Wine trade on the warpath

Globally renowned wine importer, exporter and distributor Daniel Lambert has become something of a hero in our book. He’s one of a handful of people who have been brave enough to stand up and tell the truth about what Brexit has done to his own business and the sector as a whole, and to campaign for change from government.

West Country Voices has published his threads on the massive hold-ups due to Brexit-related red tape, the collapse in the supply chain, the mountain of new documentation, the absolute horror show associated with the Vi-1 document … in short, the whole Brexit car crash.

The ‘Vi-1’ is now the focus of the most unified, co-ordinated campaign the UK wine trade has ever seen. For those who don’t know what a ‘Vi-1’ is, here is a short explanation. The Vi-1 document confirms the origin of a wine, normally under lab conditions, and is an analysis of the alcohol content among other things. Its introduction would restrict the UK’s ability to maintain its reputation as a global wine hub.

Lambert went on to point out that parliamentary under-secretary of state for farming, fisheries and food Victoria Prentis misrepresented the introduction of the Vi-1 both to the House of Commons and the House of Lords as enjoying support from the industry. Untrue. In fact, it’s a lie to say that the trade wants this or the red tape it brings.

All wine already conforms to strict standards, which are set out by the local authorities where it is made. The UK government has already forced producers in the EU to get registered exporter (REX) numbers, which confirm wine origin.

Now this government wants wineries to confirm that their Bordeaux wine, which has already undergone local certification, is certified again as ‘Bordeaux’ and then lab tested to check it’s definitely from Bordeaux.

The government doesn’t understand how the wine trade works or consult with the industry. This is a pity as it’s now the UK’s preferred alcoholic beverage and it’s essential that when the on-trade market (hotels, bars, restaurants, etc) reopens, wine traders are in good shape to support this side of the industry, which is on its knees.

Prentis’s claims of industry support quite naturally infuriated wine merchants, and over 50 representatives of the trade co-signed a letter which gave a comprehensive rebuttal, called out the lie, set out the case for the abolition of the hated Vi-1 and called on the government to take action to support the sixth largest industry in the food and drink export sector, concluding their missive with these words:

“It is an oft-stated objective of this government to reduce the amount of bureaucracy UK businesses had to deal with when we left the EU. This [responding to their demands] provides you with an opportunity to do just that, and to help our industry to survive in what are very challenging times.”

At first, the letter seemed to disappear into the abyss. But the government and Prentis had forgotten that there are wine merchants in every constituency. Unhappy wine merchants, at that. The minister finally met with representatives of the industry in her own constituency and the message well and truly landed.

And here is the proof:

Now all eyes are on Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove. When will that meeting be arranged? This is being very closely monitored! We’ve seen too many instances of ministers claiming to have consulted groups and bodies when they had done no such thing or promising to meet and then reneging on that commitment like Johnson and relatives of Covid-19 victims.

Well, it won’t wash with Lambert! How long has Gove got to set things straight? A week, tops.

Meanwhile, trade is getting more, not less, difficult and the supply chains are at breaking point. You may have already noticed a marked reduction in the range of wines on your supermarket’s shelves because of the massive backlog in shipments. To add insult to injury, supermarkets’ own stock monitoring and ordering systems are messed up by these artificial shortages. To explain: if the supermarket usually stocks four Sancerres and can only get hold of one, there is no information value for them in that one Sancerre selling out. It’s not consumer choice driving the sales. It’s the opposite. A world in which you can no longer rely on your automated order system to manage stock levels across 25,000 lines in 250 branches is a world of worry and extra work.

At the time of writing, the government has adopted a strategy of kicking the can down the road … just as they did with Brexit itself. It’s an unsustainable tactic and business will not stand for it.

So, Mr Gove, get yourself up to speed and schedule that meeting ASAP. These guys mean business and they used to think that the Conservative party did, too.