Class, women and wine
Can wine ever become inclusive?
Illustration: Marley Allen-Ash
Wednesday 25 May 2022
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In the 2000s, every Saturday morning felt the same. It meant trying to stay out of the fight between siblings brewing behind the sofa, while a plum-mouthed chap sloshed a brown bottle around in the corner of the room. Although often in the kitchen of some French Maison de Campagne, Mr. Floyd – he’d join us in the front room of my Grandad Fred’s English terrace.
Grandad would be in his council house kitchen buttering the oven bottom muffins for our bacon butties, while Mr Floyd (or Keith, to his friends, like nine-year-old me) gently simmered a beef stew and joyfully called out instructions from TV. Usually, it was along the lines of how I needed to source a full bottle of “good, strong red wine” as I’d require around half to go into the dish and another “to go into yourself to make things really cheerful”.
Programs like BBC1’s Saturday Kitchen were urging the adult members of families like mine to swap fizzy lager for a New World sauvignon blanc when going for a curry, and to try a malbec with tomorrow’s roast.
I was too young to understand, but I was obsessed. Obsessed with my weekly visit to grandad’s well-stocked chocolate box, and with watching personalities like Floyd, Goolden and later, Olly Smith, talk their way through a bottle for the weekend.
It was around this time that the UK reached the height of obsession with alcohol. The Independent declared 2004 to be ‘Peak Booze’, reporting: on average, UK adults put away the equivalent of 9.5L of alcohol, or the equivalent of drinking just over 100 bottles of wine each, in a single year.
Fast-forward to 2019 and wine reigned supreme, at least outside of the pub. A YouGov survey revealed, over the previous 18 months, wine had been drunk by 81% of respondents, edging out beer and spirits to become the nation’s favourite alcoholic beverage.
Did that come as a surprise? Because it did to me and the 48% of people who thought beer would win. Grapes were being given a real chance, finally — and by the working class too.
When asked to point to their top choice, working-class drinkers chose wine and by 2020 were challenging stereotypes by spending 55% more per year on still wine than beer.
Seemingly I’m a rarity — wine drinking still hasn’t taken off in my family. So I reached out to an old friend, from my cider and indie gig years, who’s now a wine and event consultant for organisations like the Northern Restaurant and Bar show and the People’s Choice Drinks Awards, Roxanne Dease.
Roxanne grew up above pubs, so she had a better seat to watch society drinking in the noughties. Thinking back to her early life in North Manchester, she remembers working-class people sharing a bottle, but notably she tells me: “It was women drinking it, rather than men, in working-class circles”.
And after spending almost half a decade working in one of Manchester’s most well-known wine bars and merchants — the now-defunct Hanging Ditch — in the imposing shadow of the Cathedral, she’s not convinced we’ve shed the stereotypical trappings of wine and class.
“People will still walk into somewhere and feel panicked — like they have to explain themselves”. She continues; “It’s always the same line: ‘oh I’m no wine connoisseur, oh I don’t really know.’”.
So, as well as being classed, wine has become gendered. And when the internet is flooded with “mummy needs wine” memes and more “prosecco o’clock” mugs than anyone could ever buy, so has the marketing.
It hasn’t always been this way. Dr Pam Lock, a researcher in drink, Victorian literature and women at the University of Bristol, highlights that the social exclusion of women from licenced establishments, rather suspiciously, started around the time of the mid-19th century movement for women’s rights.
“I think it’s really interesting that the emphasis on respectability and an increasing exclusion of women from pubs seems to coincide with the time when women are starting to ask to be treated in the same way as men.”
As is still the case for many women today, Victorian ladies usually handled the household shopping. Despite being discouraged from publicly drinking wine, or any alcohol for that matter, according to Dr Lock, “Women would go to the grocers, and she would buy the shopping which would be delivered to the house. Then she’d have a little nip while she was there — that would often be sherry or wine.” explains Lock.
Perhaps echoes of this Victorian exclusion of women from the prominent beer-drinking culture of the 19th-century British pub persist, as survey after survey confirms that women are still more likely than men to favour wine.
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Much has changed since we women were agitating in the morning, and surreptitiously sipping fortified wine in the afternoon. One of the biggest consumer changes was unarguably the introduction of supermarkets, and the subsequent 1962 decision allowing them to sell alcohol.
Sainsbury’s was the first to give it a go, shortly followed by Tesco, Waitrose and the Co-Op. The marketing effects of the supermarket have massively shifted our wine buying habits, as only 18% of wine purchases are now made in pubs, bars and restaurants.
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The age of TV recommendations and new supermarket aisles brought with it the popularisation of certain styles. I’ve met with my drinking buddy for the evening, Nic Rezzouk, wine buyer for Reserve Wines, and as we’re tasting a Portuguese red made with Baga grapes at a foolishly high table for a short person like me, he stresses the importance of two particular breakout styles.
“I have to mention that prosecco and New Zealand sauvignon blanc have had a tremendous impact,” he says.
“Those two styles have done an amazing amount of work in bringing people from any class into the wine arena, and then as a gateway into the rest of the wine world” continues Nic.
In the UK we drank just under 36% of the world’s prosecco output in 2019.
I remembered the conversation I’d had with Roxanne earlier in the week. “Large retailers wanted to sell it as competitively as possible,” she’d told me. “And then, of course, you have issues with pay and labour. Who’s processing the grapes? What are they being paid?”
This creates a sticky issue. Increasing the reach of wine is a good thing — particularly as it’s often been a less than an accessible option. But how can this progress carry in an ethical, class-conscious manner?
“We shouldn’t exclude anyone, but it’s just true, we don’t have a lot of regional accents being represented in the media,” Roxanne had added as a parting shot.
And I agree. As much as progress has been made, and as fond as I am of my memories of Keith Floyd and his public schoolboy accent, changes need to be made if wine is to lose its class baggage. But any further marketing efforts — particularly in the supermarket, on the TV or increasingly, on social media — must come with careful consideration.
Consideration for the ethics of production, our environmental impact and groups of people are still underserved by the industry. After all, what good is sharing a bottle of wine, if we forget to offer our solidarity as well?
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