Not the London Wine Fair – Miles Beale

Not the London Wine Fair – Miles Beale

Events | 01 March, 2022

This week would have seen the WSTA join colleagues from across the wine industry at the London Wine Fair, but instead we are all experiencing an alternative reality.

Like wine fairs across the globe, the London Fair has been cancelled. The WSTA has had to move in double-quick time from a successful Budget campaign, headlong into providing as much support to our membership as we can during the Coronavirus outbreak. All without seeing – at least physically – members, colleagues and friends.

Some of the issues we were to discuss at the Wine Fair have been put firmly to one side while we sought clarity from government on behalf of WSTA members and our industry more generally – because everyone’s business lives have felt the effects of Coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown. Quite right too – and we hope our advice, support, services, webinar series, lobbying and media activity have helped in these existentially challenging times.

But over the last couple of weeks we have started to return to ‘more normal’ issues and to think about what the new “business as usual” looks like. London Wine Fair week usually provides a good opportunity to look back, take stock and reflect on the priorities of the day – but also to lift our sights to think about the future. And, just because we aren’t all crowded into an exhibition centre, there is no reason I can’t offer some remote thoughts. In particular, it’s a good discipline to consider how the most pressing issues have changed or been brought into greater focus by the lockdown of the past two months.

So… here’s one we prepared earlier – and how it looks different under lockdown.

Consumer trends: what and how?

We had hoped to take a look at a couple of established, growing trends: the increasing interest in no-/low-alcohol products in the UK and how (much) consumers are moving their purchasing online. This week we saw White Claw, the hard seltzer brand that has taken the US by storm, announce a June 1st launch in the UK. It seems fair to suggest that this could well have been the summer of lower-alcohol RTD drinks in the hands of UK drinkers and all over Instagram.

This could still transpire. It’s hard to predict quite how lockdown will shape drinking trends over the summer. We don’t yet know when and under what restrictions the UK’s hospitality sector will be allowed to reopen – or how quickly. What we do know, however, is that UK consumers have taken to their computers, laptops and phones to order their drinks online in ever-increasing numbers, accelerating a modest, but established trend that was likely to pick up pace anyway.  So the question is probably ‘how fast and how far?’

Tax off, tax on?

Excise duty would have featured too. The WSTA secured a duty freeze for wines and spirits on 11th March, which was most welcome – particularly because the previous Budget in 2018 had seen wine singled out for a tax hike. Hopefully this is a sign of fairer relative treatment to come for the UK’s favourite alcoholic drink.

But something fundamental has changed. The vast array of support announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in response to the outbreak of Covid-19 means that, like most parts of the UK economy, we are benefitting from support from the State – whether through grants, government-backed loans or the furlough scheme. And while we can’t be sure how long that support will continue, we can be sure that tax rises will be needed to pay back that support. And it’s unlikely that excise duties will buck any future trend. Auspicious timing for a review of alcohol taxation – to which the Conservative Party manifesto committed this government in December’s General Election (remember that?)…

Green or green?

Pre-pandemic plans would have seen us probing the work being done by the UK’s wine industry to make our sector greener. And, while all businesses in the sector will necessarily be focused on economic recovery, Covid-19 has probably increased opportunity and appetite for greening the UK economy. Exhibit A: the Mayor of London has re-introduced the Congestion Charge in London, but 7 days a week from June 22nd.

The UK wine industry, which is green and getting greener, must get greener still. But as interventions like the introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme for glass bottles, which is set to be introduced in both Scotland and the rest of the UK, become more politically popular, they risk jeopardising the work that wine companies and consumers alike have done to improve recycling rates. Our Environmental Policy Manager, Freddie Joosten, has also penned a blog piece, which looks at these issues in more details.

The Challenge Formerly Known as Brexit

Finally, topping the charts for several years now Brexit – or rather the end of the Transition period and the start of the new era of the independent UK trading – was again to have featured heavily. Suffice to say that, in the week we start to emerge from lockdown the Government has announced a future tariff regime (disappointing, but decided) and the shape of its preferred UK/EU trade deal (more encouraging, but unlikely), the outcomes that the WSTA wants for the UK wine and spirits industry seem even more challenging than they were last year, with less time on the clock to get there. Our advice is: be prepared, buckle up and please pitch in! Rebekah Kendrick, our Head of Brexit and EU Affairs has written an excellent blog piece on our new Trade-21 initiative, and you can visit the new Trade-21 hub on our website here.

So, while we can’t look out for you at the Fair this year, we will look out for your interests all year. The WSTA has, is and will continue to operate at full capacity to look after its members and their priorities, however much they are changing. Articles, blogs, webinars and e-meetings form part of our new ways of delivering the same level of support for WSTA members. Please stay close, stay in touch and stay safe – and we will see you in person this time next year!

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