.43% men and 1.92% women). If we take the population of BC as 4,683,139 as of July 2015, that means that there are over 344,210 people who potentially have problems with alcohol. Some of those people will get treatment for their dependence and some won’t. Regardless of whether genetics plays a part in it or not, the fact remains that some people are going to have issues no matter who they are or where they live. As a former politician who used to be in charge of liquor laws in the late 1970s once put it to me, generally “80 percent of the people are fine with alcohol, 20 percent are not. But it’s the 20 percent that cause 80 percent of the problems.”

And now those people (7.35 percent to – yes, it is a stretch –  20 percent) have massive new wine displays in select B.C. supermarkets lording over them as they go through the checkout lines. In some stores, they are clearly visible from anywhere outside of the main aisles. It is simply impossible to ignore. Many people mentioned this aspect of it in comments on Minister John Yap’s blog which was ostensibly used to solicit peoples’ opinions on the matter. A surprising number of people cited social concerns – minors that work in the stores, recovering alcoholic family or friends, or simply that B.C. already has too many convenient places to buy alcohol already – as a reason to not allow wine in grocery stores.

These opinions were pretty decisively ignored. Most of the people commenting in favour of wine in grocery stores cited mere convenience, as if it was a “no-brainer” that since they already sell cigarettes, they might as well have wine too. That is some good quality internet argument logic for you that would only sound more natural if it was accompanied by an unruly mob carrying pitch-forks and torches. I guess since a store already sells car tires, they might as well sell puppies too. “I mean really, that’s the no-brainer to me,” they said. Calling the restrictions on selling wine in a grocery store “archaic” does not really make sense either since there really isn’t anything to do with modernizing anything.  Does that mean to be truly modern means that any store should be able to sell alcohol? Does true ‘modernization’ mean that anything goes and that all stores should be free to sell absolutely anything that they want? What about firearms? Puppies, booze, and ammo all together in one stores sounds like a good business idea to me! Offer it as drive through and I’ll be the first in line! (Hi! I’d like a bottle of Southern Comfort, the cute little white poodle, and a Glock G43 please.)

When Vancouver city council recently voted to allow wine in grocery stores (with many restrictions), it prompted a few new complaint articles like this that bemoan the “nanny state” and how the wine drinker is ultimately being repressed somehow because of “anti-liberalization”. The author, David Fine, cites Washington State and Quebec as having fewer alcohol-related health issues than BC and complains again about the government restrictions on alcohol. Of course, he doesn’t mention the fact that the drinking age in Washington is 21 (how’s that for a government “anti-liberal” restriction?) and in Quebec is technically 18 (but, as I know from personal experience, is less an actual restriction and more of a suggestion). These places have vastly different attitudes towards alcohol compared to BC. Washington State is far more policed in general than BC while Quebec’s alcohol culture is historically ingrained.

It’s not that I have anything against selling wine in grocery stores, I don’t. I grew up in Quebec where there is wine in grocery stores, corner stores, and government stores. Quebec holds the record for the shortest Prohibition in North America (less than 1 year – it was both enacted and repealed in 1919). I love going camping in Washington State and I agree that getting wine in the supermarkets is absolutely convenient when picking up supplies. But why should my own convenience put someone else’s health potentially at risk? Convenience is not a “no-brainer” that should be “modernized” and free of the “nanny state”. That’s just being selfish. Plain and simple.

We should also note that in Washington State and Quebec, the wine displays are not as obtusely crowned in the centre of the store as they are in BC grocery stores. Wines are on the shelf next to the crackers somewhere down aisle 6 and have no more attention drawn to it than Cheez Whiz or laundry detergent. My problem is not with the law or the alcohol culture in B.C., it is the way that we are lionizing it. By putting alcohol (so far, only wine and cider but, in reality, that door is now open) in such a prominent display in our grocery stores, we are no longer promoting just a product but a lifestyle. Those are two very different things.

