Wine in the Time of Pestilence IV

There has been a lot of press chatter around the idea that we are drinking more in the Covid-19 crisis.  The Sydney Morning Herald reported that online sales for one retailer had jumped by 50-75%; Nielsen tracking figures for wine sales in the USA showed dramatic rises in wine sales in the two weeks following the start of lockdown in key states, then a dramatic fall, then two more weeks of increase (though less intense).  There has been an increase of wine sales in the USA of 29.4% since the ‘start’ of Covid-19 – just behind the increase in spirits sales but well ahead of beer on 19%; this has also seen a surge in sales of cabernet sauvignon – as if consumers want to go back to what is tried and tested.  Meanwhile in the UK I’ve heard through the grapevine, that for some UK retailers March was their best month ever.  What seems to be selling is their core range – so that consumers are indeed sticking with brands they know well and feel comfortable with, with sales of these wines almost one quarter up on normal.  That could include things like Rioja, Argentine malbec and pinot grigio.  The winners, it seems, are winning even more.

So, the sales figures seem to bear this out this general idea that everyone is drinking more wine, though the detail is much more complex than that.  As I’ve noted previously, the ease of buying wine in France isn’t mirrored in South Africa, for instance.  So how is our drinking behaviour changing?  By which I don’t just mean how much we drink, but how and what we drink – and why we may be drinking more.  Looking at my own drinking I felt it was changing, and anecdotally it appeared that others were changing theirs as well.

So, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to find out how some dedicated drinkers have been changing their relationship with alcohol during the spread of the virus.  To do this I chose my own colleagues in the Institute of Masters of Wine with a short survey on how they are drinking during the time of pestilence.  We asked both numeric questions and asked them to add comments about their drinking – and this is what transpired.  As this is a blog about ‘wine and culture’ I’m going to focus on the most interesting cultural findings.

I received completed surveys from 142 Masters of Wine, which is a good response rate and the sample was broadly representative of the Institute’s gender and geographic make up (65% male and 47% based in the UK).  The ‘typical’ respondent was aged about 56 and had been in confinement for just over 18 days at the point when they responded.  They pay on average just under 18€ per bottle when they buy wine, drinking about 5-6 days per week.

Forty-two percent said that their wine consumption had increased since the onset of Covid-19, while 15% said it had decreased, and for 43% it had not altered.  However, an examination of who is drinking more or less reveals some interesting and statistically significant results.  Those who are drinking less wine are disproportionately male (85%) rather than female – but those drinking more are proportionately more likely to be female.  The following quotation illustrates this:

I think anyone home-schooling kids whilst working from home during lockdown is definitely drinking more wine.

The same trend is even more marked for buying wine: women are more likely to be buying more wine than before Covid-19 by 60% to 40% for men. 

Interestingly, when we look at the country of residence of Masters of Wine drinking more or less there was no obvious difference between the regions of the world – except that none of the Australasian Masters of Wine claim to be drinking less (statistically it should have been three)! 

Many of those drinking less listed health concerns as a major reason to cut down – though a few also qualified this by noting that they are drinking better.

I am drinking less as I want my immune system a bit stronger.  I’m drinking less per week , but definitely increased the price point (doubled).  So drinking less, but better.

A great many Masters of Wine who responded to this survey noted that they were ‘raiding their cellars’, and this is related to the quality level of wine being drunk.  Over 46% of all Masters of Wines feel that the quality of what they are drinking is better than it was before.  However, one unfortunate London-based Masters of Wine lamented that his cellar was outside the capital and he couldn’t access it during lockdown! 

So why is the drinking behaviour of Masters of Wine changing? When we look at reasons for drinking more wine, a number mention that the sense of mortality is having an impact on their decisions: 

I’m glad you asked if I’m raiding the cellar for the good stuff. I am doing that, as are many people. Why save it for the apocalypse – we are in the apocalypse.

