On Boycotts, Wine and the World
In a continuation of his provocative “August Essays”, influential writer Andrew Jefford makes the case that wine drinkers have a moral and ethical responsibility to choose their drinks with an eye toward responding the “extraordinary times unfolding around us”. Jefford argues that our purchasing choices ought to be guided by the way in which a producer or country is responding to or playing a role in a “world in which unilateralism, threats, posturing, bullying and sanctions are superseding multilateralism and consensus.”
In an attempt to put a rather fine a point on his position, Jefford asks:
“Adolf Hitler was appointed German Chancellor in January 1933. Should British wine lovers have carried on serenely sipping fine Mosel Kabinett and Spätlese wines through the six years which followed? Or should they have paused in their purchase of those wines, and troubled to engage with German wine producers and suppliers to explain why they were stopping?”
The question, to Jefford, is rhetorical.
Putting the question more squarely and in a more timely perspective, Jefford declares:
“It would be legitimate to ask any US wine producer for its corporate views on the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate-change mitigation, or on the unilateral imposition of economic sanctions on other nations. Hungarian wine producers might be asked how they view their government’s criminalization of those providing help to asylum-seekers, or denial of food to asylum-seekers held in transit zones. It would be interesting to have leading Italian wine exporters’ views on the Interior Minister’s proposed Italian census by ethnicity, his expressed contempt for immigrants and minorities, or his praise for President Putin and denigration of the European Union.”
Jefford makes a point of reminding the reader that two years ago, following the election of Donald Trump, he stated his opposition to boycotts and he says he still opposes them today. However, this latest essay, read fairly, suggests that Jefford really has changed his mind on this question of whether wine drinkers ought to use their economic power by boycotting those who contribute to the chaos he sees disrupting the peoples around the world and the international order:
“What you might choose to do is up to you – but there are many roads to action…Governments can be challenged – by you as a purchaser of that nation’s products — on their policies on human rights and the rule of law, on the protection of the vulnerable, on their support for international organizations, and on their response to the challenge posed by climate change.“
If this isn’t a call to boycott the wines of those nations that commit the crimes he’s referring to, is it really just a call to “challenge” those countries with questions? I can’t see how.
Jefford is making a point about the power of consumers to challenge political circumstances by addressing wine and wine drinkers. But of course the power to challenge applies to every single purchase we make as consumers. Jefford’s challenge to wine drinkers to think about the politics of our purchases apply to every single product we buy if they apply to wine. And I’m wondering how I’m going to walk through a grocery store with that perspective and not be frozen in the aisles by my inability to know the disposition of every product’s owner as to their stand on South African land reform, the attitude of a product’s home country toward combatting climate change or if the owner of the company whose product I’m reaching for voted for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
To escape the risk of being pedantic, I want to be clear that I do think that consumer boycotts are legitimate, can be impactful and are an ethical way for an individual to be present, active and respondent to a much larger world. However, to avoid being frozen in the aisle, one is going to have to pick and choose the offense they want to react to as well as be prepared to admit, “there is only so much I can do” when someone points out that “you know, as a country, Italy’s current disposition toward immigration and refugees is harmful to thousands of people seeking escape from atrocities committed by their home country’s government.” Am I, upon hearing this, to avoid purchasing all things Italian? And when someone explains that the policies of the U.S. Federal government are evolving to a point where “white supremacy” lies at their heart, am I to boycott American products? The list is long and if fully examined and acted upon it leads to paralysis.
Moreover, what kind of herculean effort must it take to simply question or “challenge” the companies or governments before I support them or their products in good conscience? Exactly how dismissive of my family’s needs, my client’s needs and my own needs must I be to carry out this kind of mission?
So, I’m not going to take Jefford’s advice and challenge companies and governments before determining whether to support their products. If I come across a product that has a direct relation to some act that I find particularly egregious, then I’ll reach one product over and choose otherwise.
More than any other writer I know, Jefford has made an effort in his wine writing to connect wine and wine consumers to the wider world beyond terroir and examine the multidimensional ways in which wine connects to and is impacted by larger human issues. For this he ought to be celebrated and cheered. And I do.
Yet, I think it’s obvious that when one becomes so fretful of the state of the world around them, they can funnel and impose too much of their frustration on to a topic best addressed in a somewhat smaller, more constrained context. The logical result of doing this is extremism. And as Jefford knows, we have enough of that right now.