When was alcohol ever really that inconvenient for the under 45 generation anyway? Do we really need more convenient wine purchasing locations above and beyond the hundreds of licensed retail stores, government stores, and private wine stores that we already have? At one point, the Town of Oliver (the Wine Capital of Canada) had more liquor retail stores than traffic lights and that’s not counting the wineries’ own wine shops that are not inconveniently close by. In all of the towns in BC where I’ve lived in 17 years here (five towns so far), finding a liquor store close by has never, ever been a problem. I have always lived within walking distance of some kind of liquor store.

Why do we need to put massive signs around high-profile wine displays in grocery stores? Is it because we feel that BC wine cannot compete unless it has this absolutely dominating marketing presence that completely outsizes other grocery departments like the bakery, deli, or fresh produce? Are we that insecure about our industry’s competitiveness? My point is not so much that it shouldn’t be sold in supermarkets, but why do they have to get the star treatment with huge signs and a central display? I’ve never seen that kind of booze promotion anywhere else.

When I lived in Quebec, there was a distinct difference in quality between the wines in each type of location. On the wine continuum from plonk to grand cru, the government stores carried the top quality on down to the decent, inexpensive wines. The supermarkets carried less expensive wines that are probably imported in bulk and bottled locally to look like imported wines. The corner stores (called dépanneurs in Quebec) like 7-11 carry bottles that are probably barely legally wine, and some of them probably skim that name pretty tightly. Essentially, if you want the good stuff, the government store or winery wine shops are where it’s at. (There is a growing band of brave vignerons in Quebec.)

From my point of view, putting real, VQA-certified, B.C. wines into supermarkets is a step in the wrong direction. It is forcing BC wine down the throats of consumers needlessly and we are starting to see it get stratified naturally through the ultimate expression of economics – market demand. Now that the super markets have to purchase their wines outright, they are being much more careful about the wines that they choose to carry. That means that if it doesn’t sell, it’s not going to re-ordered and the wine selection will get winnowed. The private LRS stores located nearby (sometimes sharing a parking lot with these stores) are hoping for this because they will pick up on the more expensive products or smaller boutique wineries that have limited production for their wines. People will start to understand that grocery stores mean cheap and cheerful and LRS stores mean quality. Since LRS’s can purchase whatever they want, VQA or not, that puts them at the advantage while the supermarkets gets ‘stuck’ with the value-priced VQA brands. BC wine’s image is suddenly less prestigious. (I am not considering the previous Liberal government’s wholesale pricing schemes in this argument – I am only interested in a public perception point of view here.)

Marketing aside, wine is now a lot more visible and maybe there are people who do not really need to see that. It is essentially forcing a lifestyle choice into the faces of a small part of the population that can do a large amount of damage. Suddenly, wine is absolutely unavoidable to anyone with alcohol issues that shops that these grocery stores. They now have to face temptation on their own or find a different place to shop.

I believe that BC wine is strong enough to compete without the excessively domineering marketing that I’ve seen in grocery stores so far. I also believe that it can do it without threatening the social health of our towns and cities. Consider that 7.35 to 20 percent of your Facebook friends potentially have a problem with alcohol in some way. How might huge wine displays right behind the check-out aisles effect them? Just like alcohol is healthy in moderation, asking questions about our community is healthy for a democratic society. Let’s question this kind of thing.

Cheers from wine country.

~Luke

 

 

2 thoughts on “Are we too cavalier about alcohol?

  1. While I whole heartedly agree, anyone who is a recovering from alcohol dependancy will tell you that alcohol is always right in front of you and realizing you must say no to it, is what successful recovery really is.

    • Thank you so much for commenting and for pointing that out. I am not in that situation and was not trying to presuppose what that felt like at all. This article’s genesis came from an experience of mine dealing with a customer (as it happened, my very first customer ever) when I hosted my first tasting as a sales rep for a winery in a grocery store. I realized that this person would never have entered the door of a wine store (like one of the VQA stores) but that they bought a bottle because it was approachable and easily accessible. And nobody could go through any of the checkout lines without seeing the wine section. From that point on, I have questioned the notion of it ‘modernizing’ BC wine or wine culture in this province in any way. Thanks again for commenting.

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