Reward and celebration as well as the need to avoid boredom were also noted, as was the fact that the family is together.  Thus, food and wine combined were often mentioned, including jointly preparing meals and the overall pleasure of cooking – suggesting that community and family support have become more important.

I enjoy drinking wine even more now because it’s usually during mealtime with family and it helps bring us together. Since being sheltered at home, our lives have fewer outside distractions, which allows us to focus more closely on what we’re consuming

Additionally, many Masters of Wine noted the need to use wine for ritual: the marker of the end of the day at a time when lockdown has removed from us the normal routines and rituals of the working day.

It’s too easy to feel you need to mark the break in the day as you move from day to evening, work/busyness to leisure/family time with a glass of wine. Easier to justify it than normal: unprecedented times require a little reward/enjoyment on a regular basis

There was also an implication in some of the comments that in isolation wine gives a link to a previous, less threatening time, or to a wider, exciting world from which we are currently cut off – the world of wine being a notoriously convivial place!

Wine is a way to ‘travel’ with our senses, through the magical way it can express its origin, and capture the flavours and essence of wonderful places, and transport you around the world in our imagination. (For example, last night we said ‘let’s make a delicious fresh pasta and open a Chianti Classico and pretend we are on holiday in Tuscany!’)

Consequently, like the rest of the population, Masters of Wine have not been immune to the lure of virtual consumption, and online aperitifs are becoming more popular.

What are the key conclusions from this?  The first is that probably Masters of Wine resemble other wine drinkers in that few are decreasing their alcohol consumption and a number are increasing it.  It is also probable that the reasoning is generally the same for the wider population (isolation, family, boredom, apprehension, and the need for reward against health and maybe financial concerns).  They also mirror the general population in that some, at least, are having virtual aperitifs, and seeking reasons to celebrate.  The key differences are that they pay more on average for their wine.

A key marker of Masters of Wine however may be the quality of what they drink, which appears to be going up for many – and rarely going down.  This is affected by the fact that most have access to a cellar and the current crisis has acted as a catalyst to make use of that cellar and drink better wine.

Otherwise, the key conclusions seem to be the following.  It is female Masters of Wine who are driving the increase in wine consumption and the Australasian Masters of Wine have resolutely turned their face against drinking less in this time of pestilence.  Additionally, try to ensure that your wine cellar is where you live, and not away from your home.

Meanwhile, together with a work colleague I’m extending this research to the general wine-drinking population:

https://schoolwinespiritsbusiness.limequery.com/346558?lang=en

Please do complete the survey – we want as many responses as possible from all kinds of people: those who drink wine no more than a few times a year up to weekly imbibers – and please pass it on to friends as well: we need to get as many as possible completing this.

Meanwhile, public authorities have been telling us how we ought to drink. Early on in the pandemic the World Health Organisation warned that using alcohol is an ‘unhelpful coping strategy’ in lockdown. The trouble is that one person’s ‘coping strategy’ is another’s ‘reward’, or ‘ritual marker’ which becomes a pleasant, psychologically beneficial; and while WHO suggested that it is unlikely to alleviate stress it seems that many drinkers disagree with them. Meanwhile, and more usefully, organisations like Drinkwise in Australia and Drinkaware in the UK are promoting a message of moderation rather than abstinence, and reminding people of the sensible limits for consumption.

Finally, some people have been using this time to tell us how to expand our wine activities to get us through lockdown.  The trade magazine The Drinks Business have run articles explaining the best wine-related crafts to help break through the boredom (if you want to ‘repurpose’ your empty bottles or create wine-dyed cork straps this is the place for you).  If craft isn’t your thing then they’ve listed the ten greatest wine films to watch in lockdown – from Rock Hudson and Jean Simmons keeping a Californian wine company going during prohibition to a recent fictional release based on the life of Master Sommelier in training.

What to do? 

This blog theme will be continued…

Update: if you enjoyed this article, I have since published a small footnote related to it, found here.

9 thoughts on “Wine in the Time of Pestilence IV

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