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Business to Charity, it’s all about Wine

By |  January 10 2010

The public wine-tasting events that I recently chaired in Hong Kong revealed a genuine desire to understand the making of fine French wines. It is not often that I am asked such detailed and relevant questions. These are formidably intelligent young people, even if their sense of self-esteem is commensurate with their intellect.

The local government is committed to making Hong Kong the wine-trading hub of Asia. The island is poised to become the world’s largest wine market, following the abolition of import duties on wine and spirits and the provision of ideal storage and logistics systems. Compare and contrast with our own politicians, whose sloppy indifference to the management of wine betrays a woeful disregard for its cultural and economic significance.

Davos: against spineless politicians

In the week that preceded the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Fair, many industry decision-makers and top winemakers gathered with François Mauss at the charming Villa d’Este Hotel on Lake Como in Italy. Their subject was the social relevance of fine wines and spirits, at a time when our great winemaking heritage is under attack from all sides by health lobbyists, encouraged by thoughtless and spineless politicians.

Dubbed "the Davos of wine," this first-ever World Wine Symposium was intended as the focal point for a longoverdue form of reverse lobbying, using the international dimension to make itself effective. Jean-Robert Pitte gave a brilliant talk on the cultural and historical importance of wine, pointing out its crucial role in the development of Western society, and the likelihood that this will be repeated in the East. Austria, as well as presenting some of its remarkable wines, described its campaign to develop wine tourism, relying on the support of the public authorities and on the enthusiastic commitment of a population that still knows how to live and enjoy itself.

This way of doing things would be easy to reproduce elsewhere if politicians could only understand the range of issues at stake. Never mind economic development-what’s at risk here is the very survival of countless regions that are otherwise doomed for desertification and ecological disaster. Regions that depend on an active and welcoming rural population to preserve a way of life that is the envy of the world.

Strategies for the wine lobby

Which brings me to my own proposals for two good lobbying strategies. One would operate at the national level, within the spheres of influence still controlled by separate nations. The other would operate at the supranational level. The first aims for government recognition of the unique status of wine as a fermented beverage and food product that stands above other alcoholic drinks. Wine is the ambassador of local savoir-faire and, consumed on a regular basis as nature surely intended, provides an excellent safeguard against alcoholism.

Compelling though it is, I suspect that this strategy may be too fragile against the Pontius Pilate indifference of politicians, supported by whining health lobbyists who delight in flexing their new-found muscles. Happily, I believe that my second strategy would be more effective: lobbying at the supranational level for the recognition of wine as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity-a product of global savoir-faire with huge symbolic importance at the crossroads of religion, art, taste, education, gastronomy, and world peace. The only problem is the supra-national dimension itself, which is not the way that cultural recognition by UNESCO is normally sought. But that might change, given the sheer number of interested countries in both the Old and New Worlds.

Making more of the Hospices

The Hospices de Beaune 2009 wine auction has just concluded, with prices up by 20 percent-an unexpected increase in the present economic context, but fully justified by the remarkable quality of this year’s reds. What bothers me is the charitable dimension of this auction, which shows little evidence of charity. The sale of the so-called President’s Barrel is an unfailingly depressing experience-a pathetic event, dutifully attended by media and humanitarian celebrities, but what the charities get is a pittance. Entertainer Patrick Bruel did everything he could to open the buyers’ purses.

But what is ¤80,000 when one considers the funds that are really required? Why don’t the Hospices put up for auction every last barrel of their most prestigious cuvée-their Bâtard- Montrachet-which fetched a top bid of €56,000 a barrel? That would have netted more than €200,000! Still not much, I agree, but definitely better …

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